I wake up with a start and a flash of panic. I’d set my alarm for 4.30 a.m. expecting to wake in the dark, but bright light is streaming in through the French windows. I’ve overslept! Scrambling about, I locate my phone: It’s only 4 a.m.
Everything around me is familiar, yet different. The disorienting sunshine is appropriate for the place I am in, telling me how much further east I am from my home in Delhi. During lunch the previous day, soon after landing in Manipur’s capital Imphal, I was struck by how the same vegetables I eat every day tasted unusual when cooked with the region’s unique aromatics and herbs. The mountains were an extension of the Himalayas I know and love, but the cascading blooms were new to me.
This is my first visit to India’s northeast and instead of more popular destinations in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, or Assam, I’ve come to a complex place that is only now beginning to feature on travellers’ itineraries. For decades, insurgent groups in Manipur have been locked in a battle with the government of India, agitating for the state’s independence, often violently. To control them, the armed forces were given special powers that they have been accused of misusing. The worst sufferers have been ordinary people who’ve simply wanted to get on with their lives. But I’m told that there has been relative peace in the past decade, at least within Imphal, which like other second-tier cities in India, is in a hurry to grow.
This was evident on the drive from the airport, down the long, straight Tiddim Road that is being widened to eight lanes. To make space, the fronts of houses along the street have been demolished, as though a giant blade fell from the sky and lopped off several feet to expose a cross-section of bedrooms and kitchens. In the city, new constructions are vying with one another to change Imphal’s skyline. Only subtle hints of the struggle that continues in the state filter into the city. Like the billboards for Manipuri films and Korean movie DVDs, which have become popular since Hindi movies were banned by a separatist group in 2000.
My visit coincides with the Sangai Festival, a nine-day cultural event. I’ve been invited by Manipur Tourism, a collective of like-minded individuals working for the growth of tourism in the state. Tourist guides Deepak and Sanamani were upbeat as they told me about the growing number of visitors and the new job opportunities available to young people.
I was a bit wary of believing the rosy picture they painted, but decided to ease into the city by exploring Kangla Fort, Imphal’s historic and geographical heart. This was the ancient capital of Manipur, though the current ruins date to the early 16th century. A decade ago, this space was opened to the public after over a century of being under control of the armed forces.
We rented bicycles and rode past the fort’s moats and the twin statues of the mythic half-lion half-dragon Kangla Shas. We strolled among stone columns in the courtyard of the Govindajee Temple, dedicated to an incarnation of Lord Krishna. Somewhere between enjoying riding a bicycle after many years, and tucking into the dozen items in my thali lunch at Luxmi Kitchen right after, I decided to stop being sceptical about what I heard. I resolved to absorb experiences and leave the analysis for later.
The Meiteis are Manipur’s largest ethnic group and the state’s cuisine is dominated by their food. My meal began with its best-known dish, the delicious eromba. This seemingly simple concoction of steamed vegetables mashed with Naga king chillies, or bhut jolokia, locally known as u-morok, is made piquant by the addition of ngari, or fermented fish. Then came nutritious kangsoi made from seasonal vegetables with chilli and herbs. After that I was served two fish stews ornga thongpa: a light soupy one with aromatics like hooker chives and ginger to complement a piece of fried rohu, and another of fish boiled with potatoes, peas, and onion, and tomato sautéed with garlic and ginger. Soothing utti came next. It’s a dish of boiled peas tempered with onion, chives, and chillies. The meal ended with sticky-sweet black rice served surprisingly, with rice kheer. Though I’d tasted so many dishes, I didn’t feel stuffed, since the preparations were light and healthy.
My next stop was the Sangai Festival, popular not just with tourists but with Imphal’s residents as well. In a city with few restaurants, it offers a rare opportunity for a family outing with shows, shopping, and food. Among stalls selling shiny accessories from Thailand and offering deals on new cars, I spotted many entrepreneurs. Two young ladies were selling candied fruits, while a homemaker had jars of king chilli pickle on sale. Others sold dehydrated hooker chives or maroi leaves, fragrant handmade soaps, and healing oils. I felt inspired by their go-getter spirit as I made my way to the amphitheatre to watch Manipuri folk singer Guru Reuben Mashangva. The thousand-strong crowd roared with approval while the man whose music has been described as Naga blues pranced on stage, teasing lively tunes from his guitar.
Beguiled by the sunlight into waking up before my alarm, I’m itching to go by the time Sanamani and Deepak arrive. We were journeying east to Tamu, a little town in Myanmar, on its border with India. In the early morning, the mountains are encased in a gossamer mist that the sun’s probing rays gently push back to reveal thick forests. Numerous check posts dot the 110-kilometre drive and the car is examined for explosives at each. This is because the jungles of the Chandel district, which was the site of an attack that claimed the lives of 18 soldiers in June 2015, are a stronghold of insurgent groups that melt away into the forests of nearby Myanmar. At the shops at one of the larger check posts, I buy two kilos of fermented bamboo shoot from an old woman with flaring nostrils and betel nut-stained red teeth.
At the Moreh border post, we get a vehicle pass to visit Myanmar for the day. One minute, we’re driving on the left, the next we emerge from a half-yellow half-white-bridge and we’re in another country, driving on the right. I’m bewildered by the ease with which it happens. My phone rings. I cut the call and get a thrill as I text back: Sorry, can’t talk. In Myanmar for the day.
Across the border is slightly shabbier Tamu, a fascinating place with vintage fire trucks and gold-topped pagodas. At the market, a young girl with lovely skin that she attributes to round patches of sandalwood paste on her cheeks convinces me to buy a block of the aromatic wood. We visit a restaurant that Imphal families frequent to celebrate or hang out with friends. Many come for the chilled beer, which they can’t get in the dry state of Manipur. Sitting there and snacking on crunchy fried pork while sipping chilled Myanmar beer is perfectly routine for them, but seems surreal to me. To my mind, borders are rigid lines, and crossing them requires planning and paperwork. This porous border with free-flowing traffic is a revelation.
We cap the day with shopping at Namphalong Market, the site of a thriving trade between India and Myanmar. I buy local chillies, avocados, and tiny, explosively sweet oranges. Most Manipuris, however, come here for cheap electronics, excellent blankets, houseware, and toys. Deepak fulfills his girlfriend’s wish list of footwear.
When we return to Imphal, it is dark outside though it’s just 5 p.m. People finish work and head straight home. One of the limited “nightlife” options is the Rita Café at The Classic Hotel, where they have live music on weekends. I sit next to a family digging into tall sundaes. Browsing the papers I note the day’s big news: Prime Minister Modi will attend Sangai Festival’s closing day. Four or five pages inside, I find a little news item about gas cylinders not being allowed at the festival’s 100 or so food stalls for the last two days due to his security requirements.
I fall asleep thinking of Loktak Lake where we are headed the next day. On the flight in, I’d caught a glimpse of its distinctive floating rings, called phumdis, surrounded by tracts of green fields. We leave early next morning, but get stuck at a village a short while later, where a group of women have blocked the road.
When you don’t understand a language, you pay more attention to facial expressions and body language. The crinkling of eyes, tilt of a chin, the stretch of laugh lines are revealing, and I rely on these cues to understand what is going on. Drivers and passengers from other vehicles mill about waiting for things to clear, but there is a tension in their limbs and in the furtive way in which they glance towards the agitating women. I learn that a young man from the village was abruptly picked up by the army the previous evening without any reason being assigned. The women refuse to clear the road until he is returned safely.
We take a dirt road around the village. People on the other side of the blockade have had the same idea and soon we’re stuck in an impasse on a single lane bound by tall hedges of lantana. It is the most fragrant traffic jam I’ve been in. We make it through and reach Keibul Lamjao National Park, the only refuge of Manipur’s state animal, the shy, dainty, and critically endangered sangai deer. The marshy grassland is located on the largest phumdis on Loktak Lake. We huddle in the gazebo that overlooks its expanse, scanning the tall grass for deer. Visitors are not allowed into the grassland, but can take a boat ride if they’re lucky and the boatman is around. He isn’t on the day I visit.
We leave the sanctuary and drive to the recreational end of the vast lake for a boat ride. There I learn that farmers fashion phumdis into the distinctive rings as an indigenous way of fish farming. Modern methods of fishing are easier so there are fewer rings now. We clamber on to the squishy surface of one. The thick, floating carpet sways with each step. Huge piles of weeds are stacked by the side of the lake to use as manure in nearby farms. Sanamani buys two bundles of mustard greens to take home; it’s some of the healthiest saag I’ve ever seen.
We drive to Moirang, headquarters of the Indian National Army during World War II, where the INA flag was hoisted for the first time in 1944. India’s WWII history is largely forgotten but in recent years Manipur has gained some recognition as the site of one of the most significant battles during the war. The INA Museum contains memorabilia from the time, including photographs and letters of Subhash Chandra Bose. More fascinating is the old house that was the actual headquarters. The dark interior is bare save for some old furniture. Thin shafts of sunlight filter through bullet holes in the tin roof. Suddenly all the artefacts in the museum come alive. Sadly, few visitors make their way here and the house itself may not be preserved for too long.
That crumbling remainder makes Manipur’s war history very real for me. As we drive down Tiddim Road, I see the hillsides in new light. Pitched battles were fought here. Oddly, there were Indians on both sides of the Battle of Imphal. British-led troops, consisting largely of Indian soldiers, repelled the Japanese who were aided by the Indian National Army. Arambam Angamba of the 2nd World War Imphal Campaign Foundation says war artefacts turn up with regular frequency. Sometimes he takes a metal detector along while leading tours to battle sites, and may find bullets or other objects making history real for the visitors.
I want to visit a battleground the next day but CorCom, an umbrella group for several insurgent groups in Manipur, has called a bandh to protest the PM’s visit. Instead we visit the Imphal War Cemetery. Nearly 1,600 Commonwealth soldiers, including the British, Indians, Australians, Canadians, and East Africans, are buried here. Many graves have messages from the soldiers’ families but I’m most moved by the unmarked ones that say “Known unto God.”
We saunter around the city exploring different by-lanes and neighbourhoods, although hardly a soul is out. At Muchi Khul, a west Imphal neighbourhood where members of the Kabui tribe live, we visit a restaurant run out of a home. Though Manipur is a dry state, tribal communities can brew traditional liquors. I sample the rice beer, which tastes nice but has a pungent smell. I prefer the lemon-yellow, fruity pineapple wine, which is perfect accompaniment for singju, a popular salad snack. It is an explosion of flavours with crunchy pea leaves, boiled chakhawai or rice bean, ngari, salt, and chillies. Once again, I’m astounded by how familiar foods take on a different form here. I’ve eaten peas my whole life but never imagined the leaves could be so delicious. It is the same with the next preparation, a filet of fish wrapped in a turmeric leaf and steamed. Nearly all the food cooked in my house has turmeric in it, but I’ve never eaten something so redolent with its aroma.
Keen to take some of these ingredients home, I head to Ima Keithel or Mothers’ Market, run entirely by women. Despite the bandh, a few have shown up eager to salvage some earnings. They reflect a mindset I’ve encountered often during the trip: A belief that Manipur, and Imphal in particular, is ready to move beyond the bandhs and concentrate on getting more jobs.
Even so, the market is a shadow of the bustling space I explored on my first day. I had spent two happy hours touching, smelling, and tasting my way down the crowded aisles. Each time I had spotted a new thing and asked the imas, they tried their best to offer an explanation. This time, I purchase turmeric leaves, hooker chives and roots, orange-coloured lemons, and kabok khoidam, a puffed-rice sweet with black sesame. When I buy chilli powder from an old lady, sitting regally amongst her kingdom of spices, she ladles in an extra spoonful and asks me to visit again.
There’s a lot more I’d like to take back, but much of it won’t survive the journey. What will is the way familiar foods found new depth and flavour. With these bagfuls of ingredients, I want to recreate that magic. Like the bright morning light that awoke me on my first morning here, they will remind me that this is travel at its best, giving fresh perspective to the familiar and known.
Imphal is the capital of Manipur, and located at the centre of this northeastern state. The state sits on India’s border with Myanmar. Keibul Lamjao National Park and Loktak Lake are 60 km/1.5 hr south of the capital. The town of Moirang is en route and close to the lake. The border town of Moreh is 114 km/2.5 hr southeast of Imphal, though actual travel time is determined by stops at check posts along the way.
BY AIR Imphal International Airport is well connected with New Delhi (multiple daily flights with halts in Kolkata or Guwahati), Kolkata (multiple daily direct flights), and Guwahati (multilple daily direct flights). The airport is 9 km/20 min from the city centre and taxis are easily available (₹500).
BY RAIL The nearest railway station is at Dimapur in neighbouring Nagaland (208 km/4.5 hours north). Buses to Imphal via Kohima are available though the journey can take 6 hr and the road is subject to frequent closures. Taxis cost ₹7,000; share taxis are available for ₹700 per seat.
BY ROAD Guwahati is 480 km/10 hr northwest of Imphal. Overnight buses take 12-14 hours (₹800 per head).
Manipur’s weather is generally pleasant. Winters (Nov-Feb) can get chilly, especially in Jan (4-10°C). The maximum temperature in summer (Mar-July) does not go over 32°C. It rains from May to October, with showers ranging from light drizzles to occasional heavy downpours.
The most convenient way to explore Imphal and its surrounding areas is to rent a taxi (₹3,500 per day; www.sevensistersholidays.com; 0385-2443977). For a fun way to explore Imphal’s neighbourhoods sign up for a walking tour (97743 86858; www.imphalwalks.com and on Facebook; duration 2.5-3 hours; ₹1,000 per head).
Opt for half-day or full-day tours of Manipur’s WW2 battlegrounds (www.battleofimphal.com; email@example.com for prices and availability). Arambam Angamba of 2nd World War Imphal Campaign Foundation also organises tours on request (9856434345; firstname.lastname@example.org). Plan a day-long foray across the border to Myanmar (9862028656; www.kbenterprise.co.in). For treks around Imphal contact the Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association (0385-2421142; mmtamanipur.com).
Kangla Fort is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (Nov-Feb) and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Oct-Mar); closed Sundays. Imphal War Cemetery and Imphal Indian Army War Cemetery are open 9 a.m.-4.30 p.m. (Mar-Sep) and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (Oct-Feb). The INA Memorial Complex at Moirang is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and closed on Mondays.
HOTEL CLASSIC is conveniently located next to Kangla Fort. Rooms are comfortable, service is good, and the food delicious (0385-2443967; theclassichotel.in; doubles from ₹2,750).
IMPHAL HOTEL is government-owned but is now being managed by The Classic, giving the grand structure a new lease on life (0385-2421373; www.hotelimphal.com; doubles from ₹3,450).
HOTEL NIRMALA is located close to Thangal Bazaar and offers a comfortable, no-frills, value-for-money stay (0385- 2458904; doubles from ₹1,938).
CLASSIC GRANDE Imphal’s newest hotel is located in the city centre and promises 4-star service and comforts (8131980420; classicgrande.com; doubles from ₹2,800).
Appeared in the July 2015 issue as “So Near And Yet So Far”. Updated in March 2016.
is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.
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