Shirui Lily Festival 2017

Retd Lt Col M Ranjit Singh *

Shirui Lily Festival at TNL Ground, Ukhrul :: 16th - 20th May 2017
Shirui Lily Festival at TNL Ground, Ukhrul on 16 - 20 May 2017 :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

The first time, I heard of Shirui Lily was in 1967. It was not in Manipur when I heard of the State Flower of Manipur but in Poona. I was then studying at the Spicer Memorial College, Poona. There, in the college library, I read, "Plant Hunter in Manipur" written by Francis Kingdom-Ward. This book is about the discovery of Shirui Lily by F. Kingdom-Ward and his second wife, Jean Macklinin in Ukhrul during 1948.

Francis was an English plant collector who went around 25 expeditions over a period of nearly 50 years. In addition to his professional activities as a Botanist, in the 1930s Kingdom-Ward also served as a spy for the British India Office. On conclusion of the Second World War, Francis was requisitioned by the US Air Force in January 1946 to locate the remnants of three US aircrafts crashed during the War somewhere between Manipur and Burma (Myanmar).

During the course of his search for the missing aircrafts, he on an impulse decided to climb the Shirui Kashong, just to look over into Burma. He found there the dry capsules of a lily or Nomocharis, and a dwarf Iris. He collected seeds of both and sent them to England.

That climb to Shirui, an insignificant event in itself, was destined to have unforeseen consequences. Later, on February 17, 1948, he came to Manipur along with his second wife, Jean Macklin, under the sponsorship of New York Botanic Garden to undertake a plant-hunting expedition in Shirui. On his second trip to Manipur, India was already an independent country.

But Manipur was still an independent Princely State, just as it had been under the British rule. Francis and Jean stayed in Ukhrul from February 27 to December 10, 1948 collecting and studying specimens of Shirui Lily. It must be remembered that the seeds, which Francis sent to England in January 1946, germinated under glass and flowered in June 1947. Francis and Jean took around 200 fine mature Shirui Lily bulbs while leaving Manipur in the middle of December 1948.

The Shirui Lily was named Lilum Mackliniae by Mr. J.R. Sealy in honour of Francis' wife Jean, who had done so much to help him bring it into cultivation on a big scale. Shirui Lily was accepted into the temples of Flora and included in the Kew Index. The bulbs sent by Francis to England were grown by Col F.C. Stern, then greatest living expert on lilies.

Fred Stern grew them on for eighteen months, and then exhibited a plant in full bloom at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1950. Lilum Mackliniae received the Royal Horticultural Society's coveted Award of Merit. In the early 1980s, while I was posted in the 4th Assam Rifles, I, as a part of my duties, extensively, visited almost all the areas of Ukhrul district, mostly on foot. I like Tuinem, Ukhrul, Nungbi, Poi, Huishu, Kamjong, Chatrik, Maokot, Nampisha and almost all the beautiful villages of Ukhrul.

During my tenure in Ukhrul, I also visited Shirui village and saw the beautiful Shirui Lily. After my retirement from the Army, I always have in my mind to visit Ukhrul again to relive my memory of good old times I went there. On April 11, 2017, I got a God given chance and kindled interest to visit Ukhrul when the Hon'ble Chief Minister of Manipur, as a part of his "Look Hill Policy", announced the celebration of Shirui Lily Festival in Ukhrul. The festival was scheduled from May 5-9, 2017. It was, however, postponed and held from May 16-20, 2017.

Shirui Lily Festival at TNL Ground, Ukhrul :: 16th - 20th May 2017
Shirui Lily Festival at TNL Ground, Ukhrul on 16 - 20 May 2017 :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

The programme chalked out by Shri N. Ashok Kumar, Secretary Tourism and his team from Department of Tourism for the festival, at a rather short notice, was simply marvelous. Almost all the folk items of all tribes of Manipur were shown during the festival. The main attraction of the festival, however, was the chance to see the rare and internationally famous Shirui Lily- live. The Shirock 2017 performed in the evenings was also a big hit among the young western music lovers of Manipur.

The Festival was opened by Honb'le Chief Minister Shri N. Biren Singh on May16, 2017 at Shirui Kashong in front of a large unprecedented crowd including many people from Imphal. The remark of the Honb'le Chief Minister during his speech that God has given a beautiful chance to promote the ties between hill and valley people through the festival was simply true.

For too long there have been men made trust deficit between the peoples of hill and valley of Manipur. The rain God tested the resilience of Manipuris through heavy downpour for most of the Festival days. But enthusiastic people of hills and valley stood their ground and thronged in large numbers the festival place in spite of heavy rains.

The big crowd turned up on subsequent days of the festival was due to whole hearted coverage given by the media and nice words spread through words of mouth. We all must be grateful to media persons for excellent coverage of the event. While in Ukhrul, visitors from Imphal indulged in feasting, merrymaking and simply walking all over Ukhrul throughout the day. I believe Hundung forgot to sleep during the festival as the rock music continued till late at night.

I along with a doctor friend went to attend the closing function of the festival on May 20, 2017. I was advised by Esther Shimray, a Polo Association colleague and emcee of the Festival, to bring gumboots and umbrella in view of the adverse weather condition in Ukhrul. On way to Ukhrul, we saw long convoys of all types of vehicles heading for the same function.

Luckily there was no rain on that day. I saw many youngsters taking their bicycles on the roof of the buses. I think that was meant for commuting inside Ukhrul and Shirui. Not a bad idea at all. Ukhrul has changed dramatically since I saw about thirty years ago. I, however, did not find any change in the hospitality and smiling faces of Tangkhuls. There has been lot of constructions and I found it difficult to remember the places.

Our lunch was organised by our family friend Mayowon of Four Seasons and her husband James at their home with a menu of Hilsa and chicken curries. The closing ceremony of the Festival at TNL ground was graced by the Honb'le Governor of Manipur. A large crowd each with an umbrella on their hand attended the closing ceremony.

The Tangkhul ladies were gaily attired in their traditional admirable dress. As for the crowd, one can only describe their behavior as exemplary. Volunteers on the ground marshaled the crowd and performed their job competently.

The Honb'le Governor told the large gathering at the ground that Shirui Lily has the potential to attract many tourists from all over the world to Ukhrul. She also advised the people not to take any environmentally destructive action which will be detrimental to the survival of the rare Shirui Lily. The programme followed later was all songs and music.

Naba Volcano rendered his eternally popular signature song "Ukhrulda Eigi Thawai Leihoure" to the much delight of the crowd. The presence of popular Manipuri actor Sadananda at the stage was much appreciated by the spectators present in the ground. The closing song and best song of the evening 'hingminnashieikhoi' was sung by few artists in different dialects. Frenzied fans screamed and waved their hands wildly when Sadananda sang few lines of the song in Tangkhul. Overall the Festival was a total success.

I salute to Honb'le Chief Minister for his visionary move to organize the festival and Tourism Department for organizing it successfully. I am sure most of the visitors from valley would have memorable experience of their life in Ukhrul and to some extent changed the perception they had earlier of Ukhrul and Tangkhuls.

The Festival has highlighted the potential of attracting tourists to Ukhrul through Shirui Lily. Through proper advertisements, domestic tourists could be attracted to Ukhrul just to enjoy the moderate climate when temperature during the period soars beyond 40 degrees Celsius elsewhere in India.

The Festival will surely help in the long run to provide local employment and will boost resident business in Ukhrul and Shiroi. The conditions of the road to and inside Ukhrul, however, need much improvement before the next edition of festival. The mud on many parts of the road at present was terrible, sticky and deep. To cater to heavy influx of tourists, more emphasis has to be given to make arrangements for home stay at Ukhrul and Shrui.

* Retd Lt Col M Ranjit Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is president of Manipur Equestrian Association
This article was posted on July 19, 2017.

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