The northeastern jewel is a hub of the past and the present, where history coexists with contemporary culture. Namita Kumar visits its capital Imphal during the annual Sangai Festival, that celebrates the state animal
Incessant rain has slowed the car down and has dampened my spirits too. We are driving to Imphal in Manipur from Kohima, Nagaland, around 155 km away. But as we approach Imphal, the rain ceases and the car starts gobbling up the miles. Even the sky clears a little. As the sun peeps through the clouds, lush green valleys seem to appear magically from behind what, till now, was a shroud of mist. It is a play of fresh greenery all around, carpeting the gently undulating hills on the horizon. Imphal is an ancient city with a rich heritage that has embraced modernity enthusiastically. Its broad avenues and colourful residential blocks give it the feel of modern Europe. Yet, its past thrives in a restored fort at the heart of the city and in its vibrant traditional markets (managed mostly by women).
As night falls, the mercury drops but it’s not bitterly cold. Imphal enjoys pleasant weather throughout the year, making it an ideal all-year-round destination. I warm myself up with a hearty bowl of chamthong, a local vegetable stew, and end my day with the delectable chak-hao kheer, which has an interesting purple colour and an earthy flavour. This dessert, made with black rice, milk and jaggery, is one of the two reasons that have brought me to this northeastern paradise. The first is the Manipur Sangai Festival. I want to enjoy at least one day of the 10-day festival, before I set off to explore other parts of the state.
One of the most popular events in Manipur, the Sangai Festival is held between November 21 and 30 every year and is a celebration of the state’s traditions, culture, handicrafts, indigenous games, sports and nature. It is named after the state animal, sangai, the brow-antlered deer found only in Manipur. Attracting tourists from across the world, the festival transforms the cities of Imphal and the neighbouring Bishnupur district (around 30 km away) into buzzing hotbeds of festivity. Hapta Kangjeibung, one of the most important grounds in Imphal, is the main venue of the event.
The next day, I get a flavour of the festival with one of the state’s most important cultural heritages, the Raas Leela. Dance is a major component of Manipur’s traditional performing arts, and its mantle is worn by Raas Leela. A depiction of Lord Krishna’s legends in the classical Manipuri dance style, Raas Leela is not just poetic storytelling but a mesmerising visual drama where powerful stories are enacted through ethereal movements. I witness a Raas Leela performance in an enclosure in front of one of the most important spiritual destinations in Imphal, the Shree Govindajee temple, which narrate the story of Lord Krishna as a child. As the night darkens and lights illuminate the historic golden twin-domed temple and its white pillars, the lyrical performance seems to cast a spell on the audience. As drums and cymbals pick up the rhythm and the dancers in their rich glittering costumes move delicately, time stops.
A local resident I befriend at the performance, tells me that the Sangai Festival also focusses on various other folk forms like the kabui naga dance, bamboo dance, maibi dance, lai haraoba dance and the khamba thoibi dance.
The next morning, I find myself at Kangla Fort, an oasis of calm located at the heart of the bustling city. Located on the western bank of the Imphal river, it is said that Manipur’s kings ruled from this fort till 1891. A tall gate welcomes me into the green complex surrounded by a canal filled with water.
As the day ends, I head off for another cultural performance at the Sangai Festival: a ballet that narrates the story of the sangai. As dancers, in costumes resembling the deer, enact a folklore about the endangered animal, the underlying theme of the performance and also of the festival comes across. It’s an ardent plea to save the sangai and other wildlife of the state, and honour its traditions and culture.
Sangai festival highlights
The festival showcases several indigenous sports of the state, including thang-ta (a spear-and-sword match), yubi lakpi (a local sport similar to rugby, played with a greased coconut), mukna (the Manipuri style of wrestling) and Manipur’s most famous sagol kangjei or polo. It is believed that polo evolved in Manipur and that it was a game of the commoners played on local ponies. Imphal is home to Mapal Kangjeibung, said to be the world’s oldest living polo ground. The Sangai Festival includes an international polo championship as well.
Adventure sports are also an integral part of the festivities where events such as traditional boat races, water skiing, wind surfing and motor boating are organised. One can enjoy trekking and white water rafting at the festival as well.
Food stalls set up during the festival offer mouthwatering local dishes such as ngathongba (fish curry), eromba (a preparation of boiled vegetables and fermented fish), ooti (rice with peas and vegetables), bora (fried dumplings), paknam (a baked cake of gram flour mixed with other ingredients), singju (a spicy traditional salad) and chak-hao kheer.
The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in this article are her own