The  Sangai Festival is held from 21st to 30th November every year. It  showcases the state's rich tradition of music, dance and games. The  festival name comes from "Manipur Brow-antlered  Deer or Sangai also  called the Dancing Deer."

Did  you know that Polo originated in Manipur.  I got to know only when I experienced Sangai Festival 2014. Loved  every minute of the ten days that I spent in Manipur. Here is my  story.

I  took an early morning flight to Kolkata to reach Imphal by about 1.30  pm. Taxis from  airport to town are easily available and is about a  30 minute drive. You can get a good double room for around Rs  1,000-1400/ per day, the expensive ones are between Rs 2000-2500/.  There is a Marwari dharamshala too. I was happy to find restaurants  serving Punjabi food, farsan, dosa, paranthas etc.

The  festival format is such that events take place all over Manipur.  During the day there are outdoor events. Post 4.30 pm cultural events  are in  Imphal at BOAT, a mini stadium. Outside there is a huge  garden where stalls serve Manipuri delicacies and sell Manipuri  handicrafts/artificial jewellery from Thailand. Atmosphere is  festival like.

The  opening ceremony was a beautifully choreographed show with theme  'Manipur A Tourist Destination through Culture'. It was presided over  by the Chief Minister of Manipur and the Special Guest was the Hon  Chief Minister of Chin State, Myanmar.

This year, for  probably the first time a chartered flight of the Golden Myanmar  airlines brought tour operators from Myanmar to Imphal. It brought 15  tour operators and is a great move to promote closer relations  between the two countries.

The  events held in Imphal include polo matches, traditional boat race  (Hiyang-HirenTanaba), Ras-Leela dance, Pung Cholom, fusion music,  Nata Sankirtana, cultural performances by people of hilly districts,  power paragliding at Old Airfield and indigenous games. The festival  has performances by artists from states of Tripura/Orissa and  Thailand/Myanmar.

To  see pictures of Sangai Festival Click here

Events  outside Imphal included trekking, climbing to highest peak of Manipur  Mount Iso, water skiing, sailboat, wind surfing at Loktak Lake  Moirang, mountain bike cross country competition 60 kms and caving  and trekking to Ukhrul district.

The  good thing about Manipur is that sun rises by 5 am so you can venture  out and return to Imphal by 5 pm for the day's cultural events. I  visited Moreh and Moirang.

Moreh shares a border with Myanmar and is a three hour drive from Imphal,  mostly through hills. The town has a vibrant market on the Myanmar  side where everything from electronics, clothes, consumables and  supari are available. Indian traders buy truckloads of stuff.  Ordinary Indians are no less. Goods are mostly of Chinese origin,  cheaper but of inferior quality as compared to Indian goods. On  payment of a nominal fee you can drive across the border into  Myanmar.

To  see pictures of Moreh Border Click here

Moirang  has lots to offer. Sixteen kms from Imphal is the India  Peace Memorial where one of the fiercest battles of World War II took place in 1944  on Red Hill. The Japanese had occupied this hill until they were  evicted by a combined British effort.

Next  visited Loktak  Lake,  the largest fresh-water lake in the Indian sub-continent. The area of  the lake has shrunk from 491 kms in 1971 to 236 kms now. Awesome! The  Sentra Tourist Complex is a modern and well maintained resort. Missed  visiting the world's only floating national Park, Keibul Lam Jao.

To  see pics of India Peace Memorial and Loktak Lake Click hereDid  you know that it was in 1944 that the Indian flag was hoisted for the  first time on Indian soil by the Indian National Army at Moirang? The  museum has pictures of I.N.A. in action.

To  see pics of INA Museum Click here

Within  Imphal visit the  Kangla Fort,  War Cemetery, Ima Market and airfields used during World War 2.

Kangla  was the capital of the ancient state of Manipur. Like the forts of  Rajasthan it is surrounded by a moat, unlike them it is on ground  level. Today it is home to Shri Shri Govindajee temple amongst  others. It has a statue of Maharaja Bheigyachandra, founder and  pioneer of Sanatana Dharma in Manipur. Development of Classical Dance  and culture of Meitei Hindus is credited to him.

To  see pics of Kangla Fort Click here

Ima  or Mother's Market is probably the one of its kind in India, occupied  only by women who sell local textiles, fish, veggies, handicrafts  amongst others. Great place to shop.

To  see pics of Ima Market Click here

Next  a bit about dances that I really enjoyed.

Lhou  Sha Dance. It is a performed after victory in battle or fight. "The Lhou  Sha is a war dance performed at every confrontation between two  villages. The dance form has been preserved as part of the tradition  of the Maring community of Manipur and marks the conclusion of  significant festivals". Music and actions are very catchy.

PUNG  CHOLOM is  a visual treat and must be performed at every festival. The Pung, or  Manipuri drum is the soul of Manipuri dance and is performed during  Holi festival. It is a "Drum Dance i.e. a visual interpretation  of the various rhythmic patterns played on the pung. In this dance,  the drummer identifies completely with the intricate rhythms he plays  on the drum and expresses it through corresponding body movements and  footwork."

To  see video Click here

Nata  Sankirtana (Nupi Pala). Manipuri Rassa Leela was conceived and executed during  the reign of Rajashri Bhagyachandra (1763-1789).  "Manipuri  dance incorporates both the tandava and lasya and ranges from the  most vigorous masculine to the subdued and graceful feminine.  Generally known for its lyrical and graceful movements, Manipuri  dance has an elusive quality. In  keeping with the subtleness of the style, Manipuri abhinaya does not  play up the mukhabhinaya very much - the facial expressions are  natural and not exaggerated - sarvangabhinaya, or the use of the  whole body to convey a certain rasa, is its forte. The rhythmic  complexities are usually overlooked as the dancers do not wear ankle  bells to stamp out the rhythms in a theatrical display, as this  interferes with the delicate body movements. However, Manipuri dance  and music has a highly evolved tala system."

To  see video Click here

Manipuri  Polo 'The  game of polo is called Sagol Kangjei in Manipuri language. Sagol  literally means a pony language while Kangjei stands for a game  played with sticks. Referee (local name Huntre-hunba) throws ball in  the air, game starts. 'Unlike modern day polo, a mounted player is  allowed to pick the ball up from the ground by hand if he can. An  expert player can make the ball roll up the mallet by a flick of hand  and catch the ball. But in both cases, to score a goal, he must throw  the ball up in the air and hit it with his mallet before reaching the  goal line.'

Manipuri  Polo is great fun to watch. There were teams from India, Poland,  U.S., Thailand, Mongolia, South Africa and France who played matches  in the modern day format.

To  see pics of Polo Click here

Indigenous  Games.  Traditional hockey of Manipur ie called "MUKNA KANGJEI"  which means wrestling and hockey. Players have hockey sticks like  elsewhere. Here  men have a cloth round their waist. Opponent can hold it and prevent  player from moving. When player gets control of the ball the player,  ball in hand, runs towards the opponents goal.

Another  interesting game is 'YUBI LAKPI'. Yubi is the Manipuri word for  coconut and Lakpi is snatching Here coconut is drenched in oil.  Players in two teams try to get hold of the coconut and run towards  opponents goal. Challenges are many. One, coconut is so slippery,  keeps slipping out of your hands. Two, opponents are always at you  trying to snatch away the coconut.

Both  these games are great fun to watch, had us in splits.

To  see pics of Indigenous Games Click here

Fusion  Music by the Rhythms of Manipur is a wonderful blend of east and west.

To  see video Click here

The  quality and diversity of performances were very impressive. The state  tourism department left no stone unturned to make the festival a  success.

Every  time Prime Minister Modi has a Wembley type cultural event it must  include artists from Manipur. Their performances would make India  proud.

Roads  in Manipur were invariably good. Festival area has gun totting  policemen. During the day it is safe, was advised not to wander in  the market after 8 pm. People are very friendly and happy to help.  They are a very proud people and dislike being held hostage by the  Nagas who block the highway, from Dimapur to Imphal, at will.

Manipur  and Arunachal Pradesh are two unexplored jewels of the North-East.  Make your travel plans now!

The  author is a travel photojournalist.