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.