The Tangkhul Nagas of Manipur’s Ukhrul district are a remarkable tribe of polyglots. In Tangkhul country, the local language fades into a new dialect every 20kms, adding up to over a hundred Tangkhul dialects, many of which are practically different languages from each other. To overcome this, the Tangkhuls have decided on one common language, using which tribesmen from different villages in Ukhrul communicate with each other. Then, of course, there’s ‘Manipuri,’ which different tribes of Manipur use to communicate with each other. Once headhunters, the Tangkhuls are now among the Manipuri tribes with the highest literacy rates, so most young Tangkhuls also speak English. Many of them, especially the traders, also choose to learn Hindi, a useful language for business.
Not only do the Tangkhuls—who occupy Manipur’s Ukhrul district on the Indo-Burmese border, and even parts of Myanmar and beyond—have no common native language as a tribe, until recently they didn’t even have a script for any of their individual dialects; and yet they managed to maintain their identity as ‘one tribe’ for centuries. They never needed the written word, because their real ‘script’ was in their folk songs, dances, wood carvings, crafts and handmade textiles; and their ‘language’ of choice has always been music. The Khangahon, for instance—an impressive form of vocal music sung in groups to the Pheizak dance, while planting or harvesting paddy—doesn’t even contain words or lyrics; just humming and exhaling in rhythmic, choir-like acapella style, by both men and women in sequence. The Tangkhuls also believe that singing deliberate hums in groups while exhaling gives you more energy to do physical work. While the performance is certainly melodious—there’s a formal method and protocol to even this melodious social humming—from the tone of each singer’s hum, you can tell whether they’re old or young, married or available, etc… an indigenous form of ‘status update,’ without using silly gadgets!
For the adventurous travellers who make it to Ukhrul’s difficult hilly terrain and wonder how the Tangkhuls are so friendly and welcoming…it’s because their ancestors taught them the language of the heart.
In this picturesque village, head straight for the residence of Mr K Rinkahao, an amazingly hospitable Tangkhul Naga farmer who has single-handedly put together an elaborate museum of his tribe’s wood carvings and artifacts (including skulls and skeletons from the head-hunting days) at his house, without any government or institutional assistance. Also meet Kaileija Khangra, a lovable old woman, who is among the last surviving Tangkhuls to have been inked with the traditional facial tattoo as a teenager. The tattooing ritual ended in 1923 with the arrival of Christianity, making her at least 110 years old!
Site of a bloody WW2 battle between the British and Japanese, and now home to two war memorials—one built by the Japanese, and the other by the Indian Army, whose men fought on the British side. The Japanese memorial is managed by 87-year-old Yanmaso Shishak, who was a young boy at the time, and who will enthusiastically share his letters, postcards, photographs and memories, within the constraints of his age-related forgetfulness. Prepare to begin questioning all you’ve read in the history books!
Where Manipur’s beautiful black pottery comes from. The magic ingredient is a powder made from a smooth slate-like stone that is only found around these hills.
MOVA AND KHANGKUI CAVES
The labyrinthine Mova Caves, in the middle of a lush forest with a river gushing past one of its many mouths, is a great campsite to end a trek. Paleolithic caves at Khangkui date back to the age of when humans lived as cavemen. Khangkui is also close to a WW2 site where the Japanese entered Manipur from Burma.
The Shirui Lily is Manipur’s state flower and the subject of much folklore, and is mostly endemic to the Shirui Hill, a really scenic and popular one-day trek. Shirui is also where the popular Shirui Lily Festival happens every year (April 24-28). Flowering season is generally between May 15 and June 5.
Tangkhul food lays more emphasis on the high quality of organic ingredients and slow cooking than any complicated technique. Nearly everything sold in the local markets in these parts is either organic or wild, and the pork and free-range chicken are top notch. Kachai village boasts a unique lemon that grows nowhere else, while Tului is known for the best garlic in Manipur. While most of Northeast India, including Ukhrul, grows the legendary King Chilli, once the record holder for ‘world’s hottest chilli,’ Sirrera-Rekong village grows the opposite: the endemic Hathei chilli, a long, slender and aromatic chilli, that’s more fragrant and colourful than pungent. The outside world will never get to taste Tangkhul Naga pork in bright-red Hathei sauce though: the local demand for the chilli is so high, that it all gets consumed on the spot, irrespective of price!
For more information: Manipur Tourism