Manipur, a small, isolated and conflict-ridden state, has thrown up some big names in the arena of sports and athletics. Kunjarani, Mirabai Chanu and Sanjita Chanu have created a legacy of their own in weightlifting. The state is a hotbed of football and polo players. Devendro Singh, Sarita Devi, and Dingko Singh have proved their mettle in the boxing ring. Now and then, somebody makes it to the Guinness Book for feats such as most number of elbow strikes (kickboxing) or pinky pull-ups. And so on and so forth. The number of sportspersons emerging from the state in the national arena is also disproportionately large compared to its small population. To top it all, there’s Mary Kom, one of the all-time greatest boxers of the world, who at 36 is as invincible in the ring as she was 17 years ago.
These sportspersons may have helped throw the spotlight on a ‘sports powerhouse’, as the place has come to be acknowledged in recent times, but Manipur’s glory in sports and martial tradition is a very old one.
The modern horseback game of polo originated here as Sagol Kangjei as early as the 14th century BC. Almost everyone in the Imphal valley had a pony and the popularity of the game ensured their expertise in horseback skills. This helped them during warfare when the neighbouring kingdoms dreaded their formidable cavalry.
Then there were other indigenous games such as Mukna (wrestling) and Khong Kangjei (a combination of hockey and wrestling) while Thang Ta is a martial art with ancient origins.
A Mukna Kangjei match in progress in Imphal
Though these traditional games are still played and practised, they have largely given way to modern games, among which football reigns supreme. Like the sembang, it is ubiquitous. Children take to the game soon after they learn to walk and run. Many parents take their young ones to public grounds in the evenings or on Sundays, and turn friendly coaches, teaching them the basics of the game. Even for those who do not get this opportunity, it’s hard to miss picking up this game or any other for that matter. Most people in the Imphal valley live in large joint families and close-knit neighbourhood communities (called leikais). Household yards, leikai community clubs and all open spaces turn playgrounds after school hours in the urban areas. In the countryside, there are plenty of large, open grounds and fields, where people playing football seem as natural as the cows grazing in the fields beside them.
On the professional front, the existence of a large number of clubs ensures that one tournament gives way to the next all year round. NEROCA Football Club from the city plays in the I-League, the top league of the country, and finished sixth in the 2018-19 season.
During my field visits to various households in the valley, I was pleasantly surprised to find so many professional sportspersons involved in various disciplines such as archery, taekwondo, mountaineering, swimming etc. India’s first National Sports University has been established in Imphal while training for various disciplines is also held in the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex.
Women not only hold a high place in society here but have historically been at the forefront of various socio-economic and cultural revolutions. The field of sports is no different and women athletes and sportswomen from the state are an inspiration to the rest of humanity. They are also fiercely self-reliant. For instance, an international-level taekwondo player supports herself by selling fruit salad in Imphal in the morning hours.
The final match of a women's polo tournament being held in the Imphal Polo Ground
There’s another clever twist in the tale of Manipur which has greatly contributed to its culture of sports. While it’s commonplace for people of a generation to accuse their successors of erosion of values, traditions and customs, a sort of reverse trend seems to have taken place in the Imphal valley in the post-independence era. Yaoshang, or Holi, is the biggest festival of the Meitei people, the largest ethnic group in the state. It’s celebrated over five days at the outset of spring. Earlier, the festival was mostly associated with fun and frolics and a popular dance form. In recent decades, most of the festivities have given way to sports!
Yes, you read it right. It has been a great revolution, resulting in a grand fusion of sports and culture. For four days, each and every locality (leikai) organises sports festivals for children and adults.
Throughout the valley, each Meitei locality (leikai) organises its own sports festival
“All the ugly scenes of the Yaoshang festival have been sidelined to bring in a new genre of sports personalities... The waste of energy, time and spirit in enjoying the festive mood of Yaoshang has been stopped and the festival turns constructive and productive in the guise of sports and games... Yaoshang has become synonymous with sports,” writes Seram Neken in a local daily.
A balloon game during the Yaoshang festival
All sorts of innovative games take place during this time, especially for the children – from slow cycling to blindfold games, from completing maths equations to balloon games. “This is the time when each child’s distinct sporting potential is identified in order to be nurtured later,” a policeman tells me proudly during the festival which was held in late March this year.
A women's chaphu (matka) race during Yaoshang festival
There are other benefits to the culture of sports, too. As an outsider, I have very clearly noticed an athletic and hardy temperament among the people here not just in playgrounds, but in the streets, offices and workplaces, too. Old and middle-aged women carrying heavy loads and briskly navigating the crowded roads and marketplaces, or deftly climbing onto public transport vehicles, are a common sight.
Traffic accidents are rare as both drivers and pedestrians are alert and vigilant. So far during the five months of my stay here, I have not even seen a street dog getting hit by a vehicle, let alone any other being or object – touchwood.
It’s a breezy, spring evening, and the semi-final match of a women’s football tournament is underway in the Imphal pologround – the historic playground in the heart of the city. As the match gets over, at least half a dozen unofficial football matches start off at various places in the vast field. Some people are simply strolling, playing with their kids, or relaxing in the stands. Below the stands, the office of the Manipur Chess Association is fully occupied by players battling it out on the black-and-yellow wooden boards. The market square outside the main entrance is home to all types of sports associations – from volleyball to carrom board.
Already, banners for the next football tournament (the polo season is over) are being installed along the boundary of the ground by some young men. 'AFC Grassroots Football', says the main banner. A tag line underneath it adds – Let’s Play.