Keibul Lamjao

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What you see here are pictures of seemingly normal and regular landscapes that has hardly anything of interest other than being a picturesque scenery. But appearances can be deceptive. These are pictures of a very unique and fascinating wildlife sanctuary in Manipur (India) called the ‘Keibul Lamjao National Park‘ which is the only one of its kind in the whole world, the distinction being that it is actually a floating sanctuary !!! The grassland you see above is actually a massive bio-mass of various vegetation, soil and organic materials in various stages of decomposition and so thickly intertwined that it is almost like a landmass but actually floating on water!  Secondly, it is also home to the very rare and endangered species of deer called the ‘Cervus eldi eldi’ or the ‘Brow-antlered-deer‘ that is endemic to this floating island and found nowhere else in the world.

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   The Keibul Lamjao National Park covers an area of approximately 40 square kilometres of which roughly 26 sq kms comprise the floating habitat of the magnificent Sangai (local name for the ‘Brow antlered deer’). The waterbody on which it floats is the largest freshwater lake in the whole of Northeast India. Known as ‘Loktak Lake‘, it hold special significance for the people of the region and is listed among BBC’s 14 most amazing bodies of water on our planet. Seen spread across the lake are smaller phumdis and on slightly bigger ones, one would come across hutments of fishermen that populates them. The phumdis are also used for fish farming by the local populace.

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The only means of commuting in this massive waterbody amid the floating phumdis are the slender fisherman canoes that slices through in the narrow pathways between the phumdis . Perched on it precariously, we set off to find the very shy and elusive ‘Sangai’. Scientifically named the ‘Cervus eldi eldi’ after the British Officer Lt. Percy Eld who reportedly discovered it in 1844, this very rare species of deer was almost driven to extinction due to rampant poaching and neglect. Until a few years ago their number had dwindled to an alarming two digit figures numbering around 80 only but recent conservation efforts and growing awareness have brought the figures up again to three digit figures of 208 according to the last census in 2013. Even then occasional poaching incidents still continue to haunt these fine animals and checking it is a herculean task for the highly understaffed forest officials. At the time of the visit in March 2015, there was only 1 Ranger and 5 forest officials on regular employment who were aided by 27 other casual employees. These understaffed and unarmed forest guards often have to go up against heavy odds and even fight against armed poachers. Undoubtedly it is their love and regard for the magnificent animal that has been the diving force behind their dedication to the protection of the almost extinct animal. It is of utmost importance that measures are taken up to spread awareness and safeguard the conservation of this rare species that is found nowhere else in the world.

Coming back to our expedition,we were able to spot around 8 of the elusive animal which is a very good figure but unfortunately they were too far away for a clear shot (obviously camera 🙂 ). We were told that a large number had gathered at their playing ground near Pabot ching (a hillock in the middle of the sanctuary) early in the morning but by the time we reached there they had all retreated to the tall grasses that shelters them. A very far away shot zoomed in optimally could only get me a very hazy picture below. Even then it was exhilarating to see  the fabled ‘Sangai’ in person, knowing the fact that it actually is in existence still. Of course there will be another day for our rendezvous and I shall be ready.

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Observation tower at Pabot Ching

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“Phunga Waari” – a lost tradition.

 

Funga Waari, a lost tradition
Funga Waari.

The hearth is the heart of the family. This was true of every Meitei household that was generally a large joint family comprising of the ‘Edhou’ (Grandfather) “Eben’ or ‘Abok’ (Grandmother), Pabung (Father), Palem/Ema (mother), Khura (Uncles), Endomcha (Aunties), Eteima/Enamma (Sister-in-law), Echin enao (brothers, sisters and cousins) and sometimes even the next generation of offsprings. This was so for every household not too long ago, a few generations earlier really, before the onset of the nuclear families. The large family had a generously spacious kitchen to accommodate the multitude of members at one end of the room where all the members would gather around as dusk fell, waiting for the food which was being prepared at the sanctum of the kitchen on the other end.  The hearth is lit with firewood and while the food was being cooked, the  members of the family, who are gathered around a fire, engage in chit chat and sometimes the elders would enthrall the rest of the family with wonderful stories and legendary folklore. Thus came the coinage ‘Phunga Waari‘ which literally translates as ‘Fireplace stories‘. This was a very simple and yet profoundly significant activity of everyday family life. Needless to say it forged the family bonds stronger and played an important role in the inculcation of family values, traditional norms and social mores that constituted the fabric of the Meitei society which was highly cultured as compared to the present. Today, the families are fractured, the kitchen has gone modular, the fireplace has disappeared for good and so has the ‘Phunga Waari’. Perhaps this could be one of the attributing factors to the disintegrating social fabric of the ‘Meitei society’ and the disappearing values and practices that was once the epitome of the ‘Manipuri civilisation’. It is good old times gone for good.

NB: The painting is a depiction of the ‘Phunga Waari’ in a typical Meitei kitchen that once existed but is now almost non existent. The items like ‘Phou Shumban’ (for pounding rice) seen behind the old man and ‘Hidak pu’ (smoking pipe) can no more be seen in present times. The attires depicted in the pictures are also clothes that are worn in a typical Meitei household.

Pung Cholom – The flying Mridangs of Manipur

The Flying Mridangs of Manipur - Mo Irom
“Pung Cholom” -The Flying Mridangs of Manipur by Mo Irom

I am the dancer

and I am the drummer,

I dance to my beats,

a rhythm like none other.

I make melodies,

from gentle tap on leather tautly strung,

while my feet leaps like the flight of Hermes.

Sometimes with beats far and between

I sing a soulful song;

the silence in between,

even sings its own tune.

And at times, like beats of hundred drums,

a sudden flight of ecstasy;

like a rush of thousand hooves,

bursting forth in symphony.

I drum in ardour,

devotion the soul of my endeavour,

and I dance in fervour

elation in the worship of the saviour.

–    Mo Irom

‘Pung’ in Manipuri stands for the percussion instrument otherwise commonly known as ‘Drum’. Pung is said to have been first used in Manipur around 2nd Century AD during the times of its early rulers which used it as ‘Yaibungs’ mainly to announce the King’s proclamation, sound alarms at times of invasions or summon people at times of emergencies. Slowly it came to be used as a percussion instrument to accompany merriment like songs and dances. Many years of refinement later, ‘Pung Cholom’, the playing of the percussion in Manipuri Sankritana music, came to be an indispensable part of the Meitei culture and traditions.

With the embracing of Hinduism by the rulers of the kingdom of Manipur  in the beginning of 18th century AD and the accordance of royal sanction to the Chaitanya school of vaishnavism at the time of Maharaj Bhagyachandra, the use of ‘Mridang’ as a percussion instrument came to be popularised in the singing of Kirtans, a form of devotional singing  in praise of lord Krishna which originally was started by a Vaishnavite saint from Bengal named Chaitanya or Gouranga Mahaprabhu. In Manipuri Sankirtana the ‘Meitei Pung’ which is a variant of the ‘Mridanga’ came to be used. Unlike the ‘Mridanga’, which originally is a terracotta percussion instrument the body of which is made from mud thus giving it its name “Mridanga” from the Sanskrit words ‘Mrit’ for mud and “Anga’ meaning body, the Meitei pung however is made from wood with two drum heads/faces of differing sizes, one small (Manao) on the right and the other somewhat bigger called ‘Maru’ on the left, the combination of which gives it its distinctive sounds. The instrument is accorded a very revered status in Meitei’s traditional customs, even worshiped, equated with the body of Lord Vishnu during ceremonies and always seen wrapped finely in a thin white cloth as if being dressed. The playing of the instrument ‘Pung Cholom’ is a highly skilled and developed art that is indigenous to Manipur and with no comparison or likeness to its art form anywhere in the world. It is showcased and highly acclaimed all over the globe as part of the Manipuri Classical music and dance.

The ‘Pung cholom’ which generally precedes the singing of the kirtan is a fabulous and enchanting rendering of the instrument with variations in the tempo of the beats ranging from the slow and interrupted rhythm that creates a soulful melody to an energetic and spirited beats climaxing to an explosive rhythm, all the while accompanied by a matching display of fluid and graceful body movements that has been ingenuously incorporated from Manipur’s famed martial art form ‘Thang Ta’ and ‘Sarit sarak’. Highly acrobatic and artistic, the Pung Cholom is an exquisite and quite a breathtaking presentation.

Sanarei – the golden flower

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Shining in hues of gold,

little sparks of happiness bursting forth,

in blooms so bright and bold,

like a sprinkle of tiny little suns  on earth.

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‘Sanarei’ is the Manipuri name for the flower commonly called Marigold, coined from the words ‘Sana’ meaning ‘Gold’ and ‘lei’ meaning ‘Flower’. In Manipur, as in most places in India, the flower has a religious association with it being the most widely offered flower in prayers and obeisance to the Gods. They are used to make garlands and wreaths and used widely in religious rituals and celebrations. The flower is said to have originated from Central America (Mexico) before spreading like wildfire to different parts of the world.

In the western world the flower is widely believed to represent death, grief, cruelty, jealousy and such. I couldn’t disagree more. As I see it, it doesn’t evoke any such emotions in us. Rather it is a beautiful and joyful flower with its bright and cheerful colours. In our part of the world, it is widely used in religious as well as festive celebrations. The western belief may have been misconstrued from the fact that the flower is regarded as the flower of the dead due to its association with ‘Dia de los Muertos’ the ‘Day of the dead’ which is celebrated in Mexico on October 31st till November 2nd. A celebration that dates back thousands of years to Aztecs in the pre-hispanic period of Central America where the native Indians use to honor the dead. The practice continues even today in what has now become Mexico. Contrary to the dark and morbid picture it may evoke to the rest of us, the celebration is a beautiful and colourful festival where the Mexicans visit cemeteries, decorate the graves with the flower and spend time in the thought and the presence (as they belief) of their deceased friends and family members. Similar to the ‘Meiteis’ belief of ‘Tarpon’ during which dead ancestors visit their living children on earth to check on their welfare and grant them blessings, the ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrates the return of the spirits to the Earth for one day of the year to be with their families. It is believed that the ‘Angelitos’ (little angels), spirits of babies and little children who have died, arrive on the midnight of October 31st and spend an entire day with their families and on their return the next day the spirits of the adults make their visit. There couldn’t be a more poignant and meaningful festival.

With the coming of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers and settlers in Central America in late 15th and early 16th centuries, the flower gradually spread to other parts of the world including India where it is believed to have been brought by the Portuguese settlers. Back in Mexico, the early Christians began to offer the flower in place of gold and money in their obeisance to Virgin Mary and thus came to be called ‘Mary’s gold’ or more simply ‘Marigold’.

In Manipur, it is ‘Sanarei‘, sana machu maanbi lei (flower with a golden hue).

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Takhellei

The ‘Takhellei nachom’ art more beautiful than the diamonds in the neck.

Takhellei

‘Takhellei’ is perhaps the most romanticized flower in Manipur. Scientifically named the ‘Hedychium coronarium’ and commonly known as the ‘Butterfly ginger Lily’’, the flower is said to have it origins in the Himalayan region but have migrated as far as the Latin American regions like Brazil, Hawaii and Cuba. Closure home, in Manipur (a state in the North-eastern corner of India bordering Myanmar) it is known as ‘Takhellei’, a flower which has a strong emotional attachment to the people of the region. Known for its rich fragrance, the womenfolk of Manipur in the olden days adorn themselves with the aromatic flower, just as the Latinas were known to do in the Spanish colonial days. The beauty of the  Takhellei seductively tucked in the ear, decorating the long, lustrous, cascading, black hair of the Meitei ladies adorned in ‘Phige phanek’ (a wrap around garment worn by Manipuri ladies) and the sensuous ‘Moirang phi’ (a translucent shawl) is a sight that have evoked romance and inspired eulogies over ages in the days of yore. It was enough to send the ‘Meitei pakhangs’ (bachelors) swooning in the olden days and crooning “Takhellei Nachom na napada” (a popular Manipuri song). Although it is a rare sight to come by in these modern times of the jeans clad damsels, it can still be noticed in ‘Lai haraoba’ (Meitei festival) and sometimes in weddings when the ladies don the breathtaking traditional dress and titivate their silken hair with a Takhellei ‘Nachom’ (flower adorned in the ear). I bet it still tugs the heart strings of the Meitei nupas (Manipuri males) even today.

A place I call home

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Once upon a time, not that long ago,

in a place that even heaven envy,

lived some simple folks,

a life, as was meant to be.

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The land, Oh! What to speak of it,

a place like none other,

a feast for the eyes that lay on it,

like God created it in his leisure.

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A valley, green and fertile,

with sparkling rivers that bejewel its breast;

And virgin mountains standing as sentinels,

cradling the valley in its lap.

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Of the folks, what to speak of them,

they lived a life simple and plain.

cared little save the hearth that must be lit,

no one to envy and none to disdain.

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Soon a shadow was cast upon the land,

as came the selfish in leaders’ guise,

etched the lines that divide the people,

filling their hearts with hatred and lies.

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No sooner then, the people fell apart,

staking claims that bereft the other,

creating nations where none exists,

Nations that would be built on blood and tears.

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And oh! lovely place that I so much adore,

where Gods took to dance when they saw,

Ye Shall be nothing more than a battleground,

and this tear I shed ‘coz I love you so.

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Manipur is the place where I was born and had spent the best years of my childhood and adolescence. It lies in the eastern most corner of India bordering Myanmar. A beautiful valley surrounded by nine ranges of hills (so goes the folklore but I actually do not know how many), so mesmerizing that the British imperialists could not help themselves but come out with so many metaphors.  I always imagined, during my school years when I used to travel by bus through the never ending ranges of hills while on my way home for vacations, how the Brits must have felt after slogging for days on foot through those hills and suddenly coming out onto the beautiful flat fertile valley of Imphal. No wonder they called it “The flower on the lofty heights”

Ethel St. Clair Grimwood, wife of Political Agent Frank Grimwood describes in her account of her ill fated short stay  (My three years in Manipur and escape from recent mutiny published in 1891) –

“MANIPUR! How well I remember the first time I ever heard the name – a name, too, which was comparatively unknown three short years ago, owing to the fact that it belongs to a remote little tract of country buried amongst hills and difficult of access, far away from civilized India, and, out of the beaten track. This is not a geographical treatise, and therefore there is no necessity to dwell much on the exact whereabouts of a place which has already been described more than once. I will therefore attempt no lengthy description, simply stating that the valley of Manipur lies between Cachar, the Kubo Valley, and Kohima, and is surrounded by six ranges of hills which separate it from the tracts of country named. A pretty place, more beautiful than many of the show-places of the world; beautiful in its habitable parts, but more beautiful in those tracts covered with forest jungle where the foot of man seldom treads, and the stillness of which is only broken by the weird cry of the hooluck  or the scream of a night-bird hunting its prey”.

Well Manipur is no more remote as described above but it is still as beautiful, expect of course for the places where human habitation has taken its toll. Yet, one can still see the beauty of the place and as for me, feel it. Sadly, the state is plagued with law and order problems with numerous insurgency groups (I lost count after forty) operating in the region, polarized along ethnic lines.  I wrote the poem above when violence was at its peak, when one ethnic group, in trying to wipe out the other just to stake their claim on the land, snubbed the life of hundreds of innocents , burning down their home, reducing to ashes one village after another. I had stood there among the smoldering debris and smoke, a silent witness.  It was one of the saddest  moment of my life. I cared not for the politics that these people were playing or the gains they sought, but that lost bewildered look in the gaze of the lone 5 year old boy who survived the carnage haunts me to this day. Today, the conflict seems to have ebbed but……the threat still remains, the guns are still smoking. The Britishers have long been gone but the blood that has been spilt since continues even to this day….and the land I so love continues to bleed.

Man at work…….come rain or shine

Images of the hard-working  section of the population of a little known town called Imphal in the border state of Manipur (India) adjoining Myanmar. Less fortunate but the most hardworking indeed.

Took out my camera to indulge in a little creativity after what seemed like a long time hiatus. But sooner than I manage to take a few shots, the overcast sky turned to a downpour and then into a drizzle. So I decided to do a little street photography capturing those going about their lives despite the callous weather, toiling … come  rain or shine.

NB: I have tried my best to maintain the anonymity of the subject.

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Images of the hardworking section of the population of a little known town called Imphal in the border state of Manipur (India) adjoining Myanmar. Less fortunate but the most hardworking perhaps.

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Loktak lake of Manipur – one of its kind.

The visit of a friend reminded me of our last visit to the Loktak Lake in Manipur recently, a lovely evening spent atop a hillock enjoying the soft caressing breeze blowing across the lake, watching the fishermen niftily maneuvering their tiny canoes across the vast expanse of water looking for a catch and best of all bear witness to the breathtaking views of the water slowly changing hue as the sun stealthily sank. A lovely evening well spent and here’s a few shots I managed to capture amid sips of the fiery Sekmai 🙂

The Loktak Lake of Manipur
A fisherman waiting for a catch.
Fish farming being done in the Phumdis
Fishing in Loktak
The blue hills yonder
Loktak as the sun sets.
Loktak at night.

For the uninitiated, Loktak Lake is the biggest freshwater lakes in Northeast India, situated in a place called Moirang which is about 45 Kilometers from Imphal, the Capital town of Manipur. The lake is famous for it floating Phumdis, a mass of vegetation floating on the lake on which fisherman even build their huts. Sometimes they are encircled to farm fishes inside which can be seen in the pictures. Keibul Lamjao National Park, the one of a kind and the only floating sanctuary in the world, lies on the southeastern shores of this lake. It is home to the endemic and endangered Brow-antlered-deer (Cervus Eldi Eldi) or Sangai that we, Manipuris, are so proud of. The place is one of the wonders of nature, unique and beautiful. Sadly it is ill maintained and there is an increasing human population and settlement along the catchment areas leading to deforestation and degeneration of the whole area. Urgent measures are required to preserve this wondrous gift of nature, the pride of Manipur.

Kakching

Kakching, a small town about 45 kilometres from Imphal and a mere 70 kilometres away from the Indo-Myanmar border in the North-easternmost corner of India, is the last town in the valley of Manipur after which the highway that leads to Myanmar meanders up the hills of Pallel and Tengnoupal to descend to the last border town of Moreh.

Towards Myanmar, beyond the hills.

Surrounded by fertile stretches of paddy fields and the hills a little bit yonder, Kakching is strategically located to offer the best agricultural produce from the nearby fields and the hills as well. The bamboo shoots available in the local market is famed for its taste and aroma, of course that is to mention only one of the mainly specialities found here. The people of Kakching are known for their industriousness as  well as for their community bonding. Not surprisingly, Kakching is perhaps the fastest developing region as compared to the rest of Manipur, second only to Imphal the capital town of the state. The photographs bears testimony to their hardwork and unity, something the rest of Manipur can learn and emulate.

The Eco-Park in Uyok Ching

Uyok Ching

If only we are able to retain the charm and beauty of the hills and vales of Manipur, just as the people of kakching has.