It had been pouring down in Kohima and I was trying to somehow get to Imphal! After having had my fill of rice wine during the Hornbill Festival near Kohima in Nagaland; I had to reach Imphal (in Manipur) because my flight was booked from Imphal airport. After standing in the rain for over 2 hours and waiting for a ride that never came, some army personnel told me that a bandh had been declared in Manipur and therefore it was going to be really difficult for me to find a ride to Imphal.
I was solo travelling in Northeast India in December and was loving my experiences; even though the infrastructural difficulties meant a lot of time was spent in moving from one place to another. When the clock neared noon, I put a limit of 1 pm in my own mind. The 1 pm limit meant if I couldn’t find a ride for Imphal; then I would just head back to find a homestay near Kohima and try afresh the next day.
I had decided to stop all MN numbered cars headed towards Manipur border and ask them for a ride. A kind samaritan had been the only person to give me a short 5 km ride to a conveniently placed bus stop towards Manipur; all the other yellow sumo taxis were either full or were not going to Imphal.
Mao town, the entry to Manipur from Nagaland – was hardly 15 kms away but I was totally uncertain about the stay and the safety situation there and therefore opted to say no when some yellow taxis indicated that they were heading to Mao. Like Shantaram says, ‘Luck is what happens to you when fate gets tired of waiting.’; once the rain slowed down to a drizzle a SUV stopped. There was no other way; as I was standing in the middle of the road whenever I saw a MN (Manipur) numbered vehicle.
It was full with Manipuri college kids returning after attending the Hornbill Festival. The SUV was full but they listened to my ordeal and indicated that their friends are coming in a Maruti Swift and they have one seat in the car. As they spoke, the Swift was right behind us and while the cool college kids communicated amongst themselves; I ran to pick my bag and the Swift guys indicated to me to get in! They said they were going all the way to Imphal and would be pleased to help an outsider explore their state. I was overjoyed!
What a cool bunch of kids; beer drinking; pot smoking and some really insane music! I can’t thank you enough, guys! The road from Kohima to Imphal has to be one of the worst in entire India. The landscape was surreal; clouds rose from the lush green fields as our car negotiated the way on a road that was more of potholes and less of a road. And to make things worse, the rain had created slush so bad that I remember seeing a truck that had overturned on the side of the road. So much so for naming this highway the Asian Highway 1 (AH1) as it connected directly to Moreh, Myanmar.
We had tasty lunch at a local eatery in a place called Maram Bazaar at around 3 pm. They had kept my eating preferences in mind and stopped at a Hindu Vegetarian Hotel. I somehow forced the kids to accept money for the lunch, and after some time they did. They were very happy to taste the rice wine that I was carrying with me and wondered how they had missed it at Hornbill Festival!
After that we crossed Senapati town and the landscape and valleys became even more greener and serene. Stunning sunset colours juxtaposed with the swaying rice fields of Manipur. In hindsight, I wish I had a few photographs from the road journey but alas when you are with strangers in an unknown land, you are wary of showcasing your dslr camera to the outside world. It was almost dark at around 430-5 pm and before reaching Imphal, we were supposed to make a stop at one of the boy’s homes in a town around 45 kms before Imphal.
I was the centre of attraction at the boy’s home. The mother and father were kind people from the Kuki tribe and conversed with me; mom gave me a cup of tea (Update : I am still in touch with them on Facebook!). Among the people who had given me the lift; their son was one of them and was supposed to go to USA to study. It was well past dark when we left from their home for Imphal. I was a little worried because I was breaking one of my rules of solo travel – by arriving in a place in the dark, and not knowing where I was going to stay.
Read : Top solo travel tips
A friend had told me about the Youth Hostel in Imphal; I could stay there for as little as 300 Rupees. Due to the terrible condition of the road; we were hardly clocking 20 kmph. As we neared Imphal, the roads widened and the surface had improved a lot too. Among all the cities that I’ve visited in the Northeast till now, Imphal has surely got the most developed and planned feel to it. Terraced fields of rice cultivation surrounded by the mountains welcomed me to Imphal; and I suddenly felt calmer.
I must say thanks to the kids again when they took me to an affordable hotel place once we had reached Imphal. Only that the hotel’s cheapest room was like 1200 Rupees. It had started raining again, and when I mentioned Youth Hostel near Khuman Lampak Stadium Road – the locals remarked that it was nearby and the kind college kids made sure they dropped me to the hostel. They also ensured that the watchman opened the hostel doors for me and that I was assured of a room to stay at the hostel. I thanked them profusely and bade goodbye.
I slept like a baby at the hostel; forgot about having dinner and directly woke up the next morning. It was nice and chilly due to the rains and the clean bed and blanket felt really comfortable. I met the super helpful manager of the hostel the next morning and he assisted me in how I should go about my day in Imphal. It was still drizzling and I was in no mood to tire myself out again.
A Brief History and Introduction to Imphal & Manipur
Manipur’s history dates back to 1500 BC (yeah, read that again!). Imphal is the capital city of Manipur, and was founded in the first century AD. Imphal is also one of the biggest cities in the Northeast.
Manipur literally translates to ‘jewelled land’. The entire state of Manipur is surrounded by hilly terrain and connects Southeast Asia with the Indian Subcontinent (Manipur borders Myanmar). The varied history of Manipur suggests that it was an important halt on the ancient trade route which resulted in a rich culture with outside influences.
Manipur is the birthplace of polo (Sagol Kangjei in Meitei), and Manang Kangjeibung (in Imphal) is arguably the world’s oldest polo ground where the game polo is still played. Meitei is the local language and tribe of Manipur.
Imphal is located at an altitude of 785m and its broad avenues give this ancient city a modern and open feel. The drive along the green valleys to reach Imphal is breathtaking.
Places to Visit in Imphal – Attractions of Imphal
Kangla Fort is the heart of Imphal, it was the ancient seat of power of the Kangleipak (Manipuri) Kingdom for an estimated 2,000 years. It is a huge complex that has been beautifully restored to its former glory. Kangla complex is situated in the heart of the city and is surrounded by a canal filled with water. I was lucky to capture a few portraits of a policeman and a Manipuri local near Kangla.
Inside the Kangla Fort Complex, one can find many old temples, colonial era cottages, and a few restored structures. The most prominent attraction inside Kangla Fort Complex are the two large ‘Kangla Sha’, the mythical dragons guarding the land. Among other fascinating sights was the newly built ‘Hijagang’ (Boat Yard), showcasing ancient Manipuri longboats decorated with dragon faces. There’s an interesting looking temple complex right at the beginning of Kangla Fort complex Compound.
Inside Kangla, there’s also a café made from bamboo where one can spend time gazing at the clouds on the horizon and tasting the local delicacies. I explored Kangla at my own leisurely pace and took around 4 hours to see the sights. It was a holiday (due to the bandh) and the museum inside Kangla was closed. One of my favourite moments in Imphal was the sight of impeccable reflections of the sky and trees in one of the water bodies inside Kangla.
Ima Keithel Market
Ima means mother in Meitei language and keithel means market. Ima Keithel can be translated to the mother’s market. More than 4000 women have set up shops making it the largest market of its kind in Asia, and possibly the entire world! I was almost lost in the lanes of this never ending market. Products on sale range from handicrafts to fish, from exotic fruits to lotus flowers, from the elegant dresses worn by Manipuri women to the religious offerings for the temple and the famous morok chilli.
Ima Keithel was a riot of colours, and understandably so. The all women’s market is said to have been there for over 400 years, battling against all odds; the British, negotiating with the government. The ima are dressed in the traditional dress of phaneks – sarong and innaphis – shawls with sandalwood marks on their forehead.
The Ima Keithel is also called the Khwairamband Bazar or the Nupi Keithel (women’s market). It is fun to experience the all women’s market over the noise of haggling shoppers and traffic; and watching the ima laugh with their stained teeth while chewing kwai (betelnut) is an ice-breaker!
One section inside the Ima Keithel is devoted to textiles – shawls and colourful fabrics including the traditional Meitei dress. Across the road, the other section of the market is located where local fish, vegetables, fruits, other perishables and provisions are sold in a constructed building. There are also a variety of handicrafts, including cane and bamboo products on display and sale. Prepare to haggle to crack a good deal.
The Ima Keithel Market was badly damaged in the 2016 earthquake but is being repaired and will shift to its original building soon.
Nupi Lal Memorial Complex
Nupi Lal is an unforgettable and important movement led by the women of Manipur (against British rule) which has carved out a niche in the history of the state. The memorial is located opposite to the alternate gate of Kangla Fort. It was the Nupi Lal Day (13th December) in Imphal when I was there and a huge celebration was organised. I went inside to see the museum and was really surprised to know the facts regarding the revolution.
Manipur State Museum
A must visit to get acquainted with the rich culture and varied past of Manipur. The Manipur State Museum is located on a parallel lane just behind Ima Keithel textile market and showcases tribal costumes, jewellery and weapons along-with displays of relics and historical documents. The museum also has a fabulous collection of portraits of Manipur’s former rulers.
Shaheed Minar is a long and towering monument dedicated to the martyrs of Manipur who fought against the British in the Anglo – Manipur war in 1891. It is located in Bir Tikendrajit Park which is adjacent to Ima Keithel. The entry gate is sometimes closed, but there is a watchman who can always open the entrance for visitors.
Shri Govindajee Temple
Shri Govindajee Temple is an abode of calm and is associated with Lord Krishna. This is where my day started in Imphal. I’d walked outside the Youth Hostel and immediately an auto guy had asked for only 40 Rupees to take me to Shri Govindajee Temple. It was drizzling, I was already hungry and the auto guy dropped me to a local eatery just outside Shri Govindajee Temple.
It is Imphal’s eminent Vaishnavite temple and is located close to the bazaar and has two golden domes. It was a cloudy day when I reached here and the entirely white structure presented a stunning effect. Shri Govindajee temple has a large prayer hall with a calming ambience; and is highly revered by all Manipuris.
The early morning puja is a must visit ceremony with conches blowing, drumming and procession, to get a grand taste of Manipuri culture. There’s also another small temple in the nearby lawns. Lotus flowers were being sold outside the temple and were very pretty and colourful.
Manipuri Thali at Luxmi Kitchen
A big part of local explorations is eating traditional food of the region; and the traditional Meitei Thali at Luxmi Kitchen does just that. The Meitei thali (Manipuri Thali) on offer here has a minimum of 10-12 dishes with different varieties of rice. The thali comprises of a variety of fish; but the vegetarians need not despair. There are bowls of different types of lentils, kangsoi (veg stew), green peas, maroi (green leafy veggies).
The taste is deliriously good. My favourite memories from the lunch were – Gooseberry juice in a bowl, and the unbelievable purple black rice with a sweet aftertaste. And the best news is that all this comes with refills for only Rs. 150 per person! I was lucky to have a local sitting in front of me and the kind lady explained to me about the different dishes that I was eating!
Imphal War Cemetery
Imphal was immortalized in World War History because of The Battle of Imphal between the British and the Japanese that was a turning point in World War II. Also, Tulihal (the airstrip) that serves as the current airport also played a big role in the War.
The Imphal War Cemetery contains the graves of soldiers from many countries who fought and died for the British during World War II. It is beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and is housed in a tranquil garden. According to CWGC, there are 1462 graves in total in Imphal War Cemetery.
Indian Army War Cemetery
There’s a separate Indian Army War Cemetery located in a different area in Imphal which contains the graves of Indian soldiers who died in World War II. It was not easy at all to find the Indian Army War Cemetery and at first I was just roaming around in circles across the streets of Imphal.
A knowledgeable gentleman had pointed the directions to this cemetery which was located in a far corner of an area occupied by what appeared to be Bangladeshi immigrants (correct me if I’m wrong). It was a dense colony and most of them did not know about the existence of a cemetery in their colony.
The Indian Army War Cemetery is maintained well and is in a green park. It is the final resting place for about 860 Indian soldiers who fought for the British Army during World War II. Their names are inscribed on a monument inside the cemetery. All in all, it is a nice and peaceful place to go during the second half of the day.
Best way to explore Imphal
Imphal’s streets are easy to navigate and all the above attractions lie less than 5 kilometres away from each other. Autorickshaws are easily accessible and a private tour in a taxi for the entire day in Imphal would cost around 1000 Rupees. It is recommended to start the day early as the sunsets in the northeast happen earlier than in other parts of India. Shared autos also ply throughout Imphal.
Later in the night, a group of Israelis made their way to the Youth Hostel. I was thoroughly impressed with the fact that they had found their way to this cheap hostel when travelling Indians did not even know about it. After a few more explorations the next day, I made my way to Loktak Lake near Moirang.