In the picturesque hilly town of Ukhrul, situated at 83 kms from the capital of Manipur, Imphal on NH 150, over 30,000 people gathered together to celebrate the Shirui Lily Festival, spread across three major venues of Shirui Village, (the native habitat of the state flower of Manipur Shirui Lily), Tankgul Naga Long Ground and Bakshi Ground between 16th to 19th October 2019.
Research has established the cause of the decline of Shirui Lily, the state flower of Manipur (in north-east India) to be climate change, environmental degradation, irresponsible tourists and overexploitation, and incorrect conservation approaches, like forest fire, coupled with the invasion of the habitat of Shirui Lily by a dwarf bamboo species ‘Machun’.
Shirui Lily Festival is organised every year to celebrate the unique flower that grows only in Ukhrul and nowhere else in the world. It has transitioned into an opportunity to unite efforts to save the Shirui Lily from extinction. The festival draws foreign and domestic tourists, environment enthusiasts, research scholars, journalists and photographers to Ukhrul; opening the window into the lives of the indigenous people of Ukhrul – the Tangkhuls. It also fosters brotherhood between people from different communities, who travel to participate in this four-day-long annual mega event.
One of the most appealing things about Ukhrul is the flowers, both wild and cultivated (in addition to Shirui Lily), that spot the entire district, covering the sides of the village streets, compounds of homes and habitations, hillocks and even farms. The tropical forest is rich in flora and fauna, with varieties of trees, flowering plants, orchids of enumerable hues and kinds and epiphytic ferns.
This is a place where Christianity is 119 years old and many churches can be seen in the town; some new some are so old, that they are not used anymore and stand delipidated, a testimony of how long Christianity has been practised here.
An important landmark in the town is William Pettigrew Memorial Stone, near Savio School, at Awungtang, dedicated to the British Christian Missionary, who came to India in 1890 and introduced not just Christianity, but western education in Ukhrul. Village elders still talk about how the missionary persuaded the village headmen and elders of the community first to go to school, and access education, at a time, when the importance of education was not known; and then, others followed.
The people are friendly and hospitable, English-speaking and possess high standards of cleanliness when it comes to maintaining their homes and villages. Women and girls play a big role in driving the economy, and many of them can be seen running their own shops and businesses. Women in the community work very hard, looking after homes, then tending to farms, and selling their agricultural produce, along the road or in small village markets.
The pattern of settlement is another attraction of Ukhrul; the style of building homes using solid wood and tin for roofing, along with the adornment with flowers are interesting and akin to summer houses in Switzerland in Surselva, the Prättigau and Davos, and Maienfeld; which is where the Alp cabins, described as Heidi, in Swiss novels are found. While modern homes bear noticeable influence from western culture, the homes in the villages are rather big households like many houses within one.
A Tangkhul household has a main house for living, a large out-house the kitchen that carries several earthen or modern stoves for cooking and where pickling, drying, smoking of meat and fish is done and the family entertains visitors, a smaller open house for storing the firewood, baskets and farming implements, an additional out-house for storing dried vegetables or granary. The entrance of the village is marked by a grand gate characteristic of most tribal communities in the northeastern region of India.
There are several nice places for comfortable and budget lodging like Shalom Lodge, Kopa Lodge, 3 in 1 Hotel, Ngashan Inn and 25 Degree North to name a few. Many home-stays are mushrooming in Ukhrul which is meant for tourists who are keen to taste the local culture and way of life. To try local delicacies in pork, beef, chicken, fish and other meat a visit to Gracias Restaurant at Phangrei village in Lunghar and Undercroft in Zimik Plaza in the main town area are highly recommended.
Shirui Lily Festival, the mega cultural bonanza, was an intricate weave of myriad cultural dances, folk songs and performances from the region.It’s the perfect platform for local musicians, artists and rock bands, from the eight north-eastern states, to perform and compete, bringing great entertainment to the people of Ukhrul.
It also included performances of internationally acclaimed rock bands, ‘Extreme and Nazareth’, a beauty pageant with a difference, outdoor adventure sports, and indigenous games, besides indulging the taste buds of tourists, with exquisite local food and beverages, while showcasing indigenous handloom, handicraft, agricultural and horticulture products.
The sculpture ‘Strength of Unity’ was unveiled during the opening ceremony in Shirui Village, where the Shirui Lily, the state bird ‘Nongin’ and state tree ‘Uningthou’ or Phoebe hainesiana are all found.
Bamboo poles carrying tiny lamps lined the roads, from the main venue of the festival, all the way to the main town. It must have some ritualistic significance.
Cultural dances and performances from different communities of Manipur included Ramva folk dance, Bamboo dance from Churchandpur, Maibi dance by JNMDA, Mao Dance, Anal dance, Tangkhul dance from Kamjong, andMaring war dance.
Local singers and musicians entertained tourists and the audience among them were Ammik, Bobby Cash, Yung Yung, Yursari Ngalung, Theithei Luithui, A.S Weapon, Dianah Wungsek, Oshim S. Shinmi, Seoikhor, Sorin Raikhan, Nimshimphi Muivah, Chonchon Varah, Shimreingam Horam, Generation squad, Khullang Eshei by Pakasana & Party. Comedians Pakmi Mahong, Soreila, Kapangsing Sinakeithel and Chinaochung also performed.
Popular Manipuri film playback singer, and actor, Sadananda, performed during the opening ceremony of Shirui Lily Festival. From the way the audience responded, it appears he is a heartthrob in the hills as much as he is in the valley.
A special night was organised in the village where popular Manipuri singers and actors performed and entertained people. A football match was played between Mami Thawan comprising of Manipuri cine stars and Ukhrul United Football Club, (UUFC) at Shirui village public ground, where the latter defeated Mami Thawan by 03-01. Ukhrul is home to many ace footballers, like late Aleng Shimray, late M. Kazipmi, Bob Khathing Ralengnao, Somatai Shaiza, Wungngayam Muirang, Rungsing Muinao and Hormipam Ruivah.
“Love you Manipur. Thank you for inviting us to play in a festival where people of Manipur are trying to save a flower (Shirui Lily). We think that’s beautiful.”
– American rock band Extreme’s opening message to excited fans in ShiRock 2019
Pouring rain and a thunderstorm did not deter 30,000 rock music lovers, who turned up, in spite of the slush in the Bakshi ground, where even walking around got difficult; just to be able to watch Scottish rock band Nazareth and Extreme from the USA perform in Ukhrul.
The euphoria generated by these international rock bands was unimaginable. People came armed for the weather in rain boots and jackets. In fact, rain boots sell like hot cakes in Ukhrul every year during ShiRock and its difficult to find one for yourself in the local market.
ShiRock also gave a platform for as many as 21 rock bands, from eight North-Eastern states to perform and compete for the best vocalist and best rock band category, where ‘Nightmares’ from Sikkim walked away with the 1st Prize and cash award of Rs 10 lakhs. ‘Sword Tune’ of Mizoram and ‘Paper Sky’ from Nagaland won the 2nd Prize and shared the 5 lakhs cash award and ‘High Volt’ from Manipur landed the 3rd Prize of Rs. 2.5 lakhs.
Pentocrator, Larger Than 90 and Lynx from Meghalaya, Vibran 4 from Assam, Chasing Proxima, Innocent Eyes, Oking Band, Pariahs of Paradise, Echoes of Mercy, The Melophile,Crucifers, Call of The Earth, High Volt from Manipur, Silver City, Nightmares from Sikkim, Paper Sky, The Paradigm Shift, Fifth Note from Nagaland, Sword Tune, Origami from Mizoram, Nephele, Arsenic from Assam, were the rock bands that participated in ShiRock Band Competition. Meanwhile, the region’s seasoned musicians like Lou Majaw and Uday Benegal were part of the event as judges.
Asherie Haokip from Imphal East won the voice- solo hunt winner individual prize, the second prize was shared between Dziipani Athiisi from Senapati and N. Sanjeev from Imphal West and Pemmichon Rumthao from Ukhrul won the third prize.
Chanchui Khayi, an 18- year old Tangkhul girl and a BA first-year student won Miss Lily 2019, a beauty pageant with a difference aimed to raise important social issues that plague our society. Rongmei girl Gaisinglungliu A. Pamei, a graduate from Bangalore University bagged Miss Humility 2019 sub-title extraordinaire from among the 18 contestants from different parts of Manipur.
Outdoor adventures like paragliding, mountain trekking, mountain biking were organised at Jorcheng during the festival. The 3rd Shirui Lily Mountain Bike Downhill Race Championship had different categories, like the Seeding Run (Hardtail & Full Suspension), Final Run (Hardtail) and Final Run (Full Suspension) with 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes of 40,000 Rs, 25,000 Rs and 15,000 Rs. for Full Suspension category and 20,000 Rs, 10,000 Rs and 5000 Rs for Hard Tail category.
Tug of war, bamboo pole climbing, pork eating competition, and others were organised in Shirui village, where local inhabitants, tourists and invitees participated with good spirits. Themshok Ronkui, Thotthang Wungleng and Paothing Wungkhai won the 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize in pork eating competition.
The merchandise produced by individuals and community in the Northeast experiences a unique barrier of effective marketing, sales and export, because even within the district, transportation and communication are challenges and inter-state is yet another story.
The handloom, handicraft, food items and beverages are of high quality, unique and reflective of the natural resources and local talent, but sadly, they are circulating only locally and not going beyond the region.
Festivals like Shirui Lily boosts the market for these products from the community and brings income into tribal households. Ningthingla Ruivahao who is the founder of Action of Women in Development, an NGO working in food security, food processing and rights and entitlement in Ukhrul talks about why the festival is important to them.
“People come to know about our organisation and the things we make through our stall in Shirui Lily Festival; otherwise Ukhrul can be a very isolated place and information difficult to disperse. Also, we do not have an outlet so through this stall we are able to sell our products.”
Several open restaurants were functional in the forests during the festival, where the table was a pack of roughly-cut irregular logs, assembled with a bamboo string, the seat three poles of a tree branch and food was prepared outside in the forest, right under the trees over a makeshift stove. The unique experience offered was that of cooking, eating in the jungle and enjoying nature.
Something that you cannot afford to miss in Ukhrul is the black pottery from Lungpi village. These utensils have become a hallmark of Ukhrul and Manipur across India, for their non-stick property and rustic beauty. Ukhrul is also known for its flea markets; some of the best being in Wino market, Viewland market, Hamleikhong market and Phungreitang market. Leather handbags, boots, lace curtains, jeans, jackets, pullovers, socks, blankets are some of the items which are worth picking up from here.
Many festivals are celebrated by the different communities in Manipur; some of the most common being Gang-Ngai, Lui-Ngai-Ni, Yaoshang, Cheiraoba, Heikru Hitongba, Ningol Chak-kouba, Kut, Ramjan Eid, Chumpha and Christmas. Manipur Tourism has developed a series of state festivals, with an aim to promote the culture and history of the state. Shirui Lily Festival is one such festival, along with Manipur Sangai Festival which concluded a few months ago in Imphal.
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The writer is an award-winning print journalist and World Pulse Voices of Our Future alumni. This article was published in newspapers based in Manipur, India namely The People’s Chronicle, The Morning Bell and The Gaanphiu Mail.