Today was the midpoint of my 120 day All-India journey. I have covered 15 State Capitals and 7 Railway HQs in nearly 11,000 km thus far. The visit to Imphal has been the most challenging in so far as the route planning is concerned. My efforts to travel to Imphal using the NH 150A, 150B and 53 went waste due to road conditions. The only alternative left was to use the NH 39 from Kohima. I left the Circuit House in Kohima at 5.30 am and passed Mao, the border town of Manipur in an hour. En route are monuments that bring home the intensity of the WWII battles on the Kohima-Imphal sector. I was apprehensive about the trip as newspapers carried all sorts of negative news about the happenings in Manipur – extortion, kidnapping, execution by the Underground rebels, etc. From the border town, it is 107 kms to Imphal. While I was warned that I would encounter awful roads I made the trip in less than 4 hours. And finally when I reached Imphal it felt like a ‘Himalayan’ conquest. As a capital city, Imphal will disappoint – the streets are being dug up for installing civic amenities and the narrow lanes are dirty. Another feature of the city is that the Fuel Stations are perennially closed. The ‘Fuel Cartel’ hawks petrol and diesel at double the normal rate, blatantly in front of the fuel stations. If you need uninterrupted power supply you have to tap into the ‘VIP Line’, which is acquired through ‘contacts’. Contracts have to be ‘purchased’ from those who control them, by paying a premium. People in respectable jobs and positions are constantly harassed for ‘protection money’ – I am told that even the Police department contributes to the UG coffers; 6 priests were shot dead for not acceding to the demands of various factions. There are numerous UG factions and their numbers keep increasing almost on a weekly basis. The rule of law and civil society seem to have deserted this State, which has resulted in large migration of Manipuris to different parts of the country. Yet, life goes on here, in Imphal; such is the resilience of the human race.
I decided to visit the local sites in Imphal today, starting with the Catholic Cathedral. As in Kohima, the St Joseph’s Cathedral in Imphal is the most imposing structure in the city. I found the parish priest, Fr Joseph, washing the ‘Stations of the Cross’ and took his permission to pray in the Church for a while. Fr Joseph, who hails from Vaikom in Kerala, has been in Manipur for the past 42 years. I also met His Grace, Rev Fr. Joseph Mattithany, who was the first Bishop of Imphal and has been in the NE for close to 6 decades. He now leads a retired life, away from his home town of Kuravilangad in Kerala, but his eyes light up when he speaks of his experiences in the service of the Lord. He was the main force behind the building of the imposing Cathedral, mobilizing funds and finalizing the plans. I left them with a promise to return for a cup of tea tomorrow.
The Imphal War Cemetery was next. It is a smaller version of the one in Kohima, is laid out in much the same manner and has the graves of over 1600 soldiers. The Kanglapat, which was the seat of power of the Manipuri kings for nearly 2000 years till 1891, is a huge sprawling area. Till a few years back the area was under the control of the Assam Rifles; they were forced to retreat from the place due to the ‘Manorama Devi episode’ and the naked protests by Manipuri women following that. The Kangla is a mythical animal and is the State symbol. There is a Meithei temple (the reigning deity is Iboudhou Pakhangba, who is supposed to have founded the kingdom, and his consort; there are no idols in the temple), a helipad and a huge ground for public functions in the immediate vicinity of the Kangla Memorial. The Govindajee Temple has a marble slab with the footprints of Krishna. Just outside the sanctum sanctorum are two bells cast in 1936 in England. Adjacent to the temple is the Royal Palace, which is not open to visitors and is the living quarter of the present incumbent.
The Nupee Lal Memorial is testimony to the history of women power in Manipur. The ‘princely state’ was self-sufficient in grain production prior to Independence. When traders tried to exploit the situation and export grain from Manipur, which led to shortage within the State, the women banded together under the leadership of three of their brave colleagues, and protested against the British on the 12th of December 1939. The Shaheed Minar was constructed in memory of the King and the General of Manipur, who were hanged at this place (which was the evening market at the time) in 1891 after the defeat of Manipur by the British, in the presence of 8000 white-clothed Manipuri women to belittle their pride and subjugate them. The General’s loud laugh, in defiance of the British, just before he was hanged resonates at the memorial.
The Meitei or the Ima market is a bustling women-run market that sells handlooms, vegetables, fruits, groceries, fish (both fresh and dried), etc. Recently the new market building was inaugurated by the Congress President. The Paona Bazar or the ‘Morey Market’ is where you go to buy ‘branded’ footwear, imported blankets, mosquito nets, jackets, electrical and electronic items and the like. A pair of Nike Air trainers can be bought for a handsome Rs. 450 and I dare anyone to make out the difference! I visited the Sangai winter festival, which began on 21st November and will close on the 30th. The festival ground has stalls from all regions of Manipur displaying local wares. The centerpiece of the festival is the display of local art and culture. I was fortunate to see a demonstration of Pung Chalom, an ensemble of artists playing mridangam like instruments with physically exhausting, synchronized dancing.
KB Singh is a college mate and fellow hosteller from the salad days in Loyola College. I had not met him in 30 years and he now resides in Imphal. We decided to catch up in the evening. By the time we decided to call it a day we had gone through a whole range of subjects starting with college friends and ending with an open discussion on the present day Manipur; news about the family and future plans interspersed the lively conversation. He also took me to a friend’s house to sample a local brew called Mechin. Bodh, who is the Director of a Central institute (DOEACC), was a most gracious host. We had a few rounds of the colorless, odorless first distillate of rice, fetched from the Sekmai market. During the visit I also got to see up close the pitfalls faced by people in position from the UG elements.