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 – and you can indeed cross into Myanmar from here – 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 – a symbol of Manipur.
Manipur has been racked by waves of violence through insurgency, drug- and arms- trafficking across the Burmese border, and brutal factional conflict. Some governments, including that of the UK, still advise against all but essential travel to the state (see gov. uk/foreign-travel-advice); but at the time of writing, the situation has greatly improved and travel to the vale of Imphal is generally safe. You can arrive by air or by road from Kohima and Dimapur without a permit, but your passport will be registered and stamped upon arrival at the airport or at road checkpoints. It is recommended you seek the advice of a local tour operator, and a local guide, if heading into the hills and border regions.
Encircled by distant hills, Manipur’s capital, Imphal (785m), lies at the northern end of the lake district and sprawls around the extensive grounds of what was once the medieval fortress of Kangla. Closed to the public for years due to it being a paramilitary camp, the large park behind the boulevard of Kanglawat holds some remains of the old fort, taken by the British following the war of 1891. The Polo Ground adjacent to Kangla plays an important role in Manipuri tradition; according to popular legend, the Manipuri game of Sagol Kangjei is the inspiration for modern polo, and every November the Sangai Festival features an international polo tournament.
Close to the main gates of Kangla, the Shaheed Minar memorial commemorates the failed Meithei revolt against British occupation in 1891, while a short distance south is the State Museum, a showcase for Manipuri culture with tribal art and costumes and a historical collection, along with stuffed animals.
South of Imphal, Lotak Lake is home to a unique community of fishermen who live on circular floating atolls of matted vegetation, called phumdis. Much of the lake is taken up by the Keibul Lamjao National Park, a floating park located on the largest phumdis, home to the endemic and endangered sangai deer that live on the reed beds. Avoid the hill at Sendra, which is now a paramilitary camp surrounded by litter. You can drive up to Sendra Island and get a boat to the national park and the phumdis. The park has a viewing tower on a hill with views down to the reed beds; it is a good 1.5km past the gate. You will need binoculars and lots of patience to catch sight of any wildlife.
Top image: Loktak Lake landscape in Imphal, Manipur, North East India © Shikha a/Shutterstock