Manipur, stretching along the border with Burma, centres on a vast lowland area watered by the lake system south of its capital Imphal. This far corner is home to the Meithei, who despite their own fascinating version of Vaishnava Hinduism, remain resolutely independent in their thinking. With its myriad tribes, including Naga, Manipur feels closer to Southeast Asia than mainstream India and many locals speak neither English nor Hindi. Manipur’s matriarchal society means that women do most of the work and also champion political causes, with well-publicized protests against the violation of women and the people of Manipur, by paramilitary groups stationed in the state. The strength of Manipuri women is no better exemplified than by the universal popularity and success of the inspiring boxer and five-times World Champion and Olympic medallist, Mary Kom.
Although the vale of Imphal is now all but devoid of trees, the outlying hills are still forested and shelter exotic birds and animals like the spotted linshang, Blyth’s tragopan and even the clouded leopard, as well as numerous varieties of orchid. The unique natural habitat of Loktak Lake is home to the sangai deer – the dancing deer of the reed beds and a symbol of Manipur.
Manipur’s history can be traced back to the founding of Imphal in the first century AD. After long periods of independent and stable government, the state was incorporated into India at the end of the Indo-Burmese war in 1826, before coming under British rule in 1891. During World War II, much of Manipur was occupied by the Japanese, with 250,000 British and Indian troops trapped under siege in Imphal for three months. Thanks to a massive RAF air-lift from Agartala, they held out, and when Japanese troops received the order to end the Imphal campaign, it was in effect the end of the campaign to conquer India. Manipur became a fully fledged Indian state in 1972.