From a deep-travel perspective, while India’s other Northeastern states might appeal with dramatic landscapes, pristine forests and rare wildlife, Manipur, while equally rich in natural beauty, remains unmatched in cultural diversity for a state of its size.
The story of a state as complex as Manipur must begin with its current demographic makeup, rather than its ancient history. Manipur’s majority ethnic group are the Imphal valley’s Hindu Meiteis, whose language, ‘Manipuri’ (or Meiteilon), serves as a common language between the state’s many ethnic groups.
With their Southeast Asian roots, and a distinctly vibrant crossover aesthetic combining mainland Indian influences in their famously flamboyant costumes, arts, crafts, theatre, classical dance and music influences, Meitei culture is popularly known to outsiders as the face of Manipuri culture, but there’s a lot more to Manipur than meets the eye. There is a sizeable non-Hindu Meitei minority here, who still practice ‘Sanamashism,’ the indigenous, pre-Hindu animistic Meitei belief system, where the ancient roots of Manipuri Polo, Manipur’s crafts and Meitei martial arts like Thang ta and local sports can be found.
Importantly, the multitude of hill tribes who belong to Manipur’s most spectacular high-altitude landscapes are fiercely tribal. While they began as animists, the majority have now embraced Christianity. To put Manipur’s ethnic diversity into further perspective, Manipur shares a long border with two Burmese states on the east, Nagaland to the north, Assam to the west and Mizoram to the south—and a migratory history involving all these regions and beyond, all the way up to present-day Mongolia and China. There’s even an ethnic group in Churachandpur district who believe they have descended from one of the ‘Lost Jewish Tribes’ of Israel!
With so many tribes in Manipur’s hill districts and an even greater number of sub-tribes, languages, indigenous religions beyond mainstream Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, multiplied by several festivals and traditions per tribe, Manipur is a rare living library of ancient Northeastern tribal festivals, folk songs, costumes, theatrical styles and dances, crafts, ceremonies, cuisines, wild foods and dozens of languages—a special kind of cultural diversity unmatched by any other state in India. The most beautiful and unspoilt places and cultures in Manipur—typically located in the cloud-soaked hills of Tamenglong, Senapati, Chandel, Ukhrul and Churachandpur districts, are also the most difficult to reach by road. For the immersive traveller, they are among the last great adventures out there.
Northeast India’s biggest freshwater lake and Manipur’s most famed destination, with its phumdis—islands of soil and vegetation, matted and thickened together by nature into unique pancake-like solid floating grasslands—and Keibul Lamjao, the world’s only floating national park dedicated to the Sangai deer, are less than two hours’ drive from Imphal.
A very special landscape shared between Manipur and Nagaland, with trek routes from both sides. While winter is the ideal trekking season, the rare and endemic Dzukou lily attracts many visitors in July during flowering season.
Moreh: Gateway to Southeast Asia
While Manipur shares a vast border with Myanmar, Moreh (Manipur) and Tamu (Myanmar) are the official border crossing points. Moreh is all set to be a major stop for overland journeys from India to Myanmar, Thailand and Southeast Asia.
Limestone Caves from the Stone Age
Following a series of excavations, Manipur is now on the pre-historic map of India. Palaeolithic remains have been found at Songhbu Caves in Chandel District, Machi in Chandel District and Nongpok Keithelmanbi in Senapati District. The Tharon Caves in Tamenglong, surrounded by lush forests and wildlife, are believed to belong to the transitional period between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. The Khangkui limestone caves, 11km southeast of Ukhrul town, are among the oldest in India, dating back to the Paleolithic period. The first ever battle of WW2 to be fought on Indian soil happened just 3 miles from here, on 18 March 1944, when 200 Japanese troops reached Pushing village.
Manipur is the birthplace of modern polo. While the British might have introduced polo to the world, the origins of the game date back thousands of years to this land. Manipuri polo is known as ‘Sagol Kangjei’. Players stick to a dress code of pheijom (dhoti), kokyet (turban), and traditional short-sleeved jacket, and ride barefoot and without a saddle. Unlike the international version, Manipuri polo doesn’t have goalposts, and, unlike modern polo, it began not as an elitist game, but as a game of the people, played with well-seasoned bamboo root-balls and on Manipuri ponies, which are more agile and turn faster. At the Mapal Kangjeibung, the world’s oldest functioning polo ground, in the heart of Imphal, polo season runs from October to June. While ‘Sagol Kangjei’ is regularly played here, the Manipur International Polo Festival, a calendar event, usually coincides with the Sangai Festival in November.
GOOD TO KNOW
Direct flightsImphal is the second-busiest airport in the region, with frequent direct flights to big cities like Delhi and Kolkata, and connecting flights to the rest of India. Travel time to Imphal from:
Delhi: 2hrs 45mins
Kolkata: 1hr 20mins
By Rail and Road
Dimapur airport/railway station (Nagaland) to Imphal (Manipur) is approx. 6-8 hours by road. Mao, a border town in Senapati district (Manipur) on the Dimapur-Kohima-Imphal route, is about four hours from Imphal.
Silchar airport/railway station (Assam) is about 8.5 hours by road from Imphal via Jiribam.
Imphal to Aizawl is a long journey along some tough terrain via Churachandpur lasting over a day. Many stretches aren’t tarred, but the landscapes and villages are highly interesting. Strictly for long haulers and adventure seekers. Longer but faster road option is via Silchar (NH37)
Northeastern Circuits including Manipur
Manipur and Nagaland
(Ideally, this can be done around the Sangai Festival in Manipur in late Nov and end in the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland in early Dec)
- Enter the Northeast through Imphal in Manipur
- Imphal/Moirang to Mao by road (4hrs)
- Trek to Dzoukou Valley from Mao/Viswema
- Dzoukou Valley to Kohima (Nagaland) by road
- Kohima to Dimapur by road
- Leave Northeast by air/rail through Dimapur
- Fly into the Northeast through Imphal
- Experience Manipur
- Imphal to Guwahati (1hr)
- Enter and exit Meghalaya through Guwahati Airport (Shillong is 1.5hrs by road)
- Fly from Guwahati to Paro (Bhutan) by Druk Air (25mins)
- Leave Northeastern region and return to India through Paro airport
- Enter the Northeast through Imphal airport
- Imphal to Guwahati by air (1hr)
- Guwahati to Shillong (Meghalaya) and back (1.5hrs by road)
- Guwahati to Dibrugarh (Assam) by flight (1hr)
- Dibrugarh by road to access Lower Dibang Valley/Namsai/Tezu, etc in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh and back to Dibrugarh (2hrs by road)
- Leave Northeast through Dibrugarh airport in Assam
- Enter the Northeast through Imphal, Manipur
- Fly from Imphal to Aizawl in Mizoram (20mins) or Agartala in Tripura (1hr)
- Fly from Aizawl/Agartala to Guwahati (45mins/1hr)
- Guwahati to Shillong and back by road (1.5hrs)
- Leave Northeast through Guwahati
The WAHPS project
‘No Picnic,’ one of the boards at the quaint wooden community house, plastered with mud and cow dung, warns. The Phunshilok Nature Reserve, a forest regeneration initiative, has reforested this once degraded hill by planting hundreds of trees, using a steady community of volunteers who call themselves ‘Wildlife and Habitat Protection Society’ (WAHPS).
This once nondescript hill, 5km from Imphal town, is slowly entering the Northeast travel map for long-haul nature travellers, cyclists, trekkers, mountaineers, artists and musicians; essentially outdoors people who can live without grid power and don’t mind climbing a hill or volunteering for a few hours every day. This typically includes routine bush and weed clearing, tree planting, gathering firewood and water from the spring. “People who come here are different, and we love them for this,” says Loiya Ngamba, who started the project 16 years ago. “It’s just trees all around—because it’s up in the hills and involves a short climb to reach; if you’re lazy or don’t love nature you won’t make it here. This is not a place for litterbugs, picnics or loud parties, but rejuvenation, art and learning from nature.”
It might not seem like it, but there’s plenty to do here in the forest. The caretaker is a hill tribal and will happily teach you Manipuri cooking on a wood-fired stove or how to forage for wild mushrooms and bamboo shoots. There are also some treks that begin from here.
Staying here is also a great chance to connect socially with WAHPS’ network of local volunteers and founder members from Imphal—an interesting and socially conscious set of local artists, musicians, trekkers, change-makers and also regular folks. WHAPS can also arrange both long and short treks in Manipur.
To volunteer and/or stay at WAHPS, contact Loiya Ngamba on +91-9862275905. Join the WAHPS Facebook page here:
For more information: Manipur Tourism