The chubby, sweet-faced ima at Imphal’s sprawling Ima Market is talking in singsong Hindi, its inflections new and charming to my ears, rapidly countering all my objections. I say I don’t have space in my bag for her shawls. She says, I’ll give you a polythene bag. I say, your shawls are actually too thick for Bangalore. She says, take a look at these thinner ones. I say, I’ll come around later, and she says, oh no, you won’t. I drift past the other equally self-possessed and sharp-eyed imas calling out from beside their towering stacks of handwoven phaneks and shawls. Another, more cacophonous, wing is devoted to fresh produce.
This market is a lively hub of the city and a display of its culture — both the material and the less tangible kind. My companion, R, explains that slots in the market are handed down through families and zealously held on to. The women who cannot break into the watertight system sell their wares out on the road where they are not supposed to. A commando with a machine gun slung low on his back swoops down on one of them with practised ease, scattering her small pile of bright orange umorok, the famous killer chilli of the Northeast, and making off with her weighing scales. She lamely tries to put her little business back together again.
I’ll see echoes of this encounter between commoner and commando over the coming days in a city where violence has abated considerably over the past decade but where men in olive still watch over the streets, especially after dark. Knots of them shine powerful torches into passing cars, signalling to drivers to switch on their interior lights. Imphal wearily complies. It’s an edgy, shuttered, deserted place by night but the thrum of crowds and traffic over the wide main roads make it feel like a big city by day. Imphal’s masses of exposed-brick buildings give it a half-finished look; the side roads are mostly rubble and long hours of daily load-shedding completes the picture of urban dystopia. Against this background, a common daytime sight is groups of girl students in dark phaneks modified to skirt length and older women usually in soft pastels — pink, peach, lavender — matched with crisp, white, gauzy inaphis. The striking contrast between this female elegance and the shabbiness of the city makes it enigmatic. I’m curious about its secrets.
Where do folks hang out in Imphal, I ask a young filmmaker friend. He mentions a few parks, which don’t sound terribly happening, then suggests we go check out a popular place called A-to-Z in Kwakeithel. I look around for it when he stops his scooter, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A-to-Z turns out to be a shed without a signboard, crowded with youths in emo get-ups (Korean fashion and movies are big in Manipur), drinking coffee out of chipped white cups and eating chicken rolls. The affable owner comes over to chat. He has a Master’s degree in sociology from Mumbai and is quite hands-on. He has built the chairs we’re sitting on, and keeps breaking off to serve his customer-friends, many of them now adults reluctant to outgrow their adolescent bond with the place — which is understandable given its sanctuary-like, cosy vibe.
On our way back through side lanes, my friend points out little joints run out of people’s homes. Manipur’s tribal communities are not prohibited from brewing their traditional liquors in this otherwise dry state, and these little verandahs, lit up with candles in the inevitably dark night and laid out with drinks and snacks, are where men tend to congregate. Then there is The Classic, where I’m staying, which some call the town’s best hotel and others its only hotel. It’s where kids with new money have dinner parties in the upstairs restaurant and there is live music on weekends at Rita Café featuring a singer with a weakness for Bryan Adams and CCR. At breakfast, men visiting on business say things like “Poten-see-ality hai Imphal mein.”
It appears that 70 years ago, the Japanese felt the same way. Imphal is a flat valley surrounded by hills that, east and south, extend into Myanmar, hills over which tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers (supplemented with a brave few thousand of the Indian National Army) advanced during WWII, intent on capturing the city. For three months in 1944, the two sides fought it out for the control of the eastern front. “Imagine Imphal as the hub of a wheel and the roads leading into it as the spokes along which fighting took place simultaneously,” says Hemant Katoch, quoting Englishman General Slim, the commander of the Allied forces. We’re standing before a picturesque hill, tranquil paddy field and bullock cart in the foreground, a dozen kilometres northeast of Imphal; it marks the closest point the Japanese got to the city. Katoch runs the Battle of Imphal tours and his infectious enthusiasm for the subject easily draws one’s attention away from the messy, small-scale, long-drawn-out battles still being fought in the Manipur hills to this more spectacular historical one in which some 1,20,000 Allies faced off 70,000 Japanese.
Other than the war stories hidden in the natural landscape that the tours expertly uncover, are the two reverie-inducing war cemeteries in Imphal town, hung with weeping willows and housing neat memorials to the multi-ethnic, twenty-something captains, pioneers, sappers and gunners (as well as farriers, drivers, water-carriers, and boot-makers) who won the war. The war’s most tangible remaining mark, however, is in the British-built roads that lead four ways out of Imphal.
We’re on the ruler-straight one to Moirang, southwest of the city, and Mr Tomba, retired college vice-principal and writer, and my self-appointed guide for the day, marvels at its perfect alignment. “The finest road in Manipur,” he says. At Moirang, he directs me to the statue of a man in a peaked cap, a scroll held tightly in one hand. “Mr Bose,” he declares. Working their way up north from Burma in March 1944, a division of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army made it to Moirang, where the soldiers planted the tricolour and declared this corner of a native field forever Azad Hind, while Mr Bose himself held fort in Singapore.
Wandering through the INA Museum, one learns that Netaji did not have perfect grammar (he writes in one letter of being pained to hear that his troops have had to “suffer hardship and suffering”) but he cuts a pretty dashing figure in the photos as he hobnobs with Japanese generals and inaugurates the Indo-German Friendship Society, even, in one scene, bringing something like a smile to the Führer’s stiff lips. “A brave man,” says the succinct Mr Tomba and tells me of the pamphlets the INA circulated when advancing into Moirang, appealing to the Manipuris for help. For feeding the troops, his father, along with other village chiefs of Bishenpur district, was consigned to an underground prison for three months by the British.
Despite these memories, burning more brightly in the local imagination is another war: the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891, and the men and women who resisted the British then and since. Ballads are sung to the heroes of this war, roads and bazaars named after them, statues raised, paintings made and books written about them. If all this contemporaneity can make one feel like Manipur defied the British just yesterday, then the state’s older wars with Burma might well have taken place only the day before.
One afternoon on the high road just before Moreh town, on India’s border with Myanmar, we are stopped at an Assam Rifles checkpoint and have to troop across the post while our car is searched. In the distance below is Myanmar’s Kabaw Valley and one of my companions looks at the green-gold expanse shimmering out of reach and says with a sigh, “It was ours.” On the way back, three hours later, we are stopped at the same checkpost and look out at the same view and he says the same thing in the same regretful tone. “It was ours and we lost it. It actually belongs to us.” I later have to go book hunting in the city’s Paona Bazar, find History of Modern Manipur by a certain Laldena, and read the chapter called ‘Controversy Over the Kabaw Valley’ to understand something of the long and sorry 19th-century saga that led to its being ceded to the Burmese.
To notice media reports about disputes in the ongoing border fencing between India and Myanmar is, therefore, déjà vu but Myanmar today also offers more modern pleasures to those willing to bury the hatchet. The done thing is to make a day trip to the Myanmarese town of Tamu, across the border from Moreh, look up the Buddha temple, drink a few pints of local lager at Waterworks Restaurant, and then shop for Burmese rubies and Chinese- and Thai-made electronics, clothes and plastic goods at Namphalong market right on the border. It takes a couple of seconds to make the transition to another country but the difference shows — the same landscape of teak trees and low hills, but the language has nothing in common with Meitei or any of Manipur’s tribal tongues, the religion is Buddhist, men wear sarongs, and the streets lined with quaint, unpainted wooden houses and picket fences suggest a poverty more genteel than the one we’ve left behind in Moreh. But India is here, too; you will find it in the fascinating ethnic stew that is Namphalong, where Punjabi, Nepali, Tamil and Gujarati traders flog their wares alongside the natives. Most of these Indian families are remnants of the thousands who fled Myanmar after the Japanese invaded it in 1942.
After the return drive over the dense green of exhilaratingly lovely hills that run into each other at every bend in the road, Imphal’s heat and dust is a drag. But I’m starting to see how the lie of the land has an organic connection with the life lived here. Imphal was once a lakebed and water, as evidenced by the canals dotting the valley, remains intrinsic to Meitei culture. One sees it in the food — the great preponderance of fish; the inclination for water-rich vegetables like pumpkins and squashes, and for foodstuff that grows in water such as thangjing (a hedgehog-like plant), thamchet (lotus seeds) and haikak (water chestnut); and the obsession with that most watery of grains, rice. Samples of the 144 varieties indigenous to Manipur are on display at the State Museum. I taste the famous black variety, chakhao, at a bhog at the grand Iskcon campus out on Airport Road, where it is served, strangely but not surprisingly with another rice-based dish, kheer. Common fare like the stewed peas dish of chagem-uti is cooked with rice and then eaten with it.
What kind of food is usually cooked at home, I ask my Ima Market companion R, and he says, “Water-based”, explaining that the use of oil in food is relatively new. Another evening, eating a home-cooked dinner, I murmur appreciation for the wholesome mustard leaves and dried fish stew called kangsoi. I’m told that the ability to make a good kangsoi is the test of the cooking skills of a new daughter-in-law. But it’s only boiled, I exclaim. My host nods sagely and says that the exact degree to which the ingredients are boiled is the key.
This affinity between history, land and life is evident in other spheres too, notably in Manipur’s love of sport, which has grown out of its martial tradition. On the flight into town, I chat with a high-school girl from Delhi on her way to compete in the national taekwondo championship, opening the following day at the Khuman Lampak sports complex. I go take a peek at the sprawling grounds with stadiums for hockey, football and athletics, a swimming pool, and a velodrome. The kids in bright tracksuits out on running practice wear grave expressions, as do those practising archery in a field — no laughter or fooling around; sport is serious business in Manipur.
I think of those children a few days later when Cheng, my guide on an Imphal Walk, says, looking out at the empty stretch of the city’s largest polo grounds, Mapal Kangjeibung, “This playground is an index of the health of Manipur’s youth.” Other than polo, which is believed to have ancient origins in Manipur and was popularised by the British, these grounds host competitions in various modern games, while traditional ones, such as a rugby-like game played with a greasy coconut, have gone out of regular practice but are still played ritually. Similarly, forms such as thang-ta have lost their martial aspect but are preserved in performance. I watch a duel one afternoon at the Jawaharlal Nehru Dance Academy between a sword-bearer and a spear-wielder, the ferocity of their lunges and the sparks flying from clashing weapons belying the fact that this is art, not war.
On my last day in town, I am back at the Ima Market, shopping for smoked fish with R, who banters with the imas over fresh ginger and bananas. This market is Imphal’s most famous landmark, the male and female deities standing in one corner of it a reminder that the women-driven commerce here is sanctified. I’m thinking of another kind of commerce, though. Imphal’s secrets are still hidden from me, perhaps, but at one point in the past week, I thought I had glimpsed one. On the Imphal Walk, sauntering down a street called Masjid Road, off Paona Bazar, I pick up the Bhojpuri accents of a group of salesmen chatting in a shoe shop. We turn the corner and are suddenly in a settlement of the Kabui tribal community, with a shop selling hefty slabs of pork. That sudden, ordinary proximity of one road to the very different other seemed to me like a sliver of light in Imphal’s dark night.
There are direct flights to Imphal from Kolkata (about Rs 5,000 one way) and Guwahati (about Rs 3,000) as well as flights with pitstops from Delhi. You can also take a bus from Guwahati. The journey of about 500km takes about a day-and-a-half. Book tickets for private coaches on.redbus.in or take an Assam State Transport bus (assamtransport.com).
You can get around Imphal city in autorickshaws. The Classic Hotel’s travel desk offers AC taxis to Moirang, Loktak Lake and around for Rs 4,500 and to Moreh-Tamu for Rs 7,500. You need identification to be allowed into Tamu and must return to Moreh by 5pm.
Where to stay
The centrally-located Classic Hotel (theclassichotel.in) has comfortable singles for Rs 1,450 and doubles for Rs 1,900. The Manipur Tourism-run Hotel Imphal (0385-2423372/2423344) has doubles for Rs 600 and singles for Rs 500. Higher priced rooms attract a 7.5% tax. Hotel Bheigo has singles for Rs 600 and doubles for Rs 800 (hotelbheigo.in). Hotel Nirmala (0385-2459014/2458904) has rooms from Rs 450 for a non-AC single to Rs 3,500 for a suite.
Where to eat
For the fish-rich Manipuri thali (with vegetarian accompaniments like bamboo shoot, soibum thongba, and the distinctive salads, singju) visit the eateries behind the Mapal Kangjeibung Polo Grounds. Vegetarians might want to sign up for the bhog at Iskcon for a sumptuous, leaf-plate meal. The Classic has Indian/Continental fare and Manipuri thalis. A-to-Z offers inexpensive rolls, chow, fried rice and meat dishes (pork, chicken, mutton). Nikhil on DM Road is known for momos.
What to see & do
Kangla Fort (admission Rs 5), where the kings of Manipur were coronated and lived until the British took over after the Anglo-Manipuri War, has grassy grounds with charming outer and inner moats, relics of a temple, colonial-era bungalows, as well as newer structures such as a temple to the god-king Ibudhou Pakhangba and a glassy hijagang or boat-shed to house the royal, serpent-headed wooden racing boats (hiyang). More hiyang can be seen at the State Museum (entry free) which also has a large natural history selection. For those wishing to avoid the sight of a two-headed calf in brine, there are paintings depicting Manipuri royalty and legends such as Khamba-Thoibi, intricate jewellery (Manipuri goldwork is well-known) and traditional weapons and costumes. Visit the RKCS Art Gallery (rkcsartgallery.com) for paintings on Manipuri history and culture by the royal family descendant Rajkumar Chandarjitsana Singh. Govindaji temple, particularly its older, elegantly Indo-Saracenic mandap, is worth a look. For Manipur’s WWII past, take the Battle of Imphal tours (battleofimphal.com) around the city and surrounding districts — an excellent way to imbibe some war history and see the sights. A visit to the horizon-kissing Loktak Lake in Bishenpur district is recommended; the majestic lake has floating weed islands on which people and animals have made homes. To spot the native brow-antlered deer, you’d have to go early in the morning — or be lucky.