Sunday, 2 March 2014

At the Cultural Crossroads 1: Manipur

28 February 2014
One of the pros of working at a donor organisation having outreach all across the country, is that you get to travel to so many new areas that are prove exciting if you are open enough for any experience that comes forth. As I sit at the airport recalling everything about this third most memorable trip of mine till date, I try to analyse why. Beautiful nature in bounty, openly hospitable people, cleanliness, professional services were found to be common all across central parts of Ghana, Kashmir and now Manipur. Extents of these differ from one location to the other, which is why they are unique. I would tell this to anybody who comes to me for an advice, which I know that nobody would, that this combination can make a killer tourism destination.
My real experience of visiting Manipur for this short trip started with flight from Guwahati to Imphal, where the old man who was sitting on the window seat in the row next to me started to give me information in his Manipuri language once the flight crossed over the vast expanse of beautiful fog covered hill tops of Nagaland and started flying low over the hills of Manipur. I understood very little but he must have sensed my excitement and continued incessantly. He was probably talking about the towns that were visible below, flooded paddy fields, floating bed vegetable cultivation in Loktak Lake, barrages on rivers and wide spread of Imphal city. As I clicked the photograph of the shadow of the aeroplane that was cast over the fields below, he started laughing like a child.

Aerial view of floating bed cultivation of vegetables in a lake near Imphal
 Once on the ground, I was in the hands of my host organisation Youth Volunteers Union, sometimes known by its acronym YVU. For two consecutive days it was great to be with this highly motivated social leader and entrepreneur Mr. Tikendrajit Singh, who heads this organisation. His team on the ground is very active. Their social connect in the villages is very strong and their social enterprises of microfinance and the dairy producer company are being run very professionally. He and his team were very good hosts and they took me around the market, fed me local Manipuri food and improved my knowledge abour Manipur.
While these days, tensions between “mainland Indians” and north easterners are rising continuously, it has to be specially mentioned here that during the 1970’s, Tikendrajit’s father had done intensive promotion of Hindi in the area. He had also received President’s award for the best teacher. Unlike most of the other Manipuris, he and his foreign educated son can speak Hindi more fluently than a “mainland Indian” like me. While I visited villages and tried to interact with the villagers through the team of YVU, I started to sense the kind of distrust that is there with the rest of India.
We visited mainly the villages in the plains of Manipur, which are predominantly inhabited by the Meitei people who also form the ethnic majority in the state. Meiteis practice a combination of Vaishnavite Hinduism introduced in the region in about 1700‘s and their ancient local religious belief systems. There have elaborate local festivals and their calendar is similar to the one followed by Bengali Hindus. Meitei villages are formed of small habitations generally situated on some slightly higher elevation than the rest of the area which gets flooded by the rivers and rivulets that bring the water from the hill regions of Manipur. The flooded plains are usually the site for rice paddies with some wetlands in the lower most parts of the region. In spite of the very low annual rainfall, plains of Manipur have very rich traditional agricultural systems developed by these hard working communities of Meiteis.
A typical Meitei homestead has a large number of well developed economic activities. They cultivate vegetables in their kitchen gardens, they rear fish in the small ponds around it and they rear ducks and chicken. Some houses also keep pigs and dairy animals. The paddy and field crops like mustard are grown in the fields. While men work in the fields and production activities, women in addition to helping men in these also do weaving and go out in the market for sale of the produce from their homesteads. Most of the local trade is run by the women whom they locally call Ima. 
A typical Meitei homestead

A Manipuri rural woman
 The rich agricultural biodiversity is also available in the local trade. When I took a round in the vegetable markets of Thoubal and Imphal, these industrious Imas were selling products ranging from dry fish to beans to mushrooms to locally made Laddoos. Of course a meal in the local restaurants run by an Ima is also such a biodiversified and highly palatable experience where you eat slightly sticky local rice with things such as fiery banana stem pith curry, spicy chicken curry added with Vietnamese coriander, boiled local mustard greens, chana dal dashed with some unidentifiable local green leafy vegetable. All of this was at a price of just Rs.60 per meal.
While all this looks good and sounds fine, people are not completely happy about their condition. While I was speaking with them about interesting geographical similarities between Kashmir and Manipur valleys, Mr. Tikendrajit also reminded me that there is also a similarity in terms of having continuous insurgency situations, ethnic conflicts and the overall apathy of the central government and mainland people. Manipur is seeing an unending fight between two hill communities viz, Nagas and Kukis. There is a separatist movement going on in Manipur. There are bandhs declared by some or the other factions and fighting groups every, now and then. Presence of military forces is rampant in almost all the major roads. The city of Imphal just closes down once it becomes dark and it is not at all safe to roam around in the city afterwards. This is getting compounded by racial discriminations of the Manipuris and other people from the North East when they visit other places in India. It is not just the question of people from the mainland calling them “Chinky” but the major unsolved problem of overall integration of that region in the country.