I had a lucky break last winter. My friend Shanyo, a young photographer based in Delhi, invited me to her ancestral village Kachai. Situated 140 kms away from Imphal, Kachai has earned fame as the highest producer of lemons in theentire Northeast. I jumped at the tempting offer and took the morning flight from Guwahati, landing in Imphal before noon. Shanyo was waiting for me in the airport lounge and we immediately set off for the village as we wanted to reach before dark. We asked for directions from a village woman in Imphal market; she suggested we take a short cut through the mountains. Unfortunately, we got lost in what seemed like a maze of similar looking roads in the mountains. We crossed a few Kuki villages on the way, where I was surprised to see young boys moving around with rifles. But the worst was not over yet. Due to the recent rains, the roads were muddy and we ended up in a ditch in the middle of nowhere and with no one in sight. We were surrounded by hills on either sides and it was starting to get dark. Luckily, a truck driver came to our rescue and his truck pulled out our Bolero from the ditch. Dominic, our otherwise cheerful driver, looked tensed as the Bolero swung precariously while being pulled out. Taking the shorter route cost us a lot of time and by the time we reached, the village was silently sleeping. We were starving and devoured a delicious dinner of rice and chicken curry cooked in the Naga style. It was the month of January and very cold in the village. With too much excitement already in the first leg of my journey, I was asleep as soon as I hit the bed.
It was only when I woke up the next morning that I realized I was actually somewhere close to paradise. I came out of my room to discover one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. Surrounded by majestic hills, I took in the view of the exquisite Lemon Orchards of Manipur. At first glance, the lemons looked like oranges because of their round shape and colour. The whole village was bustling with energy and there was a festive spirit in the air. We had arrived just in time as the village prepared for the Annual Lemon Festival, a harvest festival where the villagers display their produce and celebrate with dance and music.
We took a quick tour of the village as Shanyo dropped in on her numerous relatives. Most of the houses were built of wooden planks with tin roofs. The kitchens ran on firewood collected from the forest surrounding the village. The village woke up early; breakfast was over by seven in the morning. When we returned from our tour, it was around 10’o clock and Shanyo’s aunty called us for lunch whereas I was only ready for breakfast! Later that day, at four in the afternoon, we had dinner. For both lunch and dinner, we were served delicious pork and chicken curry with rice. Both the curries were cooked without using any oil.
Having had dinner so early, the village was usually asleep by 7.30 pm. But this was an exception; it was festival time! As we had had an early dinner, for the rest of the evening, we drank strong black tea. The month of January in Kachai is freezing cold, and the logs kept burning all night long. The village had no electricity as the transformer stopped working two years back and had not been repaired yet. The village runs on solar energy instead which is used to light up homes at night.
Inhabited majorly by the Tangkhul Naga community, Kachai has more than 400 homes. They practice Christianity and there is a beautiful church in the middle of the village. Lemon cultivation is the main source of income for the simple village folk of Kachai. With the money earned from selling lemons, parents pay for their children’s education. The village has three schools to cater to the needs of the children of the village. After breakfast, Shanyo and I headed to the high school ground which was hosting the festival. The site was bustling with activity; the young and the old were continuously working together to prepare the place for the next day. The stalls made of bamboo, cane and straw were almost ready and the main stage was being given final touches by a few young girls of the village. Tea was being distributed to everyone working, jokes were being shared and the whole ambiance was quite cheerful.
The next morning, the festival was inaugurated by the Chief Guest after which two cultural groups performed folk music and dance. The Chief Guest also took a customary round of the stalls admiring the handsome display of lemons. The inauguration ceremony was followed by a huge feast hosted by the village Chief. Later, Shanyo and her cousins took me to the other side of the village where we explored the forest and the river that flowed below the village. We walked a lot during my stay in Kachai and I was happy thinking I must have lost a few kilograms in the process. But then I realized that was not possible as I was constantly gorging on rice and delicious pork curry twice a day! Sometimes there was chicken and dried fish curry too, along with the pork. However, I didn’t worry much as I was getting a lot of exercise, climbing the hills throughout the day.
As soon as it got dark and the evening set in, we were drawn to the sound of microphones being checked and guitars being tuned from the festival site. As we reached the high school grounds, we found that almost the whole village had gathered there. After all, Naga music icon, Rewben Mashangwa, was set to perform that evening. From senior citizens to toddlers, everyone was waiting eagerly for the cultural night to begin. The music icons of Manipur, Rewben and his group, also enthralled the audience with everything from Naga pop songs to classic rock covers. Huge bonfires were lit around the crowd to beat the freezing night. Rewben had composed a song specially dedicated to the lemon festival and he performed it with gusto to the villagers’ delight. The show went on well past midnight and after it was over, we took turns to click photographs with the music icons.
The next morning, a tinge of sadness started setting in as it was time to leave the village to join the race of city life again. I had captured the last few days with my camera which I later edited and made into a short documentary. We waved our goodbyes to Shanyo’s family and the whole village who had welcomed me and made my stay so memorable. For a moment, I felt as if I was leaving my own village and my own people; I made solemn promises to my new friends to return soon to the lush lemon orchards.
By Biswajit Das
Photos: Shanyo Shirak