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Manipur

Manipur is somewhat different culturally from the rest of the Northeast region because of the Vaishnav influence and some of the dance forms are very distinct and stylised. Along with dance forms, various martial arts are practised here and the game of Polo is said to have originated in Manipur. Folklores abound and are supported by a fair amount of recorded history. The capital city of Imphal itself has a lot to offer - war cemeteries, Kangla, the building that housed field marshal slim during World War II, the Orchidarium, many temples and a lot more. One of the more interesting areas to visit is the Ima Market or Mothers' Market, which is run by women only.

The state of Manipur, stretching along the border with Burma (Myanmar), centres on a vast lowland area watered by the lake system south of its capital Imphal. Manipur was not a Part of India. It was forcibly annexed by India. In 21 September 1949 the king of Manipur was forced to sign the Marger Agreement. Majority people of Manipur every year protest against this so-called merger agreement. The revolutionary parties of Manipur like UNLF, RPF are engaged now in armed national liberation struggle to liberate Manipur from Indian colonial occupation. They want to reestablish Manipur as an Independent country. This almost forgotten country is home to the Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis and other small ethnic groups. Though the area around Imphal is now all but devoid of trees, the outlying hills are still forested, and shelter such exotic birds and animals as the spotted Linshang, Blyths tragopan, the curiously named Mrs Hume's bar-backed pheasant, slow loris, Burmese pea-fowl and the beautifully marked clouded leopard, as well as numerous unclassified varieties of orchids. Probably its most unusual natural habitat is the floating mass of vegetation on Loktak Lake, south of Imphal, inhabited by the unique Sangai, the brow-antelered deer.

Manipur is the ancestral territory of the Manipuri people. Manipur is presently under Indian colonial rule. It is situated in the north-east corner of India and bounded in the east by Myanmar (Burma). The present territorial area is 22,327 sq.km. It lies within 23.83 degree N to 25.68 degree E latitude and 93.03 degree E to 94.48 degree E longitude. A fertile alluvial valley extends north-south in the middle and it is surrounded on all sides by hill ranges forming a part of the eastern Himalayas. Though constituting only about 12 p.c. of the total geographical area, the valley is settled by more than 75 p.c. of the total population of 1.8 million (1991 Census).

The royal chronicle Cheitharol Kumbaaba maintains an uninterrupted historical record of the land and its people since 33 A.D. Throughout the history, the valley was, and continues to be, the core region where the distinctive Manipuri culture and way of life took shape and where political developments having repercussions throughout the Indo-Burma region often originated.

Among the Manipuris, the Meiteis form the predominant ethnic group and they traditionally inhabit the valley. The surrounding hill ranges are settled by many tribes. They are broadly grouped together and known as the NAGA and the KUKI tribes. While the Meiteis thrive on wet cultivation, the tribal population subsist largely on the slash-and-burn technique of cultivation and depend heavily on the valley for their needs. In recent decades, however, the steady influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent into the hill areas and into parts of the valley and also the internal migration of tribes from the valley, have disturbed the traditional settlement patterns and demographic balance both in the hills and the valley of Manipur.

The tribal ethnic groups have their mutually distinct cultural heritage. The members of a tribe communicate among themselves in their own dialect, but the Manipuri language is the lingua franca used for inter-tribal communication and by all Manipuris settled inside and outside Manipur. The tribal dialects are in varying stage of development; they are all written in the Roman script. The Manipuri language had evolved from Meiteilon, the native language of the Meiteis which is written in its own script. All the tribal dialects as well as the Manipuri language belong to the Tibeto-Burman family of languages, just as all the indigenous ethnic groups in Manipur are of the southern Mongoloid stock racially.

Of the 18th national languages constitutionally recognized in India, the only language from the Tibeto-Burman family so recognized, though done so under political compulsions of the ongoing liberation struggle, is the Manipuri language. Anybody whose mother tongue is Manipuri language or who identifies himself/herself as a Manipuri, whether living inside or outside Manipur, belongs to the Manipuri people. There are about three million Manipuris in the world today. The Manipuris as a people are thus bound by a common language and culture and by inheritance of a common ancestral territory now called Manipur. Imphal

Overlooked by a circle of distant hills, the capital of Manipur, Imphal, lies in an almost completely flat basin at an altitude of around 785m. Though devoid of dramatic monuments, it is at least given a sense of openness by its large avenues; but even the rivers and canals that run through the town are unable to give it any visual appeal. Instead, the real interest in Imphal is supplied by its people, whose handsome Meithei faces are adorned with the long and distinctive tikki (forehead mark) of Vishnu. Although the valley is predominantly Hindu, Imphal feels more like Southeast Asia than India, and visitors tend to be confronted by a language barrier: most people understand neither English nor Hindi.

Imphal's airport, 6km south of town, is connected by Indian Airlines to Calcutta (5 weekly; 1hr 5min), Silchar (3 weekly; 35min), and Delhi (2 weekly; 3hr 10min). NEPC fly daily to Guwahati (1hr 5min). The Indian Airlines office is on MG Rd (220999). State buses arrive at the stand next to the Polo Ground and private buses at their individual offices. Bus connections with Guwahati are good, but the 579-kilometre journey takes around twenty hours. Manipur Golden Travels, on MG Rd (221332), provides by far the best service. National Highway 39 - "The Burma Road" - links Imphal with the closest railhead at Dimapur, 215km away, via Kohima in Nagaland; you need a permit for Nagaland to travel this way. The 200-kilometre bus ride to Silchar with Kangleipak Tours & Travels, MG Rd (222911), may look tempting, but anti-smuggling checkpoints along the way make it a nightmare of up to fourteen hours. Auto- and cycle rickshaws are the main means of transport within Imphal, and taxis and rental cars can be booked through hotels. Rather intimidatingly, and of no great help in bridging the language barrier, the cycle rickshaw men of Imphal wear water-proof straw caps, and wrap their faces in cloth to keep out dust and fumes.

Imphal's small and congested centre is sandwiched between the stately avenue of Kanglapat on the east and the somewhat stagnant River Nambu on the west. The town's Polo Ground dominates the area; according to popular legend, the Manipuri game of Sagol Kangjei is the original form of the modern game of polo. In one corner, the Shaheed Minar commemorates the Meithei revolt in 1891 against British occupation, while just southeast, the Manipur State Museum focusses on tribal costumes, jewellery and weapons along with geological, archeological and natural history displays (Mon-Fri 9.30am-4.30pm; Rs0.50).

At the heart of Imphal, the fascinating market of Khwairamband - also known as Nupi Keithel and Ima Bazaar or "Mothers' Market" - is run solely by Meithei women, making it one of India's largest women's markets. One of its two sections is devoted to textiles, selling shawls and fabrics including the moirangphee, the traditional Meithei dress. This distinctive striped skirt comes in two pieces; for a small fee, women with sewing machines will stitch them together with amazing speed. Across the road, the other half of the market sells local fish and vegetables, along with basic provisions, while smaller markets nearby include one dedicated to cane and wicker. If you prefer not to bargain, fixed-price shops include Sangai Handloom and Handicrafts, at GM Hall, near the clock tower, and the Handloom House in Paona Bazaar.

Next to the ruins of the Old Palace, 2km east, is Shri Govindjee, Manipur's pre-eminent Vaishnavite temple. Otherwise a disappointing mix of twentieth-century buildings, Shri Govindjee is crowned by two gold domes and has an impressive large prayer hall preceding the courtyard and main temple. Covering around 200 acres with more than a hundred species of orchids, the Khonghampat Orchidarium, the orchid centre of the Forest Department, lies 12km from Imphal on NH39 and is best visited in April and May when the orchids are in bloom.

Manipur's history can be traced back to the foundation of Imphal in the first century AD. Despite periodic invasions from Burma, it has also had long periods of independent and stable government. Manipur came under British rule in 1891 as a result of the defeat in the Battle of Khongjom. During World War II, most of Manipur was occupied by the Japanese, who used it as a base from where to strike towards the Assam Valley. Manipur became a full-fledged Indian state within the union in 1972. Since then it has been subjected to waves of violent unrest, initially as a result of self-rule campaigns and more recently through a brutal war between Kukis and Nagas; inter-communal hostilities came to a head in 1993, when several villages were destroyed and many innocent people brutally slaughtered. Since then, disturbances have been on the increase, with curfews in force in Imphal and elsewhere; at the time of writing, tourists were being advised to stay away, and were not allowed to spend the night anywhere outside the capital.




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