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.

Marygold

‘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.