Perched atop the hill ranges in the northern part of the State of Manipur, at an elevation of about 2020 metres above sea level, is a small hill station called Ukhrul, the land of the Tangkhul Naga tribe of Manipur. The small hill settlement is the district headquarters of Ukhrul District of the State of Manipur (India) which lies in the northernmost part of the state bordering Nagaland in the north. Just across the hill ranges to the east is Myanmar. To the south is Chandel district while Imphal East District and Senapati District bounds it in the west.
The Ukhrul town is located 84 kilometres from the State capital Imphal. A good metalled National Highway 150 connects Imphal with Ukhrul through a picturesque hilly terrain. The drive from Imphal to Ukhrul takes only about three hours. The stretch till Yaingangpokpi on the NH 150 is mostly on a level plain and the elevation starts soon after crossing Yaingangpokpi. The foothills are interspersed by a couple of Kuki villages, while the higher reaches are settled by the Tangkhuls. About halfway from Imphal is Litan where a lively cluster of small shops and hotels (which are actually small tea stalls and not the regular lodging ones) are strategically located offering a stopover for refreshment. After a hot cuppa tea and some snacks, we resumed our drive which then began the climb with incredulous twists and turns. Although the road was metalled and in good condition, it was treacherously narrow and winding for one to have a comfortable drive. The blind turns were tricky and could prove costly if either one of the two crossing vehicles is reckless or inexperienced. A costly lesson I was later to learn.
The Ukhrul district is spread across the northern hill ranges of the State with an elevation ranging from 913 m as we start to climb from the valley of Imphal to a height of about 3114 m measured by the highest peak in the vicinity named the Khayang Peak. The popular Siroy Peak, the actual name of which is Shirui Kashung Peak stands at an elevation of about 2,835 m. The peak is famed for the ‘Siroy Lily’. Locally called as ‘Kashongwon’ and scientifically named the ‘Lilium Mackliniae’, Siroy Lily is a special variety of Lily that grows only on the Shirui hill. The discovery of the rare variety of Lily endemic to the Shirui Hill is credited to an English Botanist and explorer named Francis Kingdon Ward aka Frank Kingdon-Ward who is known for his expeditions (reported to be more than 25) hunting flowers in the region around Tibet, North Western China, Myanmar and of course the Northeast of India. He had come to Ukhrul in 1946 with Jean Macklin (who became his second wife) and on discovering the rare species of lily named it after her. Once known to bloom wildly across the face of the Shirui hill during mid May to early June, the environmental changes has shrunk the natural habitat of the rare flower to the top of the hill. A National park was set up in 1982 for the preservation of this rare flower. My visit being off-season, I did not get to see the famous Lily of Shirui, the State flower of Manipur, sadly 😦 .
I had visited Ukhrul a very long time ago when I was merely a 12-year-old. One of the few images left imprinted on my mind was the thick blanket of clouds hovering below the town. It looked like a fairy tale village on top of the clouds, a sight I could never forget. To me it was indeed the Switzerland of Manipur. Ukhrul, beautiful as it may be, is no more what I knew it to be then. The town has spread all over, the core area of the town is unrecognisable with every inch of space being crowded up and the fringes expanding. It was a totally new place to me. The market of Ukhrul has also expanded beyond the original Wino Bazar, Phungreitang becoming a major landmark. The hustle and bustle was quite invigorating with some very interesting stuffs (could be even ghastly for some) put up for sale as can be seen in the photographs below.
Although changed beyond recognition, the town still had the old rustic charm of a tribal village. Children played with gay abandon through the day, caring little for their appearance or the bounden duties of the modern day kids such as home work, school work, project work etc. It seemed like they had all the time in the world in their hands to do as they please, to be really kids in true spirit. Games they played like ‘Chagai hunbi’, ‘marbol’ (marble), ‘Cheitek kotpi’, ‘Thouri Chongbi’ transported me to another world of another time, one of my childhood days. Kids nowadays have no ideas of games such as these, glued as they are to computers, laptops and PSP. I stood there watching the kids, mesmerised, enjoying every bit of their activity and even feeling a twinge of jealousy of the freedom they are enjoying, freedom from all worries and cares.
The most alluring part of Ukhrul is the mesmerizing hills. Gentle and rolling, covered in thick blanket of evergreen forest dotted with patches of human settlements on the lofty hill tops, the hills offer a pleasant view filling the onlooker with a sense of calmness and gratification. It is a beautiful gift of God indeed. How I wish we humans would stop being so greedy and selfish, and instead focus on preserving and developing the bounties of nature that God has laid on our laps.