The Sangai festival in Manipur’s southern borderland and the rise of Behiang

Behiang, a remote village along the international border with Myanmar in the state’s Churachandpur district, was declared the “second corridor to Southeast Asia” on December 20, 2017, by...

Behiang, a remote village along the international border with Myanmar in the state’s Churachandpur district, was declared the “second corridor to Southeast Asia” on December 20, 2017, by Chief Minister N Biren Singh. As a natural disaster-prone region, Biren Singh emphasized that Manipur needed to find alternative routes to connect with Southeast Asian countries.

In response to his remarks and recognition of the location’s strategic importance, the state government has extended this year’s Sangai festival to the hill district of Churachandpur. Sangai festival 2022 will take place in the Geljang resort located at Khuga and Behiang village in Churachandpur District, in addition to the state Capital.

The Festival’s inaugural event will be held on November 22 at the border village Behiang, followed by the main events on November 24 – 26 at Khuga.

The Behiang borderland, with a population of roughly 1000 people, is believed to have a massive potential for the trade of betel nuts, cigarettes, food items, and other commodities in daily use. The government is keenly pushing for developing this border route along with Moreh in the Tengnoupal district of Manipur. The border post in Moreh forms the mainstay of trade and commerce with Southeast Asian nations. Commodities such as cement, medicines, packaged food items, cosmetics, fertilizer, and second-hand motor parts move from India to Myanmar. This route also exports electronic goods, clothing, chinaware, pottery, cosmetics, and edible items such as sunflower seeds and tinned fish from Namphalong Market to India.

Significance of Sangai festival
To put Manipur, also known as “the land of jewels,” on the world tourism map, the Manipur tourism department hosts the Sangai festival each year from November 21 to 30. From being called the ‘Tourism Festival,’ the event has been renamed as the Sangai festival since 2010, essentially to emphasize the uniqueness of the shy and gentle brow-antlered deer known as the Sangai, a regional name given to this rare species of deer that is Manipur’s state animal.

For locals of Churachandpur, the coming of the Festival to their locale brings hope of being better to connect to the outside world. At the same time, it also “provides people from outside and from other parts of Manipur the chance to experience something different,” opines Mawi, a young scholar from Lamka. Like many others, she feels the stories that abound in Churachandpur. She encapsulates its scenic beauty from lakes to lush green hills and rugged streams, which could make the visitors think of “an elevation in nature and its greenery,” which is missing in many cities and towns struggling with the everyday madness of traffic, noise, and pollution.

The organisers are doing their bit to promote tourist attractions, such as resorts around the picturesque Khuga Lake, eateries, recreation parks, etc. Activities such as cultural shows, music concerts, live football world cup screenings, food, handicraft stalls, motorcycle rally, hiking/trekking, etc., are all set to revitalize the visitors and add zing to the Festival.

As part of promoting Manipur as a world-class tourism destination, the Festival highlights the state’s contributions to art and culture, handloom, handicrafts, fine arts, indigenous sports, cuisine, music, and adventure sports as the natural environment. The Festival allows artisans and weavers to display their creativity and talent through indigenous handicrafts and handlooms. Local residents will demonstrate their skills in indigenous sports such as Thang Ta (a combination of spear and sword skills) and other sports.

“Festivals, on whatever scale they operate, assist communities in their efforts to maintain and renew themselves through the celebration of culture,” says Sesei, a chief in one of the villages along the Khuga. He goes on to say, “Indigenous festivals are forerunners in the development of a long-term, secure, and mature national culture for cross-cultural recognition, respect, exchange, and creativity.
One such Indigenous Festival that promotes Indigenous arts, crafts, and culture is the Sangai Festival.”

Cultural festivals are one of the few consistent positive spaces for indigenous communities across generations to forge and assert a more constructive view of themselves as part of their drive for respect as distinct cultures in larger national and international communities. This inclusive move by the state government will bridge the hill-valley divide and promote cultural, economic, and social integration.

The festival is expected to provide a unique opportunity to negotiate intercultural accommodations in southern Manipur and have the potential to strengthen the social and economic fabric of the community and state. Cultural production and land management continue to be the most promising areas for increasing community participation in the social and economic mainstream, providing benefits such as employment, economic development, and cultural renewal.

Further, “the festival is also expected to generate enormous cross-sectoral value from the state’s investments, ranging from positive engagement with short-term employment, education and training, enterprise development, and mental and physical health to the more intangible but critical social practices of hope: southern Manipur communities recognizing cultivating and respecting their Indigenous identities present and past to re-imagine productive futures,” states the district administration.

Khup, a Zomi leader, also believes that the “Sangai Festival in the borderlands of Manipur will be an opportunity for performers to experience cultural employment during the Festival and immediate exposure to the international art market.” “The less easily quantifiable, longer-term benefits are even more significant for their role in re-framing the structures of opportunity for Southern Manipur communities,” he adds.

The prominence of the Sangai festival is that it promotes both domestic and international tourism. Manipur, a land endowed with nature’s bounty, has been on the global tourism map. It is critical in attracting tourists from other Indian states and foreign countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh, and China, which helps creates jobs, and aids in promoting the state’s economy.

On the other hand, Siam, a research scholar from the Lamka, expressed his concern that “generally the indigenous community feel they do not have many opportunities to engage in their cultural practices and protect their heritage. The state government takes this opportunity to impose its cultural hegemony towards the indigenous community in the name of extending the Sangai Festival.” He also expressed his displeasure that pursuing the local tourism project creates a quandary. “Elites struggled to integrate the local cultural plurality into the unified state art project, and they see the necessity of creating a local identity for branding cultural tourism,” he argues.

“These elites still seek to make an economic commodity out of cultural heritage,” Siam said.

However, amid all these opinions in support and some more circumspect about the festival, the extension of this cultural event to southern Manipur also assumes great significance as it is a reflection of the government’s keenness to develop the region and its strategic importance in trading with Southeast Asian nations.

In fact, the move to organise the festival along the Behiang borderland is also an indication of the recognition by the government of the indigenous people’s cultural, economic, and political rights, along with expanding the market and trade in the region. These rights will open up avenues for the engagement of the indigenous population in trade-related decision-making and any policies without which their everyday lives are adversely impacted.

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Timothy Hauthianmuan
Timothy Hauthianmuan
1 year ago

Good Read

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