Manipur Sangai Festival as a way to 'Look East Policy'

Rikee Thangjam *

Last Day : Culturals at Manipur Sangai Festival at BOAT, Imphal :: 02nd December 2019
Culturals at Manipur Sangai Festival at BOAT, Imphal on 02nd December 2019 :: Pix - Geereebar Chingtham


This essay considers the possibilities for improving connections between India and Southeast Asian Nations through a tourism festival. It will go through how India initially became interested in Southeast Asia and how tourism might help Manipur thrive in the world. Manipur is a State located in the North Eastern region, India. The State shares State border with Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram and shares international border with Myanmar.

There are various communities living in the State which have diverse customs, religion, rich culture, and traditions. The annual Manipur Sangai Festival which takes place in Manipur receives the requisite attention. The inquiry is that is it feasible for successful execution of the Look East Policy through the Manipur Sangai Festival?

Historical Development

From the early 1950s to the early 1970s trade between India and Southeast Asian Nations was minimal as both are found to have different trading tactics. Even though there is some improvement in India's regional security and its scientific and economic potentials, India could not flourish its relationship with Southeast Asia in the 1970s. India was involved with the Gulf at that time and did not see the need to lavish diplomatic and economic attention to Southeast Asia.

Due to the Gulf war and India's ability to meet some of its oil needs by the mid-1980s reduced the relevance of the oil rich Nations in its foreign policy goals. Further, India was extremely concerned about the rise of China's powers, both military and non-military, which was an outcome of the development programme and the transfer of advanced technology from the West (Ayoob, 1990). India lost a significant trading ally with the fall of the Soviet Union (Haokip, 2015).

India was consequently under economic pressure to find alternatives. Southeast Asia, in particular ASEAN, seems to be a significant realistic choice from the standpoint of India's policy planners (Ayoob, 1990).

The realization of Southeast Asia's strategic and economic relevance to India drove India's desire to have regional cooperation with ASEAN (Haokip, 2015). In post-Cold War, India's Look East Policy was established in 1991 by the then Narasimha Rao administration to deepen political connections, increase economic integration, and build security cooperation with Southeast Asian Nations.

Because of its vicinity to Southeast Asia and China, the North Eastern region seems to be an ideal setting in India's endeavour to look East. The societies are said to have unique ethnic and cultural identities that are more comparable to those of Southeast Asia and China than to the rest of India.

The initiative made by the Government of India is the Look East Policy, which emphasizes North East India as the entry point to Southeast Asia (Haokip, 2015). In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the Look East Policy was succeeded by the Act East Policy.

This policy's goal is to strengthen economic cooperation, cultural links, and strategic relationships with Nations in the Asia-Pacific region by ongoing involvement at bilateral, regional, and multilateral levels, while giving much attention to North Eastern States of India.

Development of Tourism in Manipur

The Look East Policy provide a chance to address the issue of market accessibility in the North Eastern region. It offers a wide range of potential for developing tourism in the region. Tourism may be established and promoted everywhere, and it is a sensible move for regional development. A strong tool for socio-economic development is tourism. It creates jobs for both the skilled and less skilled segments of the population.

The anticipated economic improvement is among the main drivers for an area to offer itself as a tourist destination. Tourism may persuade local Governments to develop infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, roads, power, telephone, and public transportation networks, which can enhance inhabitants' quality of life while also facilitating tourism. (Lyndoh and Rani, 2008).

With its rich cultural and religious heritage, as well as its variety of natural attractions, Manipur has room for expansion in the tourist industry. In the light of India's Look East Policy, Manipur and its tourist strategy acquire greater significance. The Government is actively pursuing a distinctive brand to promote Manipur tourism as the entrance to South East Asia (Lhouvum, 2016). The growth of the Manipur tourist sector is crucial for the State's prosperity. The Look East Policy may excel in part attributed to the tourism industry (Nongthombam, 2014).

To introduce Manipur as a tourist destination, the Manipur Tourism Department brought on the Sangai Festival. The festival is an annual tourism festival which is held in Manipur in the month of November from 21st to 30th. The festival was earlier referred to as Manipur Tourism Festival and in 2010 it was renamed as Manipur Sangai Festival. The festival is named after the State animal which is brow antlered deer, Sangai.

This festival is a sign that populace in Manipur is giving efforts in its relationship with nature, culture, and tradition. In this festival, Manipur shows its culture, art, craft, music, indigenous sports, handloom and handicraft, attractive natural landscape, adventure activities and organized stalls from various parts of the States, from other States of India and from other countries as a buy and sell section which include food, clothes, handloom, and handicraft products.

Why did the Sangai Festival develop?

According to Manipur Tourism Policy 2022, Manipur can be the gateway to Southeast Asia. The goal of such a policy is to maximize Manipur's tourism potential by enticing people and attracting investments for the growth of hotels, restaurants, transportation, communication, heritage sites, homestays, and business ventures. These advancements will support employment growth and generate income.

The local population sees tourism as a possible source for boosting the State's economy and jobs (Nongthombam, 2014). Here, one may observe how the State Government enacts policy to benefit from its major tourist destination. The role of the State Government is important in building up tourist attraction sites. A tourism location can only grow with the assistance of the Government.

The State Government is therefore getting involved in the local area's development. The need for the significance of such an action cannot be overstated. Manipur tourism development is at the hands of the Manipur Tourism Department. The Department organized various events to promote tourism. One such event is the Manipur Sangai Festival.

To promote economic growth and connectivity with other countries, the State began to take an interest in the indigenous features found in Manipur. The origins of the different indigenous games of Manipur could be traced in the ancient literary works and other chronicles. One indigenous sport is Sagol Kangjei, a game where players are on the back of the Pony horse trying to hit the ball into a goal using long handled hammers.

There are now two ways to play the game, that is, traditional Manipur form and the international version or polo. In the 19th century, the British learned the subtleties of the game Sagol Kangjei from Manipur, and as a result of their smart refining, the indigenous game was called Polo and spread to other areas of the world. As a part of the Sangai festival, Manipur International Polo Tournament is organized by Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA).

The main goals of the tournament are to preserve the Manipuri Pony and stop its extinction, spread the sport in its own country, and promote Manipur as a polo tourist destination. Additionally, it provides a chance for polo players from across the world to participate in the festival by playing Sagol Kangjei. Countries such as Australia, Germany, Thailand, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States all take part in the international polo competition.

Other indigenous sports include Yubi Lakpi which literally means snatching coconut. The coconut acts as a ball and needs to be through the goal line to count as a goal. Hiyangtannaba, which means boat race. This sporting event has been held since ancient times. Here the rowers wear traditional clothes and head gears. Mukna is a traditional Manipuri style wrestling.

Thang ta is an indigenous martial art form in Manipur. These indigenous games and art are organized in the Manipur Sangai festival. The roots of the ancient traditional games played by the people back then were familiarized to the world. It might be seen as a means of preserving or promoting indigenous sports.

Participation of Southeast Asian Nations

Southeast Asian countries are undoubtedly taking part in the Manipur Sangai Festival. The then Chief Minister of Myanmar's Mandalay and Sagaing regions attended the 2013 edition of Sangai Festival as the guest of honour. On the second day of the event, Myanmar art was presented by the Mandalay Art Club.

The then CM of Mandalay U Ye Myint stated that they have brought traditional arts organizations and cultural troupes to participate in the event and that it was a well-intentioned trip to Manipur, India, to foster the relationship between Manipur and Mandalay. In the 2018 edition of the Sangai Festival, Princess of Thailand Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and Thai Ambassador attended the festival.

In the 2019 edition of Manipur Sangai Festival, eight Ambassadors and High Commissioners from Southeast Asian Nations, that is Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Brunei, and Singapore, attended the festival as guests of honour. As a representative of all the guests, Ambassador of Myanmar Moe Kyaw Aung in his speech says that:

Cultural and traditional links between Manipur and ASEAN will inevitably provide opportunities to enhance people to people contacts... Through existing connectivity of road, rail and air, existing linkages of cultural tourism, trade and investment and economic relations among us would also be further strengthened.

Why do you think delegates from ASEAN Nations attended the Sangai festival ? What is the intended motive for their action ? One major factor may indeed be Southeast Asian Nations' acknowledgement of the region's importance. The Southeast Asian delegates who attended the Sangai Festival 2019 highlighted the significance of India's North East, where Manipur may play a crucial role.

They are focusing on the physical connectivity enhancement between India and ASEAN, market linkages between India and Myanmar and between India and Thailand. At that time, the highway projects of India-Myanmar-Thailand were on the move for construction and possible extension of the Trilateral Highway project to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam was said to be under consideration.

Manipur is crucial to this physical connection project because of its location and would aid in turning this connectivity link into a corridor for growth by collaborating between India and ASEAN via land borders and air connectivity. This reflects that both India and Southeast Asian Nations are trying to heighten relationships.

The Manipur Sangai Festival is a setting where social relationships could prosper. The policy implemented by the Government of India as well as the State level policy by using tourism is showing their position of possible alliance with Southeast Asian Nations. The latter is also indicating their stance on an attainable alliance with India through their participation in the Manipur Sangai Festival.

Throughout the Sangai Festival, there were scheduled cultural programmes. The uniqueness of the communities living in the State, Meitei, Naga, Kuki and so on, is exhibited via numerous traditional dances, folk dance, tribal dance, and music performances from various social groups residing in Manipur. It also included participation from States such as Delhi, Punjab, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

Other countries like Sri Lanka, Japan and Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Myanmar participated in cultural events and displayed their traditional dance and music - Serng Krappo (coconut dance) is a regional folk dance of Thailand, Fawn Ngiew (scarf dance) is a classical Thai dance, dance troupes performed Monohra dance which is a southern style and one of the oldest Thai dance dramas.

Traditional Burmese oil lamp dance and musical instrument performances like Saung Gauk were performed by dancing groups from Myanmar. The festival featured exhibitions of art and traditional clothes. This connotes that it is not only about displaying art and culture of the State to the outside world, there is a course of action to maintain relationships with other Nations by utilizing cultural tourism in Manipur.

In Manipur society, cultural exhibitions may create a basis to show the value of their tradition. People are not just presenting their culture, but they are also learning foreign traditions during the festival. There is a continuous exchange of knowledge between different States and between different countries through art and culture.

What appears to be clear is that there is an interaction between India, through Manipur art and culture, and between other countries especially Thailand and Myanmar. This interaction somehow does not point to cultural fusion.

Work environment

Manipur Sangai Festival is said to give employment. The department, before the festival begins, usually issues an invitation to tender. They release RFT (Request for Tender) related to goods and services for the Sangai Festival which mentions the type of the work and budget available.

The type of work includes installation of CCTV cameras and Public Address (PA) system, outdoor publicity for the festival, photo and video coverage, LED screen, printed material, pre-festival campaign, public relations, social media, publication, designing and brand manual, designing and construction of Manipur Tourism Pavilion, hiring and installation of furniture and laying of carpets, refurbishing of heritage park, and production, marketing and management of tickets for entry of visitors for the Sangai festival.

Individuals, corporations, companies, or non-profit organiza- tions may bid. Those who got successful in bidding will sign a Contract Agreement with the Directorate of Tourism and the final award of work shall be given only after successfully signing of the Contract Agreement. This points to the fact that any NGO, individual, corporation, or business in Manipur are able to engage in work during the Manipur Sangai Festival.

The handloom industry is the State's largest cottage industry. This industry has been there since earlier time. One of the industry's unique characteristics is that women are the only weavers. Weavers from Manipur participate in the Sangai festival. Weaving is an essential source for women in both rural and urban areas. It has persisted and is a source of income for many individuals.

It was possible to see self-sufficiency. Products made of cane and bamboo are produced for household and ceremonial use because they are widely available. There is also pottery culture in Manipur where majority of the pots are handcrafted and come in a variety of colours. The participation of those who work in the handloom and handicraft industry in the festival makes it visible that traditional occupations can be actively employed even today.

Traditional occupations are still practiced as a source of income. Through this festival, traditional occupations can be made aware of it to those who are unfamiliar, especially tourists from both other States of the countries and from other countries. Also, popularizing of the products made from traditional occupation will help in the economy.

A focus on areas of improvement

Leveraging tourism, the North Eastern region's development might be enhanced. How can Sangai Festival thrive to connect India and Southeast Asia ? It would commence via connectivity. India and Southeast Asian Nations want accessibility by road, rail, and air to flourish. The improvement in road and air connectivity is an essential condition for the success of any place to become a tourist destination.

The air connectivity in Manipur is the Bir Tikendrajit International Airport. However, for international connectivity, only few chartered flights from Mandalay landed in this airport in 2014, 2015 and 2019 during the Manipur Sangai Festival. So, attention should be given to add international flights and for the improvement of air connectivity between Manipur and Southeast Asian countries.

Recently, Chief Minister of Manipur, N Biren Singh, said that the State Government is trying to introduce Imphal to Bangkok flight connectivity as part of the Act East Policy. This is a wise move though its actual fulfillment is yet to be known.

Further, Manipur's unfavourable reputation and safety concern can prevent the State from becoming a popular tourism destination. The existence of militant groups in the North Eastern region is known. Numerous organizations, associations, and militant groups in Manipur enforce bandhs and blockades. The State administration either neglects or takes necessary action to negotiate with the groups or organizations for any demand to calm the situation. Any bandh or blockage may be called for a variety of reasons and the festival may get affected. Manipur Sangai festival celebrations had impediments in the past years.

On November 22, 2013, a 24 hour general strike was called in the State. The general strike was in protest against Manipur's land being lost to Myanmar as a result of the border fencing. It is reported that 70 percent of people who reside in Imphal came to the festival despite the general strike. However, it was impossible for residents of neighbouring districts and outside of Imphal to go to the festival site.

This is an illustration of how the festival's attempt to become a tourism destination struggled. The Sangai festival has historically continued to be celebrated despite bandhs and boycotts called by various organizations. The uneasiness of the event attendees and security reasons will always come first for individuals.

This will impact the festival attraction; it would not be able to draw tourists or forge connection with other countries until and unless law and order is improved. The Manipur Sangai Festival being a gateway to Southeast Asia will be challenging if good governance is not maintained. In a case study conducted during the festival, it was discovered that the infrastructure is weak in the eyes of the tourists.

They are looking forward to the upgrade of the infrastructure, which involves constructing roads that connect the different locations' lodging, drinking water, and other amenities along the route. The major sources of information, in the eyes of visitors, are the newspapers, radio, and television. Therefore, it is thought that more initiatives in the IT and communication industries are needed, together with present technologies, to raise awareness of the festival (Nongthombam, 2014).


The establishment of policy by India and just waiting for blossoming of the policy will not bring any success to its goals. The involvement of the people and State Government will contribute to the development, In the Manipur Sangai festival, the Government helps in elevating the culture of the society and simultaneously try to maintain sturdy relationships with other countries.

Through tourism, there will be enhancement of economy of the State. If Manipur could develop its tourism then, the objective of the Look East Policy and its focus on the North Eastern region could succeed. The process of its success involves the role of State Government in tourism industry development, the population of Manipur in preserving their nature, culture, and tradition.

'Besides the direct economic benefits of additional revenue and employment avenues in tourism and its related activities, its other benefit to the local people is the opportunities to interact with people from outside the region which enables to broaden their outlook and be a part of the global world.' (Kshetrimayum 2009: 199).

People can share their values and traditional practices which have been passed down from generation to generation since ancient times to the world. For them, the festival provides a space in identifying their identities. Heritage preservation is legitimized by tourism development. Tourism development must not result in environmental damage. Instead of extracting resources from the region, preserving nature shall takes place.

Apparently, the Manipur Sangai festival is significant for international ties. The meeting of India and Southeast Asian Nations through sharing the uniqueness of their own culture took place in Manipur. The festival is a space where mutual interest of action is observed. This is believed to strengthen the bond between India and Southeast Asia in terms of strategic relationship.

A positive association indicates benefit to the State in terms of economy. However, some things need improvement in the festival which includes good governance, infrastructure, security, and connectivity. Nevertheless, the Manipur Sangai festival is not wholly a negative one.

Therefore, the Manipur Sangai festival serves as a good example of how the political, economic, and social spheres are intertwined via the use of culture. It can be can be a way to the Look East Policy.

* Rikee Thangjam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is pursuing Master degree from Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, Delhi 110007.
The present paper has been written for the South-East Asia Course offered in the department
This article was webcasted on November 20 2022.

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