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Non linear
  • Writer's pictureShubhra

Manipur, a year before the war

Aerial view of Imphal, 2022.
Aerial view of Imphal, August 22, 2022. The hope was to spot the athaphums, the circles that dot the Loktak Lake, that you can see as you are flying into Manipur. But alas I was on the wrong side of the flight.

I spent July and August of 2022 in Manipur. Most of my time was in Imphal, with a few days in Leimakhong. I spent some time in areas nearby Imphal, but did not venture into the hills very much. I had thought then, that I'll return for a trip to the hills. But the best laid plans of mice and men often come to naught, or so the poet said.

I was there to research religious beliefs of the Sanamahi religion. The previous year, my family had visited Imphal after 30 or so years. We had lived inside Kangla Fort, but had been oblivious to the history of the site. I was interested to find out how the military and animistic beliefs collide and the resulting effects. People were very open in discussing this with me, I got a wide range of interviews, and meandering chats.

There wasn't much by way of feeling threatened back then. A researcher on water in the state, told me: “ The last 7-8 years Manipur has been calm otherwise there was a lot of disturbance.” I didn't witness any disturbance other than long lines for fuel during one bandh/shutdown in the state and an internet shutdown for maybe 2 days. On Independence Day, shops in Imphal blared patriotic filmy music, there was a bike rally, that the youth participated in droves. In the days preceding, one could hear sounds of groups preparing songs.

A sacred tree and a shrine inside Kangla Fort in Imphal.
A sacred tree and a shrine inside Kangla Fort in Imphal.

Imphal is a dusty, smoggy city, because of widespread construction work, but even there the sky delivers fairly regularly. Big billowy clouds dot a cornflower blue sky as vehicular exhaust spreads far and wide on land. The last ten years have brought about some drastic changes to the city of Imphal, I am told. Just a few minutes out of Imphal, you are free of the urban. In July, you see green paddy fields, dark skies loom in the background, and the surrounding tree covered hills are covered in mist. It's so beautiful, it feels unreal.

Paddy fields and surrounding hills outside Imphal.
Paddy fields and surrounding hills outside Imphal.

In 2022, the main news out of Manipur was around the government's plans for Loktak Lake. There were some ridiculous ideas around developing tourism for the state, these included creating an artificial beach. Not reinventing the wheel, but taking it and making it a square.

The skies over a homestay on Loktak Lake.
The skies over a homestay on Loktak Lake, in Bishnupur district, Manipur. In 2022, the homestay owners were told to shut businesses and move out.

Loktak Lake is unique all on its own. It's a freshwater lake that extends over a large area, with islands of floating vegetation called phumdis. These don't exist in many places in the world. There is lore and myth associated with the lake, and the livelihood of generations.

Boatmen separate phumdis on Loktak Lake.
Boatmen separate phumdis on Loktak Lake. 2022, Manipur.

Homestays were being closed down and fishermen asked to remove themselves from the lake as they were allegedly polluting it. There were many meetings and protests around it.

A meeting with fishermen of Loktak Lake to discuss the shutting down of homestays in the lake.
A meeting with fishermen of Loktak Lake to discuss the shutting down of homestays in the lake.

I spent the most time in Phayeng, outside of Imphal, to help a friend with documentation. Phayeng village is a special place with a forest that's come to be sacred to the people. Phayeng is also where I had my first taste of Manipuri alcohol. In 2022, Manipur was firmly a dry state, one of its many absurdities, because alcohol — locally brewed or otherwise, was easily available. I was told "Foreign" liquor came via three sources — across the border from Myanmar, other bordering Indian states, and the army.

In December of 2023, this ban was lifted in some parts of the state.

Phayeng village is a carbon positive village.
Phayeng village is a carbon positive village in that it doesn't just not produce any pollution, it contributes to healthier air in the region. There is a big forest around Phayeng, that's held to be sacred, and the villagers keep a watch on activities there. Since the clashes between the Kukis and Meiteis began, the areas that are between the valley and hills became sites of heavy violence, including Phayeng.

The two locally brewed alcohols I had the most were -- Atingba, a rice beer, sometimes flavoured with pineapples (ananas) or mangoes, and Yu, a rice wine, much more potent than Atingba. There are others, but I don't recall their names. These are brews of the Meiteis. I don't know what's available in the hills, but the alcohol ban there was lifted in 2002.

There's a mischievous song about this not-so-surreptitious alcohol situation, by the band Imphal Talkies, it's about the places to go have fun of the alcohol kind in Manipur.

Yu, a locally brewed rice liquor, in Manipur.
Yu, a locally brewed rice liquor. Most alcohols are names after the areas they are brewed, so you can go buy some 'Andro' or Sekmai, but a Manipuri friend told me this is Yu and the locally made grass mats are called Fuk. He joked: "Some fuk yu?" (Yu is super potent.)

My research took me to Kangla Fort a lot, but also unexpectedly to the Shree Govindajee Temple, the largest Hindu Meitei temple in Imphal. Since I was looking at Sanamahism, I was a bit confused about this recommendation. On the temple grounds, it turned out, is also the Pandit Loishang, an office and place of training for priests (amaibas) and priestesses (amaibis/shamans). Amaibis are especially revered in Sanamahi Practice. An Amaibi is chosen by the gods it is believed. The priestesses serve as the interlocutors between gods and the people. Gender is not a restriction to be an Amaibi, being an Amaibi is to be a woman, whether or not you were born one.

A Meitei woman described the religious practice of the Meiteis to be “schizophrenic”, where Hindu rituals are practised, often strictly by older generations, but in tandem, Sanamahi deities and rituals are worshipped. Young people everywhere are increasingly apathetic to religion, and here as well, but because of the political inclination against India, owing in large part to the years of free reign given to security forces, religious expression is a significant political expression. To be Hindu is to be closer to India. And insurgent groups in the state don’t appreciate a closeness to India, there is an informal ban on bollywood; school girls have to wear the phanek – the Manipuri skirt – as cultural identity is forced to be embodied by women; and there was a time, or perhaps in some parts this is still true, school kids were not allowed to sing the Indian national anthem. (This was written in 2022).

One of my favourite things about Manipur is the widespread presence of women in public places, unlike most of India. You see women everywhere. The famous Ima Market (Mothers Market) is testament to this inversion of women's domesticity, along with the respect accorded to the Meira Paibis (though in the past year, their role in the war has repeatedly been called into question).

A flower seller at Imphal's Ima Market.
A flower seller at Imphal's Ima Market (Mothers market).

Of the eight classical dance forms of India, Manipuri is one. I know this because I read extensively on the politics of this classification, and also the history of Hindi Film Dance (more on this here). On Janmashtami, I did my best to catch a performance in any temple. I knew a dancer but could not locate the venue, a bit despairing, my friends rescued me and took me to ISKON and left me there since they didn't care for this dance or the festival or anything as uncool.

The youth is fashionable in Imphal, there are streets lined with thrift shops. On the roads you see the new urbanity mixing with the old rural. Sometimes you see surprising things like a Bipolar Kids school (maybe a less obvious board for the sake of the children?)

The many years of being a troubled state has impacted the children, and this ongoing war will further build on the wounds of a people's psyche.

My memories of this strange place are not very many. I lived in Imphal for just about a year as a child, but it’s that age when memories are just beginning to form, I was about 4 and a half years old then. As part of family lore I know there was an earthquake, not a big one maybe, but the first of our lives – for my mother, my two sisters, and me. There was a big flood that year too, 1991. We could hear snakes under the house sometimes. I asked a local about this and they said it was built on a bad energy place, in the path of the snakes, though do snakes have set paths? I hugged a monkey for the first and only time in my life, we were about the same size. A few other snapshots. My sisters tell me I used to talk to walls. I would whisper to them and stop when someone approached. They would secretly watch me and giggle. Maybe talking to walls is normal. I had heard a Hindi film dialogue that was imprinted on to my brain “deewaron ke bhi kaan hote hai (The walls too are listening)". It’s possible I manufactured that memory to explain the wall talking. 

Anyway it was a strange place for me back then, full of wonder, frogs and fireflies. 

I returned to find, it is, for me, still a place of wonder. With spirits and mediums and such a history of violence. I am enamoured. Or maybe the spirits keep me tied. 

Cows in Manipur


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