All over Northeast India, tourism, cultural and traditional festivals are an ideal backdoor entry for deep travel into the local culture, and are generally the best way to decide travel dates and routes, make local friends and catch some merrymaking. Many festivals are also our last chance to experience certain fading traditions as living cultures. What’s not to like?
While, thematically, most tribal festivals are similar rather than different across tribes, basically revolving around the agricultural cycle, the opposite is also equally true. Art, craft, rituals, culture and music vary widely across tribes.
Festival or no festival, while visiting tribal villages that aren’t used to tourists, it is customary to first meet the village headman and introduce yourself. He will often help you score local village homestay accommodation. Most events are celebrated according to local and lunar calendars, so the Western calendar dates here are only approximate. Enquire locally about exact dates about a month prior to making plans.
(Imphal Valley, November 21-30)
In a state as culturally and geographically diverse as Manipur, the Sangai Festival, named after the state’s animal, is a traveller’s obvious choice to experience it all at a single venue on a short trip. Manipur Tourism’s biggest 10-day calendar event is a chance to experience the very best of Manipur’s culture—songs, dances, cuisine, the exotic indigenous sports, crafts, textile heritage, traditional dances, classical and folk music and dances—representing so many ethnic groups.
Held every year at multiple venues, like Imphal, Moirang and Loktak Lake, the festival is conveniently scheduled just before Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival, making this an ideal time to plan a Northeast itinerary that includes both festivals.
While cultural highlights include the legendary Raas Leela dance form, Kabui Naga dance, bamboo dance and Maibi dance, Pung Cholom, Nata Sankirtana, etc, the indigenous sports section celebrates Sagol Kangjei—Manipuri Polo, Yubi lakpi, a local form of rugby played with a greased coconut, and Mukna kangjei (combining both hockey and wrestling), among others.
The traditional stalls are a great chance to shop for local handicrafts and taste the cuisine of all the tribes.
The festival also attracts participants from all over the world, including countries with deep historical ties to the Northeast, like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam.
There’s no shortage of more contemporary pulls either, with modern rock and fashion shows and adventure sports set amid spectacular locations, like paragliding, treks to nearby peaks, windsurfing at Loktak Lake, whitewater rafting and parasailing.
The main venues for the festival are the Hapta Kangjeibung (Palace Compound) and Bhagyachandra Open Air Theatre (BOAT), Imphal. Indigenous sports and watersports activities take place at the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex at Imphal and Takmu Water Sports Complex at Loktak (Moirang). Lamboi Khongnangkhong is a venuefor stalls, cultural programmes and other sports and the Trade & Permanent Exhibition Centre.
Tip: Sort out your accommodation in advance—rooms fill up fast during this hugely popular event! Find details here sangaifestival.gov.in
Kut-Festival of Kuki-Chin-Mizo
(November, multiple locations)
Marking the end of the harvest season, the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribes celebrate this in a big way.
Ningol Chak-Kouba of the Meiteis
(November, Imphal Valley)
A festival practically dedicated to married Meiti women, when they feast at their paternal homes. Get yourself invited to one of these feasts!
Sikpui Ruoi of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo Tribes
(December-Jan, several districts)
The seven-day Great Winter Festival can sometimes extend upto a month! Celebrated only when a substantial part of the previous year’s harvest remains unconsumed in the granary. Eat, drink and make merry during times of plenty.
Chiithuni festival of the Mao Nagas
(Dec-Jan, Mao, Senapati)
The New year/ post-harvest festival of the Mao Nagas is also known as ‘feast of dawn,’ lasting for six days and celebrated after the paddy has been safely brought home and stored.
Gaan Ngai of the Zeliangrong tribes
(December–Jan, Tamenglong and Senapati dist., Jiribam, Henglep)
When the granaries are full, and the whole village free from agricultural work, the Zeliangrong tribes turn to a five- or seven-day post-harvest celebration, marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of a new year. People who died during the year are given ritual farewells and feasts, their graves beautified, and dances performed in their honour.
Thounii New Year Festival of the Poumai Nagas
(Jan 5, Senapati Dist.)
Poumai Nagas have many festivals including Taitounii, Loukanii, Rounii, Daonii, Khünii, Paonii/Paoki, Laonii, Donii, and Thounii, the ‘new year’ festival is one of the oldest and most popular. Celebrated after paddy, food grains and crops have been stored.
Chumpha Festival of Tangkhul Nagas
(December, Ukhrul dist.)
The Tangkhul Naga post-harvest festival goes on for a week, climaxing in merrymaking and social bonding on the last three days.
Gang Ngai Festival of Kabui Nagas
(Five days in December/January)
A five-day festival marked by ancestor worship, feasts, cultural performances and dancing by both young and old.
Kang Hi (Naked Post-harvest Wrestling Festival of the Maram Tribe)
(9 days in Dec-Jan, Maram Khullen)
Probably the only manhood and honour festival where you can see grown naked men wrestling! Women are also allowed to watch, but only from 50m away. The naked wrestling is only on the last day of the nine-day long festival, the remainder of which is already interesting in itself.
Rih Ngai Festival of the Zeliangrong tribes
The ancient tribal war and victory festival of the Zeliangrong is a time to seek strength and vigour from the Supreme Being. Male tribesmen armed with spears and machetes walk through the village chanting in chorus.
Lui Ngai Ni Festival of the Naga tribes
(15th February, all over the hills)
Observed by various Naga tribes, this annual festival brings several Naga tribes together during seed sowing.
Luira Seed Sowing Festival of the Tangkhul Nagas
(Jan-Feb, Ukhrul Dist.)
The Tangkhul seed-sowing festival is a great chance to catch their unique Kungahon dance, along with a variety of beautiful folksongs sung to the gods to protect the newly planted seeds. Some villages also have competitive events like wrestling and bamboo climbing. Visitors can sow seeds.
Yaoshang (Holi festival of the Hindu Meitei)
(February/March, Imphal Valley)
Yaoshang is one of Manipur’s biggest festivals, where people play with colours, similar to Holi in the rest of India. Thabal Chongba, a ‘Moonlight dance’, is performed at night with folk songs during this spring festival.
Cheiraoba (Manipuri Meitei New Year)
(April, Imphal Valley)
Special festive dishes are offered to various deities on this day. Part of the ritual entails villagers climbing hilltops to enable them to rise to greater heights in their worldly life.
Shirui Lily Festival
(24-28 April, 2018, Shirui Hill, Ukhrul Dist.)
Named after the Shirui lily, the state flower of Manipur, endemic to a hill of the same name (also a popular day-hike), this ticket-free eco-tourism festival is held every year, with local traditional performances, events and exhibits. Shi Rock, the music festival section of the event, attracts international performers and over 30,000 visitors per day! Book your hotel/homestay/tent well in advance through their website http://shiruifestival.gov.in/.
Mu Ka Da Festival ofthe Kharam Tribes
(Mid-May, around KharamPallen, Senapati Dist.)
This marks the end of annual seed sowing for the Kharam tribes. At Kharam Pallen, you might catch a village elder playing the sarangdar, a traditional wooden string instrument made out of the ‘wang’ tree, cane, bamboo and otter skin/leather.
Gudui Ngai Festival of the Zeliangrong tribes
The ginger soup festival of the Zeliangrong tribes was initially about worshipping Tingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God, for a plentiful harvest, after seed sowing. A symbolic tug-of-war is played between boys and girls, in which the girls ritually win.
Lai Haraoba Festival of the Sanamahi Meiteis
(May, Imphal Valley)
The colourful ‘Festivity of the Gods’ is celebrated by followers of Sanamahism, the indigenous Meitei pre-Hindu animists. Local and forest deities are remembered with traditional sports, flamboyant folk dances, songs and drama.
Kang, the Rath Yatra of the Manipur Meiteis
(July, Imphal Valley)
During this 10-day Hindu festival, Lord Jagannath leaves his temple in a car known as ‘Kang’. Mainly held in the Palace Compound, Imphal East, it’s a day of elaborate ritual, rice kicheri (khichdi), drumbeats, devotional songs and dance. The world-famous Ras Leela dance is performed too.
Laonii Rice Transplanting Festival of the Poumai Nagas
(Mid-late July, Senapati Dist.)
This nine-day festival follows transplantation of rice. Farmers team up with their friends and help each other with weeding in rotation during this festival, till most fields have received help from somebody from within their circle. Hard work feels easy when you’re having fun with your friends.
Mangkhap of the Thangkuls
(In July-August, Ukhrul)
The Tangkhul celebration story is completed with the Mangkhap festival, where the Khangahon dances are performed to relax from agricultural work. Dances, folk songs and Naga acapella-style tribal hymn contests between different villages are the things to catch.
Heikru Hitongba of the Meiteis
A grand boat race, preceded and followed by lots of elaborate rituals and plenty of ornate, visual delights mark this Hindu festival.
Chagah War festival of the Liangmai tribe
(October, Tamenglong and Senapati)
It is both a war festival and sanctification ceremony. A festival for male members.
Where Have All The Flowers Gone? Music Festival
(Venues and dates vary from year to year)
A very different kind of music festival, inspired by the songs and environmental activism of the late American folk singer Pete Seeger. The last editions were held at Chingnungkhok, Andro, Phayeng and Khukhrul, attracting 10,000 visitors.
For more information: Manipur Tourism