The Manipuri smile

The Manipuri smile

Dancing deer and floating islands are not the only secrets that endear Manipur to travellers

Sanchita Kalra
February 02 , 2015
08 Min Read

If there’s one unforgettable image that I brought back from my first visit to Manipur — and, indeed,my first to the Northeast — it’s that of a little girl with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. I think I’ve left four-year-old Pranti, super-vivacious and curious about life, under the spell of selfies.

We were in Andro, a little village not far from the state capital Imphal, popular among Manipuris for reasons not entirely to do with its rustic charms. At first, I stood there quietly, watching the children play behind the bushes. Their attention was drawn quickly to me as I raised my phone to start taking their photos. Shy yet highly interested, they gathered around me and made sure that the camera lens had captured their faces. The zoom action made jaws drop, and Pranti, the boldest, wanted to try her hand at it. Within seconds, she had mastered selfies. We had no common language, but the big smiles and gestures were enough for an instant friendship, sealed further when Pranti put on my sunglasses and discovered her inner diva.

The USP of Andro is that it’s one of only two places in Manipur where one can legally drink alcohol. The women of the village are both potters and brewers, creating beautiful clay hand-crafted items as well as pots of rice beer (atingba). The village includes the Santhei Natural Park, a lovely green expanse surrounded by the Baruni hills. A sparkling, unpolluted reservoir lake is the crowning glory of Santhei. Stalls here sell domestic alcohol brands, besides the atingba. This combination of liquor and nature has turned Andro into an attractive day trip destination for Manipuris. Any recreational outing in this politically disturbed state usually winds up by sunset; after about seven, even the busy streets of Imphal are silent and deserted.

Clay vases and piggy banks drying at Andro
Photo credit: Sanchita Kalra

The artisans’ village of Andro has a museum displaying an assortment of traditional pots, such as the pudond makhong, the walom, the ngangkha and many more. An exquisite dolls’ house is home to figures representing the 29 Manipuri tribes. Five carved wooden totem poles, the remnants of a Naga settlement, are a fascinating sight, though to me they did look eerily like sentinels guarding a ghost population. These poles are within the Mutua Museum cultural complex, which has preserved houses of the main groups and tribes in Manipur, such as the Meitei, Kuki, Kabui and Tangkhul.

A wooden totem pole at the Mutua Museum complex, Andro
Photo credit: Precious Kamei

The married women of Andro are the traditional custodians of the village’s pottery works. I sat there and watched two women making piggy banks. The tortoise-shaped piggy banks were moulded by hand from a fistful of mud, and then left out in the sun to dry. It would’ve been a nice experience to see how all the clay handicraft items, including lamps and vases, were painted by these women, but that would have to wait for another visit. I’d be welcome, I knew — their smiles made that clear, even though no words were exchanged.

Our trip was originally centred around the Manipur Sangai Festival, an annual event held in November. promoting the state’s cultural diversity and colourful tribal celebrations. The festival had clearly waved a magic wand over Imphal — the normal evening gloom was dispelled by tens of thousands of fairy lights. The event takes its name from the brow-antlered deer, widely known as sangai, a species found only at Manipur's Keibul Lamjao National Park. Performances ranged from the incredible leaping dance of the Vaishav drummers (dhol cholom) and the elaborately costumed Ras Leela to folk wrestling (mukna) and foot hockey (khong kangjei). Stalls were brimming over with photographs, handloom products, handicrafts and homemade food. An odd and amusing sight was the food kiosk of a popular American chain selling fried chicken.

A khong kangjei performance at the Manipur Sangai Festival
Photo credit: Precious Kamei

The next day, we made it to the Polo Grounds before sunset to watch the 8th Manipur Polo International tournament. The horses were the Manipuri polo pony breed (locally called sagol kangjei), meant to remind people that modern polo originated in Manipur. The tournament’s primary intention is preserving the Manipuri pony — their numbers have dropped from 1,900 in 2003 to 345 in 2014.

A five-minute walk from the Polo Grounds is the Ima Market, also known as Khwairamband Bazaar. During the times of the Meitei kings, this location was a meeting point for discussions between the royalty and ordinary people. The market developed as the women came forward to support their families, while the men toiled under the king for various public works. Now the market is entirely run by women and is one of the most remarkable features of Imphal city. The women traders, in their traditional phaneks (striped wraparound skirts), sell every variety of merchandise a household may need from stalls spread over three buildings.

Fish-sellers at the Ima Market in Imphal
Photo credit: Sanchita Kalra

During our visit, the shoppers, too, were mostly women, though the fish market outside the buildings had some male customers. As we wandered around the market, our guide informed us that one of the hottest chillies in the world was sold here, but we were unable to screw up the courage to try one.

Ima Market is often held up as a beacon of women’s empowerment in India, and in a way it is; I’d have liked to stop and ask the traders if they thought about their daily round in such feminist terms. The lack of a mutually comprehensible language got in the way of my enlightenment — this was not a question I could put to our interpreter.

The morning after the Sangai festival, Imphal had gone back to its ordinary, somewhat dreary, self. Yet, just an hour’s drive from the city is one of the most magnificent sights in the world, Loktak Lake. The largest freshwater lake in Northeastern India, Loktak is a spellbinding sight from a high elevation, because of its enormous floating phumdis (inhabited islands) that appear as green rings on the blue lake’s surface.

I had to make do with a glimpse of Loktak Lake from a faraway point. But looking at the water, remembering the children of Andro, the dancers at the Sangai festival, the busy women of Ima Market, it felt like Manipur had at last revealed itself.

The information

Getting there: Imphal is well-connected with major cities like Kolkata, NewDelhi, Guwahati and Dimapur. Air India, Jet Airways and Indigo fly daily, starting from approximately Rs 4,500 one way from Delhi, either via Guwahati or Kolkata. Imphal doesn’t have a railway station, so you'll have to take a train till Dimapur in Nagaland and take a taxi or bus via NH39 to reach Imphal.

Getting around: Taxis or auto-rickshaws in Imphal are good for sightseeing. There are bus services connecting the capital to the rest of the state. Contact 7sistersholidays@gmail.com or see sevensistersholidays.com for local sightseeing or tour packages.

Where to stay: The Classic Hotel (non-AC doubles from Rs 1,500; theclassichotel.in), is one of the oldest and best-appointed hotels in Imphal. The Classic Café at the hotel serves a variety of cuisines: Manipuri, Mughlai, Chinese and Continental. Budget hotels include Imphal Hotel, run by Manipur Tourism (from Rs 500; 0385-2423372 / 2423344), and Hotel Nirmala on Wahengbam Leikai Road (from Rs 600; info@hotelbheigo.in, 0385-2445845).

What to see & do: The artisans’ village of Andro is 25km from Imphal city and accessible by local buses. The Santhei Natural Park here is under the supervision of two organisations, the Andro Maringthel Sporting Youth Club and the Andro Western Baruni Road Youth Club. Entry to the park is free but there is a chargeof Rs 200 per group if you want to cook and picnic, with utensils hired on site.

The famous Ima Market in Imphal opens at 7am and closes by 5pm. Kangla Fort is a significant archaeological site in Manipur and the fort complex includes two major shrines — the Govindaji Temple and Hijagang temple. Entry fee is Rs 5.

Inside the Kangla Fort complex
Photo credit: Sanchita Kalra

Loktak Lake, which includes the Keibul Lamjao National Park, is a little over an hour by road from Imphal by bus or taxi. You could stay at the Forest Rest House, Keibul Lamjao; Sendra Tourist Centre; or Moirang Tourist Centre. An Inner Line Permit is required for the park and a small entry fee is charged. For details, visit manipurforest.gov.in/keibullamjao.htm.

There are day tours to Moreh at the Myanmar border, about a four-hour-drive from Imphal. Details on manipurtourismforum.org.


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