This extravaganza of cultural events puts Imphal on the world tourist map.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing where Imphal is but as the capital of the State of Manipur in the extreme northeast of India, its Sangai Festival in November each year creates one of the most colourful combinations of events and festivities that we’ve found anywhere on our travels.
Staged from 21st-30th November this year, the Sangai festival (named after the brown bow-antlered deer found only in this State) is home to numerous cultural and sporting events that reflect the heritage, not only of Manipur but also the neighbouring States of Tripura, Nagaland, Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
We divided our time between several pursuits, enjoying a great cross-section of experiences within the festival that include various sports such as foot hockey, wrestling, the indigenous ‘thang-ta’ and polo; plus rock shows, fashion shows – and Macbeth! Here we show just a few of the events that we attended.
The traditional boat race – Hiyang-HirenTanaba
This colourful extravaganza makes our own Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race look positively drab, if the ostentatious costumes and fun to be had are anything to go by.
Staged on the moat of the old royal Kangla Palace, two brightly painted ‘dugouts’ holding a dozen men and a local film star helming each in the bow, set off down a straight course of about a mile and back.
The navigation looked a little haphazard but this didn’t dampen the friendly rivalry between the boats, nor in the ladies race that followed.
Cherrie was invited onto the podium with local, State and National dignitaries while I contented myself with taking photos of the competitors and the group of beautiful girls in national costume who were there to bestow gifts and garlands on the teams and dignitaries.
We attended just one match of this truly international event that included teams from India, England, U.S.A. , Australia, Kenya and the home Manipur, who eventually won the tournament. We went along to cheer the England Team against India-A and our presence obviously made a difference with England triumphing 6-2.
The modern game of polo actually originates from Manipur, where the game became known from the anglicised form of ‘Pulu’, (the wooden ball), which was subsequently adopted by the sport.
Imphal Polo Ground is the oldest polo ground in the world, the history of which is contained in the royal chronicle ‘Cheitharol Kumbaba’ starting in AD 33. Major General Joseph Ford Sherer, the father of modern polo, visited the state and played here in the 1850s.
All the teams played on Manipuri ponies, for which the International aims to increase awareness for this tremendously tough indigenous breed. We couldn’t at first believe their size, being in proportion to a normal polo pony but so much smaller; typically standing between 11-13 hands, which made our team look like giants. Manipuri ponies are now struggling for survival against decreasing natural habitats, due to rapid urbanisation, with numbers as low as only 400 ponies.
This, for us, somewhat incongruous addition to the festivities nevertheless provided a colourful spectacle in the Shrine Theatre in Imphal.
The adaption of Shakespeare’s play by well-known Indian Director Ratan Thiyam left us a little lost at times – especially as, quite understandably, there wasn’t a word of English in it but the overall effect was really engaging with historic costumes on an otherwise completely bare stage.
It certainly helps if you’ve got a rudimentary knowledge of the original Macbeth as the scenes are then easier to recognise and follow.
It struck us as a little odd and extremely discourteous that an audience member with us in the front row seemed quite happy to hold a conversation on his mobile phone, whilst the principal actor delivered his monologue not ten feet away. I’d have used my sword to impale him – but that’s the beauty of different cultures!
Tribal and Traditional Dance Festival
This was truly spectacular. We’ve endured many a tribal dance, delivered half-heartedly and staged especially for visiting tourists, but the Sangai event was a kaleidoscope of colour and sound that left us mesmerised by its variety, colour, rhythm and vibrancy.
With some twenty or so different dance troupes filling the huge stage, each performed an individual routine that lasted a few minutes before seamlessly giving way to the next troupe – so there was never a hiatus, a moment without music or dance for over an hour, before all the troupes came together for a superb finale – overall a truly wonderful experience staged by each of the various States and their indigenous tribal groups, each wearing their ceremonial costumes – fantastic.
Adjacent to the dance amphitheatre was a huge festival arena complete with every local foodstuff known to mankind and areas dedicated to traditional crafts and specially constructed tribal dwellings that exhibited the individual tribal styles from each area and State. Elsewhere you can enjoy kayaking, climbing, water sports and paragliding during the festival that showcases the diverse attractions of the State.
You might best choose Imphal – and Manipur itself – as part of a multi-state tour of the northeast and it should certainly be on your radar for this ten-day cultural festival extravaganza that will take some beating anywhere on earth.
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