On the occasion of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2020, we bring stories from the Loktak Lake in the Moirang region of present-day Manipur, in northeast India. In this conversation, we speak with Asem Chanu Manimala, doctoral student at University of Bergen, who has been collecting stories of the lake and its people for several years now. Manimala tells us about the ways in which ‘placeness’ (literally, of a place) shapes the idea of belonging for a littoral community thereby marking themselves as distinct from dominant groups. She sifts through oral histories in order to locate the people of the lake whose words and beliefs have never made it to historical narratives on Moirang or Manipur. The conversation allows us to imagine multiple ways of looking at ‘indigenous’ peoples that emerge through empirical research and do not subscribe to easy binaries or imported categories.  

Q1. Thank you speaking with us! Let’s begin with the word Loktak. What does it mean in the local language? How does the littoral community translate the word?

M: Collectively, the littoral community assert that the lake got its name from the way it was perceived visually in olden days. The lake sparkled through its vastness because the water reflects the bright sun during daytime and soothing moonlight and stars at nightfall. In local language, lok means stream that sparkles because of its purity and tak loosely translates into vast-emptiness.

Q2. Stories of the Loktak Lake is also about Loktak Ima/Lairembee. Who is she? Can you tell us a bit about her story/stories?

M: It is a tale from tales, a tale about a beautiful princess/goddess of the then mighty King/God of Sanaleibak aka Manipur. The tale is being woven from the days when the goddesses, kings, and humans were dwelling together on the earth. It so happened that the King/God was going through a dilemma. He was in deep conversation with his seven daughters regarding the places they will be assigned to administer. He was certain that all of them will not disappoint him or their subjects. Eventually, he decided to leave the decision to his daughters. He asked them to choose a place of their choice. Everyone came up with a place of their choice but the youngest one remained silent.

When inquired, she softly addressed her father that she will be most happy if her father assigned her a place. The King/god smiled. His youngest daughter was known for her caring nature and he was worried that the evil might take advantage of her. After days of careful thought, he decided to send her youngest daughter to reside in Loktak Lake. And as far as the tales go, since then she has been residing in the lake. She also started taking care of the people who took shelter under her. She became an Ima (mother), who is nurturing and a Lairembee (goddess), who protects everyone under her dome. 

There are myriad anecdotes on her physical appearance among the littoral community of Loktak. One of the prominent ones is as a middle-aged mother with a white-lamthang-inaphi (a traditional cloth to wrap around the upper body during special occasions) wrapped around her and a mayek-naibi-phanek (a type of traditional sarong worn during special occasions) pulled up till the chest supported with a khwangchet (it is a piece of cloth tighten by the waist above the sarong). The envisioned appearance resembles the appearance of a middle-aged native woman dressed in traditional attire before a special occasion. This is one of her recognized/regular appearances; however, she has been encountered in everyday native attire too. She is mostly encountered/envisioned on a wooden boat, on the phum, or in the paat. However, her face seems faded or blurry in each experience. Her voice is often compared to soothing calmness like the rhythm of the water. Most of the (visual) encounter with her is experienced either in dream or from-a-distant. The close gaze of a viewer cannot capture her sight!

Q3. How does the littoral community trace the inception of settlement in Loktak Lake?

M: According to local folklore, Khuyol Haoba, a charismatic masculine lad was passionately in love with gorgeous Nura Yaithing Konu. By the time their love was blossoming, Konu’s family rose in anger when someone tipped off about the secret love affair. Her family swore to kill Haoba at first sight. An angry search was headed by her family with swords and axes in their hands. Konu pleaded Haoba to escape and took refuge in the Loktak and wait for her. As planned, Haoba narrowly escaped her rage-fuming family members and reached Loktak. Days went by, months flew by, seasons weathered away, but he kept waiting for her and started living on the lake, building a hut on the floating phumdis (the biomass). There are two versions of the end which also lead to a beginning, where Konu finally escaped her family and found Haoba living on the lake and they decided to make the lake their home and thus depict the beginning of settlement on the lake. Another version is a sorrowful one where Haoba never saw his love again and decided to wait forever on the lake. People eventually began noticing fumes from the lake and started inquiring. After finding Haoba residing on the lake, people began to follow his lead and thus people started living on the lake by building huts on the floating biomass.

Q4. Can you tell us a bit more about the ways in which the people of the lake express an awareness of Loktak and articulate it as knowledge?

M: The littoral community of Loktak believes that they are part of the lake-ecosystem and they assert this belief through their knowledge of the lake, both physically and cosmologically. One of the elemental but meaningful knowledge about the lake is the awareness of Loktak Ima/Lairembee. Her omnipresence is experienced and perceived by the community in their everydayness. The community shares a collective belief system of believing her as Loktak Ima/Lairembee, where Ima means mother and Lairembee stands for a goddess. According to the community, she makes her presence felt bodily, aurally, visually, and emotionally. Some of the known ways of her presence are the sudden change in the water patterns and rhythms, or abruptness in the wind, or some unusual but familiar faraway voice of a woman. However, one must know the lake to understand these signals and it can be perceived while dwelling in the lake with her. They conclude that such knowledge is gained through their intimate relationship with the lake. 

Q5. Finally, how does the littoral community of Loktak Lake define themselves?

M: The littoral community of Loktak defines themselves as ‘paat-mi’, where paat translates into a lake and mi means people. They also describe themselves as eesinggi (water)-mi (people). Politically, they belong to the dominant community of Manipur, i.e., Meitei, and share a myriad of similar cultural and traditional traits with the terrestrial people. However, besides being bracketed as Meitei, they ethnically assert themselves as paat-mi. According to them, they submit their indigeneity because they are the children of Loktak Ima/Lairembee and collectively, they do not disagree on this. They perform water-based traditional practices that were handed down by their elders and are confined to their community and the lake ecosystem. Their indigeneity or of being paat-mi is inscribed in their oral histories which is not part of the state’s written history.