Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Moirang First Headquarter Of Indian National Army

Moirang, a small town in Manipur, a place that hardly rings a bell to many has in fact monumental importance in India's struggle for freedom. Moirang was the headquarters of Azad Hind Fauz and it was here that the Indian Tricolor was hoisted for the very first time on the sacred soil of India by the Indian National Army(INA) on the 14th of April 1944 by Col. Shaukat Malik. INA war memorial now stands here paying respect to several martyrs who laid down their lives fighting for our Independence.

The INA war museum in the memorial complex is dedicated to World War II and also concentrates on Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose's efforts with the aid of Japanese Government to free India from British colonialism. Contrary to popular belief it was Captain Mohan Singh who founded the INA in 1942 and not Mr. Bose. However, it was under Mr. Bose's able leadership that the Indian National Army became a formidable and professional fighting force.

The war museum has a nice collection of pictures and portraits of INA soldiers and a large section is dedicated to the Patriot of Patriots and the Supreme Commander of INA- Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. It concentrates on the early days of INA- how it was formed, Netaji's role and all their allies. It displays some interesting letters and messages sent across during the struggle for India's freedom. It also houses some rare pictures clicked during the fight for freedom and also some important events in history.

The INA had an exclusive 'All Women Combat' Regiment 'Rani Of Jhansi Regiment led by Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, a very rare feat even today.

One of the best artifacts in the museum is a map displaying the route and mode of transport taken by Mr. Bose during his grand escape right under the nose of colonial forces. Mr. Bose wanted to reach Tokyo from Calcutta. Despite being under house arrest by the colonial forces he opted for the most complex and hard journey. From his home in Calcutta he headed to Peshawar- Kabul- Moscow- Berlin- Singapore. From Berlin, he was ferried on a German submarine until Madagascar and from there he hopped onto a Japanese submarine to Malaysia and finally to Tokyo. This audacious journey took a heavy toll on Mr.Bose's health.

Apart from the fascinating route map, other interesting memorabilia in the museum are the Indian currency notes issued by the Japanese and the Azad Hind Government prior to our freedom recognizing our sovereignty.

Jai Hind!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Loktak Lake! Magical Floating Paradise

Loktak, a natural wonder of Manipur should definitely be on the bucket list of any traveler. The fresh water lake is filled with phumdis, a cluster of vegetation that are at different levels of decaying. This amazing natural vegetation runs deep underwater and only 20% of it is seen above water level. The amazing aspect of these floating islands is that when the water levels goes down they absorb the nutrients from the lake bed. The vegetation is so thick and durable that the locals have built their homes on them.

This beautiful wonder surprisingly was devoid of any tourists. Only locals tend to visit this place and it is more like a day trip. The natural beauty of this place definitely requires a stay of minimum 2-3 days for perfect relaxation. 'Sendra Park and Resort' run by the Classic group of hotels is the only stay option here. The resort offers 4 stunning cottages and a couple of deluxe rooms. Undoubtedly, the cottages offer the best of the view and the aesthetics are simply amazing. The charming rooms are very romantic and a fleet of wooden stairs led us to the best part of the cottage- the attic. It offers a beautiful sit out with unending views of the amazing Loktak lake, her vegetation and the mountains in the backdrop.

Apart from the attic, we spent hours sitting outside our cottage looking at the blue mountains, red tall grass, amazing loktak lake and lone fishermen on their tiny boats. No amount of modern engineering structures can even remotely come close to natural beauty.

The price at which the cottages are let out is unbelievably reasonable. The resort also has a view point and cafe. To be honest, the views from the cafe are even more mesmerizing than the view point. We spent hours sitting on the wodden benches sipping hot cup of chai, munching hot pakodas and soaking in breathtaking views.

The food served in the cafe is really good. Their service is also pretty commendable. If the fresh water fish in Nagaland tasted amazing the fresh water fish of Manipur showed us a glimpse of paradise. The fish served at Sendra resort was tender, juicy and melted in our mouth. Do try out the water chestnut fruit which is available in abundance right outside the resort.

While at Loktak, post sunset you might feel locals are bursting crackers but it is actually soldiers of Assam Rifles practicing in their shooting range. The shooting range is right next to the resort entrance and one can see the soldiers practicing. Clicking pics might not be the brightest of ideas.

Sendra is also a bird watchers paradise and in under two hours in the afternoon we spotted several different species of birds. Spotting a common hoopoe right outside the cottage was a beautiful moment. Growing up as a child we used to see several sparrows. Thanks to urbanization we have chased them away from our streets. Looking at the sparrows at Loktak we were reminded of our childhood. Amur falcons tend to hover around in Manipur as well and you catch a glimpse of them at close quarters.

Very close to Loktak is the mesmerizing Keibul Lamjao National Park, the only floating National Park in the world and is also the last natural adobe of the indigenous Sangai deer aka dancing deer.

Due to infrastructure development around Loktak lake the natural habitat around are disturbed and the vegetation is highly threatened and are decreasing at a very rapid rate. Some of the larger sections of the phumdis have broken down into several parts and have drifted away. It is such a shame that the human race is destroying natural wonders at a extremely alarming pace.

Loktak is just 45 km away from the capital of Manipur, Imphal and frequent buses ply from 'Keishampat Bridge' in Imphal to Churchandapur via Moirang. We got down at Moirang and a short ride of 4 to 5 km in a jam packed share auto took us to Sendra resort.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Only Floating National Park In the World- Keibul Lamjao

The only floating National Park in the world, Keibul Lamjao is the last abode for the endangered species Sangai or dancing deer. Once threatened to near extinction, re-appeared a couple of years later and now one of the most endangered species. This Park is a part of the Loktak lake and though the lake has phumdis all over, the phumdis in the National Park are the ones that are best suited for the survival of the dancing deer. The reeds and grasses that grow on the phumdis serve as food for the sangai.

The Park is also home to rare species marbled cat and Himalayan black bear. Also it is a birders paradise and you can spot black kites, mynas, and hornbills in the vicinity.

Entering the park was one of the best moments of our travel lives. Walking on the trek path en-route the watch tower, we felt like we had the whole Keibul Lamjao National Park to ourselves. Though you can take a vehicle inside the park and halt directly at the watch tower, we would strongly recommend not doing so. The entire walk to the watch tower is a pleasant one with so much of natural beauty around. You never know what surprise might await you on the way. The best part being the numerous bird calls echoing all around giving you company and tempting you to look around to figure out which bird call it was.

On our path en-route the watch tower, we came across a water way and we hopped on a canoe and ventured into a narrow channel of water experiencing and enjoying the beauty of the floating paradise and occasionally looking out for the shy Sangai deer and aquatic birds.

We had once in a life time experience of setting foot on the phumdis and it was unbelievable to walk on the vegetation. If this was not enough our boatman put his 11 foot long bamboo pole and proved to us that there was no solid ground beneath our feet.

After the amazing canoe ride we headed to the watch tower. It is built high up on a hillock offering excellent panoramic views of the National Park. Some awesome perks of being an early birder is that we had the whole park to ourselves. It is from here that the chances of sighting a sangai deer are bright. The park opens early in the morning at 6 am but during winter the fog hinders visibility so it would be a good idea to reach the park by 8:30 or 9 am.

We were very fortunate to catch a glimpse of 4 sangai deers. It is a challenge to spot them amidst the high grass and the camouflage. This endangered species is the State animal of Manipur and conservation efforts are in full swing to ensure that they don't lose their State emblem. From a dwindling 14 in 1977 the numbers have increased to 204 in 2013. It would be a good idea to park aside at least half a day for this experience.

The National Park is facing many threats and this is hampering the survival of Sangai. Due to the construction of a barrage to aid the Hydro Electricity Power Project, the vegetation and ecology is changing drastically. Earlier the water level of the lake used to depend on the season. During dry season, phumdis would settle on the ground absorb nutrients from the soil and on the onset of monsoons float on water. Now, the phumdis are floating continuously and are therefore thinning over time. The barrage has also stopped the flow of old phumdis from the lake to the rivers.

The other threats being farming in the vicinity, lack of boundaries around the park have led to encroachment, poaching and illegal fishing. The park has already witnessed the disappearance of 16 indigenous species of fish and 20 species of plants. Waterfowls that were regular water migrants are now decreasing in number due to lack of open water surfaces. The state has to action out on the conservation efforts as the survival of phumdis is essential for the survival of Sangai.

Keibul Lamjao National Park is 10 km away from Sendra Resort, the only good option to stay in vicinity. We had a fun and adventurous experience of foot boarding in a packed share auto to the National Park. These are lively and precious moments that one can experience while backpacking rural India.

Entry tickets to the park are priced at Rs.30 per person and camera charges are Rs.50.  The half an hour canoe ride is charged at Rs.50 per person.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Kohima The Heart Of Nagaland

Kohima, the capital of Nagaland is the most popular destination due to her close proximity to Kisama Heritage Village, the venue for Hornbill Festival. Also, Kohima is the base to reach other parts of Nagaland due to her recent infrastructure development. However, this hill station has seen exponential growth in last couple of years and it can get congested as traffic tends to move at snail's speed.

Despite high number of vehicles, the streets are free of traffic jams and gridlocks thanks to the civic sense of the people of Nagaland. They follow lane discipline, patiently give way to other vehicles, pedestrians and do not honk unnecessarily. We only wish this incredible feat could be implemented all over India.

We started our tour in Kohima by visiting one of the most brutal battle grounds where the allied forces stopped the Japanese advancement- "Battle of Kohima." Once sprawling bungalow of the Deputy Commissioner was reduced to rubble after the war. As a reminder of the sacrifices of the war heroes this Battle field has been converted to a cemetery. This is the final resting place of more than 1420 soldiers who laid down their lives defending India during World War II.

The epitaph carved on the memorial:

When You Go Home
Tell Them of Us
And Say
"For Your Tomorrow,
We Gave Our Today."

A Cherry blossom tree is of historic importance here. The original tree was used by the Japanese forces as a sniper post. However, the tree was damaged during the war and the present tree is a shoot from the old stump.

Kohima state museum located in the corner of a busy lane is a perfect place to see art and artifacts belonging to the different tribes of Nagaland. The collectibles are simple and are all made of natural material but excellent when it comes to serving the purpose. The ones that stood out the most were different kinds of indigenous traps for birds and fish. Apart from that, a brush made of jack-fruit and it took us a while to believe that it could even be possible. Another very freaky exhibit that made our jaws drop were the skulls displayed that are real headhunting trophies collected during raids.

Outside the museum is a small open air gallery that houses many centuries old relics. The statues though damaged still have a classic appeal and the most lively one being that of Shiva killing a demon.

Kohima tends to host a lot of interesting football games and next to one of the football fields was a second hand clothing market where goods were being sold at a throwaway price. While on one side we saw a lot of folks work really hard to make money, the other side was the stark reality and one of the biggest challenges our Nation is facing- 'Illegal Gambling.' Illegal gambling happens in the open and on a massive scale, it was disheartening to see a young chap lose around 10 thousand rupees in under two minutes. It reached a point where after losing everything, he yielded to the temptation of borrowing money and ended up losing that as well. This just goes on to prove how addicting and home wrecking gambling could be.

Just for the heck of it we did try our hands at gambling, started with Rs.400 and almost lost all of it but lady luck shined and we made Rs.300. Being a part of the game we soon realized how the dealers work. It is more of a con, a group of men all working together make it look like the dealer is losing and there is easy money to be made. Once unsuspecting players bet big the house ends up winning everything. The greed to get back not just the investment but make profits is the root cause of getting trapped in this vicious cycle. Mind surely plays games. We called it quits after making Rs.300 and all of this happened in just 3 chances.

The best time to visit Kohima would be around Hornbill festival and during this time the entire city is pumped up. There are plenty of competitions organized by the enthusiastic local government and other bodies. A few to mention are photo competition, half marathon, music competitions and football. Many of the events had entry fee with exceptionally good price money and it was open for non locals too.

With abundant growth, pollution also becomes a reality and to curb this, local NGOs have started promoting the message of a cleaner city in a creative way. The graffiti on the walls of Kohima is something that is beautiful and filled with messages to educate people.

We took a stroll around Kohima and walked into one of the busy markets that was selling not just vegetables and fruits but also live frogs, snails, worms and insects. The restaurant Shilloi Lake in Hotel Jafpu serves good food and is reasonable priced. Their hot and sour soup is a must try.

When it comes to small bites, Popular Bakery is a perfect stop. True to their name, they seem to be very popular and have outlets across Kohima. 'Planet Earth' restaurant near Kohima town junction is one of the best cafes in town to dine in. They specialize in Chinese cuisine and is also easy on the pocket. Their red velvet cake is awesome and a must try.

'Ozone Cafe' in the same area gives it a super tough competition. If you are in Kohima this place is a must visit, alongside an awesome menu they have an in-house library. The food tastes awesome and the pricing is very reasonable.Their milkshakes are a must try.

Another awesome aspect about Nagaland in December is the Christmas celebrations. Christmas is jubilantly celebrated in Nagaland and it was in Ozone Cafe we saw the best of snowman made out of plastic cups.

We got a taste of the festive spirit when on our way to Kohima we got down from the bus at a wrong stop and lost our route to the hotel. We were stranded in a dark street with maps not functioning and loaded with our rucksacks we were speculating our next steps. A kind gentleman who was with his family, spotted us looking totally lost and confused, offered to drop us to our hotel in his car. This generous offer to complete strangers touched us no bounds. It is definitely difficult to trust complete strangers and offer them lift especially when one is travelling with family but this man and his family changed our thought process completely.

The next day they dropped by to check if we were comfortable at the hotel and even invited us to their home and prepared a feast like dinner for us to enjoy their cuisine. This beautiful family turned out to be our Angels spreading the joy of giving and we truly got an insight into Naga lives, their cuisine and also their lifestyle. They even treated us to amazing rice beers.

We checked into Hotel Aurora at Traders road. A budget hotel with excellent and quick service, it had clean rooms and was total value for money. The best part is their restaurant that serves amazing food at a very reasonable price. Their continental breakfast is amazing and so is their Indian and Chinese cuisine. They offer free WiFi and is centrally located with buses and taxis easily available.