Lamphel Nawa Kombirei - Traditional offering at Cheiraoba
The most romantic flower in Manipur

Dr. Irengbam Mohendra Singh *

Kombirei-like Iris with long stems in the author's garden
Kombirei-like Iris with long stems in the author's garden

It is an extremely stressful time worldwide including Manipur because of the coronavirus named especially Covid-19 (Corona virus disease- 2019) to avoid confusion with others. For example, the Common cold viruses are coronavirus. While thankfully, it has not caused any morbidity and mortality in Manipur as yet, it has claimed lives of many people especially the elderly with existing heart or lung disease.

Here in the UK, old people, 70 years and above are advised not to go out of the house for the next three months, beginning from this week-end, Saturday March 21, to prevent catching the virus as its infection is peaking in the coming weeks. In spite of it, the Government is predicting 20,000 deaths in the UK. The government is asking people to be responsible as it does not want to enforce people, curtailing civil liberties.

Coronavirus kills people by causing severe pneumonia of which there is no treatment except keeping patients on a Respiratory machine (ventilator) with oxygen, in intensive care units. The British government is asking manufacturers to make as many ventilators as they can in a war footing, among several other preventive measures.

While searching for coronavirus vaccine has become a global competition, one German biotech firm CureVac is about to produce a vaccine. Scientists are also trying to develop a rapid testing model as the present diagnosis is based on identifying the genetic makeup of the virus, which their Chinese counterparts thankfully, openly published on January 10 2020. A US firm Moderna is also developing a vaccine, and trials are going on with the anti-malarial drug Chloroquine. Finding a drug for cure is far away.

Purple Manipuri Kombirei   (Iris laevigata Fish)
Purple Manipuri Kombirei (Iris laevigata Fish)

I write this article as a form of escapism and to divert attention from reading about the killer epidemic. I wish all the people of Manipur to be free from this virus on the Shajibu Nongma panba Cheiraoba or Manipuri New year. Cheiraoba has brought a wistful and nostalgic memory of my childhood home at Uripok in Imphal.

Steeped in folklore, alive with quixotic anecdotes and blessed with its beautiful charm, kombirei like the rose of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, expresses enchantment and love at first sight.

Kombirei - Manipuri iris (botanical name: Iris laevigata Fish) is the most romantic flower for Meiteis of Manipur. This purple iris is the symbol of royalty, wisdom and respect.

Iris Kombirei is indigenous to Manipur. Iris is a genus of the Iridecea family that has about 300 species. It takes its name from the Greek word for 'rainbow', which is also the name of the goddess of rainbow.

When I was a little boy of 8 or 9 in Shenjam-Chirang village during WWII, the village had a darjee (tailor), who used to hum this beautiful folk song,
Konbirei, konbirei,
konbu touganu konbirei,
Nanga Nityaipat chuthekta shatlaga,
Paltan sipahi angaobana leirangi
leichal thatlabadi
eina kamdouna khangani ...

Another song also comes to my mind.
Lamphel nawa kombirei (iris) /
takyel da satpi kondollei (tuberose), /
laishang maya sanarei (marigold), /
pukhri mapal kaboklei (Gardenia).

There are many modern songs on Kombirei. Many budding poets celebrate kombirei's starry-eyed attachment to the Meiteis.

The striking beauty of kombirei has rich sentimental associations with Meiteis from antiquity. It evokes the history of humanity, Meiteis offer it to their ancient deities at Cheiraoba or Meitei New Year as a symbol of devotion. It has romantic undertones for the Meitei youth. Its association with Mainu Pemcha is legendary.

Folktale has it that she apparently plucked a Kombirei flower from Yaral pat on her way back from the annual excitement-filled Baruni Ching Kaba (annual pilgrimage up the hill) as a gift for her lover Borachaoba - the star-crossed Romeo-Juliet of Manipur. Plucking the flower was considered a bad omen and she hanged herself without being able to give it to her paramour.

It is not only in Manipur. Elsewhere in Europe, Iris flowers have rich meanings, and when given as gifts, they convey deep sentiments of admiration. They are symbols of faith, hope, wisdom and courage.

The ancient Greeks planted purple iris flowers on the graves of women, believing they would entice the Goddess Iris, to lead their loved ones in their journey to heaven. Egyptian Pharos marvelled at the exotic nature of Iris and they used iris to symbolise their connection to heaven.

By the middle ages, France began to use iris flowers to symbolize royalty and power. It is the iris that inspired the fleur-de-lis or the National symbol for France. In the United States, the iris is the birth flower for February; the flower for the 25th wedding anniversary; and the state flower for Tennessee.

There are 325 species and 50,000 registered varieties of irises. These flowers are typically divided into two groups, bearded iris and beardless iris, which include Japanese and Siberian irises. They range from towering flowers of five feet or more, to tiny dwarfs less than eight inches tall.

Kombirei has cultural or religious roots that go back hundreds of years in the history of Manipur. National symbols intend to unite people by creating visual, verbal, or iconic representations of the national people. There are many songs on Kombirei. Some are new and some are old. They are all sentimental songs as Kombirei plucked at the heartstrings of the young and old Meiteis by its sheer beauty.

Many flowers such as Iris, Lily, and Tulips serve as National Flowers of various countries. A stylized yellow Iris is the symbol of Brussels while the yellow Golden Shower Tree orchid is for Thailand. Rose for England, thistle for Scotland, Shamrock for Ireland and leek for Wales are floral national emblems.

Rose is also the national floral emblem of the United States. It is also the state flower of Tennessee and the emblem for the city of New Orleans (originally a French colony) in America. The provincial flower of Quebec (French-speaking Canada) is the Iris versicolor. Fleur-de-lis (Lily flower) is the national symbol of France.

In the 14th century, English kings used the symbol of Fleur-de-lis on their coats of arms to emphasize their claims to the throne of France. The fleur-de-lis was often incorporated into the family insignia that was sewn on the knight's surcoat - a long garment, which was worn over all the armor and dress, and thus the term, "coat of arms"

Konbirei or Manipuri iris with its light blue to deep-blue or purple flowers demonstrates its aristocracy. It's a wetland plant, grown mainly at Yaral pat (pat = wetland) near Porom pat, in Imphal East district, as well as at Lampel pat in Imphal West district. When I was a small boy I used to see one or two lone konbirei at Lamphel pat. They could not grow tall enough to flower at Lamphel as it was the grazing field of hundreds of cows owned by the surrounding villages.

A long time ago, during one of my visits to Imphal, my elder brother Yaima gave me a rhizome of Konbirei that I grew in my ornamental garden pond. It bloomed for one year and died. Perhaps it was too cold for it. Now I grow a similar plant adapted to cold weather in the same pond. It flowers every year in spring in April, reminding me of kombirei of my childhood.

I take great delight in reading and seeing Kombirei being cultivated these days by a few enthusiasts in Imphal. Iris was such a small family of flowering plants that there were no books on it, only chapters in a botanical books.

It was only mentioned in passing, in my undergraduate botany classes. Kombirei belongs to the genus Iridecea and species of laevigata. It has been authenticated through the Royal Botanical Garden, London. It is found also in Yunnan and Tibet. It has been used as herbal medicine for throat ailments.

The history of Iris that quite befittingly, takes its name from the Greek word for "rainbow" dates back to ancient Greek times. In Homer's Iliad, iris was the messenger of the gods, especially dedicated to the service of Hera, the wife of Zeus, and one of the main means of communication between heavens and the earth. She would descend as rainbow, and was forever associated with the blaze of colour.

The ancient Egyptian kings - the Pharos marveled in the exotic nature of iris as shown by the finding of drawings of the flower in a number of Egyptian palaces. During the middle Ages, the meaning of iris became linked to the French monarchy, and the Fleur-de-lis (Iris flower) eventually became the recognized symbol of France.

Joan of Arc carried a banner that showed God blessing the French royal emblem - the fleur-de-lis, when she led French troops to victory over the English in support of the Dauphin, Charles VII, in his quest for the French throne.

The French also used iris to make perfume and as a medical remedy. The famous Bombay Sapphire Gin (Original London Dry Gin) in a sapphire coloured bottle with a picture of Queen Victoria on the label, and contains a type of Iris for its flavour.

Iris flowers like Manipuri kombirei are appreciated worldwide for its expressive aristocratic culture. . They are found all over the world. They are quite in demand as gifts for occasions such as sympathy, get well or birthdays.

It is a perennial herb, usually 10 to 80 cm in height, forming large groups of thick rhizomes. The stalks without wings, standing, generally have basal leaves. The canes are not more than 1 cm. in width. The leaves are folded into the midrib so as to form an overlapping flat fan.

The well-developed blue flower of Kombirei has 6 petals and sepals spread out nearly flat and have two forms. The sepals are hairless (there is a variety of hairy iris) and have a greenish-yellow spot at its base. The flowers are usually deep blue sky in bloom from May to July.

Konbirei has enjoyed a close association with Meiteis for hundreds of years. Its significance is that it transcends a role not simply as a beautiful flower but as a symbol to represent life, love and death. That, it has achieved such iconic status, tells us much about the authority and charm of kombirei that continues to enthrall Meiteis as powerfully today as it did in antiquity.

* Dr. Irengbam Mohendra Singh wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com and Website:
This article was webcasted on March 24 2020.

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