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.