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E-Pao! Travel - Tharol Cave Expedition

Tharol Cave Expedition

By: Yaiphabi Chanu Thoudam *



My experience of the 'Tharol Cave Expedition' was something, which anyone who has traveled through the remote parts of Manipur can understand. I say this because I had to venture through the same old dusty roads of yesteryears, which unfortunately happens to be the national highways. Along the way, we had to risk life-threatening slopes and un-ignorable dangers of falling rocks.

In spite of the lurking dangers, I have to admit that I really enjoyed the new experience, which in its realization makes me feel as if I have accomplished a long awaited mission. I need not say much about how my journey was. The pace was slow yet steady, chiefly maintained by the frequent flat tyres and the twist and the turns of the road.

Oh yes, there were the small yet not so prompt interruptions made by nature's calls and also the calls of the mighty "camouflaged" jawans. Somehow, the banners and the flags that decorated the bus seemed to fail in delivering the message of the Tharol cave expedition.

Whoever has seen the view of Imphal valley from the heights of Keithelmanbi would passionately affirm that Manipur is as beautiful as any other hill stations or tourist spots in the world. Rustic-looking aluminum-glazed rooftops of tiny houses lay scattered over a mass of greenery, surrounded by observant hill ranges, which are decorated with care by pine trees and numerous unnamed floras and wild flowers.

And how blissfully the floating clouds take pride in being the crowing glory such a beautiful panorama. If I have to use a word to describe it, 'breathless', shall be the one. The fresh and mystic air refreshes you, fills you up positive energy and makes you alive all over again. Experience some day the pleasure of watching the beauty of our place. You will be at once one with nature, understand it in its most pristine form and will make you realize how best we can relate not only to ourselves but also to the people surrounding us.

Upon reaching Tamenglong, what struck me most was the relative ease in which modernity and tradition co-exist. But most important of all was the stark reality of deprivations symbolized through the women of the place. As elsewhere, the local youths were attired in the latest MTV fashion. The elderly crowds who affectionately wear their own traditional costumes mockingly represented the opposite.

Like in any other parts of Manipur, the women folks could be seen earning a day's meal through the humble capital displayed in front of them on tiny polythene sheets. You would also witness many of them daring the stiff hills and the stony paths, carrying huge loads on their heads. This made me wonder if they were at some point of time being praised and admired by their lovers for their beauty and softness, promising the life of a queen in his humble palace. All I could see was the twisted brows of hardship, of beauties uncared--lusterless skin and cracked-heels, yes indeed, signs the deprivations.

We had to hold the night at the Youth Hostel in Tamenglong headquarters as it was late and was unsafe to drive. The hostel consisted of one big hall which had a badminton court at the centre and a stage/platform at the rear end and toilets at both the sides. There being no proper kitchen, we had to make the arrangements to cook our food outside and the outcome achieved from such a dubious arrangement was a decent one.

Altogether, including the officials and media persons, our group numbered 58 campers, and I was the only women camper. The officials organized us in four groups of about 10 each, which make the division of labor quite easy and systematic. I being the black sheep did not belong to any group and free-lanced everywhere, mostly helping the kitchen hands. I felt sorry for the lady official who reluctantly had to be a part of the team so as to accompany the only woman camper in the expedition.

She even joked to me as what on earth made me join the expedition. She has many successful expeditions under her belt and I could not prove to be a great companion to her. I never doubt the adventurous and daring spirits of Manipuri women but what made them sit at home this time is something I have wondered throughout the trip. But not even for a single moment did I regret being a part of the team.

Since the very moment I acknowledged its brief advertisement in the local TV channel, I had been wondering, "Is there really a place in Manipur which sounds as fascinating as any other tourist spots in any other state or country in the world?" This curiosity was the main reason behind my participation in the expedition - to discover an unseen world, which was right under our own noses.

Not long after we refreshed, we were briefed by our team-leader, as what can be done or not, where to spend the nights, etc. I twisted my lips when we were told that the ladies would be camping their bedding along with the remaining 56 men in the same hall. But my tired body did not complain to what looked like an intrusion to our privacy. We were also informed about the official curfew in the town every night after 7.30 p.m.

Hence, strict prohibitions were exercised against exploring the neighborhood. The boys groaned and sighed of a lost chance to perhaps woo some local belles, but finally reconciled. I presume, it is in situations like this that the words bunking and sneaking was invented. I envied the three guys from the press as they had the liberty or the power to trespass territories where a normal person could not. When they returned, they said that certain things that were banned in the Imphal city (i.e. Kwa, Talab, etc) were freely available in Tamenglong.

Next morning, we received the news of more locals joining us, amongst which were three local ladies. The hospitality of the local youths and their co-operation stood out in today's fast changing cutthroat world. I hardly expected anyone to take the time out for some thing, which is not scaled in terms of money. Their warm presence spilled some sense of security, too. As we started interacting with them, they proved to be as nice as any other souls on the planet. I was even more comforted to have the company of three young ladies on our onward trip to Tharol.

In a state where most of the infrastructure is poor, the Indian army was of much help, at least in our expedition. They generously provided us water and offered to drive us the 30 Km distance to our destination. We headed off for our destination in two army mini-trucks, one big truck and a gypsy. Throughout the second phase of the journey we had to brave the pouring rain, the slippery and muddy roads, and most frightening of all the fathomless gorges which were inches away from where the wheels were rolling.

Ask any person in the hill regions the distance of a particular destination and they would quickly reply to you in time metric system i.e. hours and not in terms of kilometers. So, when we were just about an hour away from Tharol (in terms of distance, it was a matter of about four or five kilometers), the big truck lost its fight against nature. We had to resume the remaining part of the bumpy journey in the two smaller vehicles, well sadly, at the cost of the comfort of the boys.

The best thing about traveling in a bumpy terrain is the joy-ride received by my intestines. The team's medical advisor empathetically announced that such an exercise was good for the health! The worst damages done, however, was when the tin of kerosene let itself loose and greased the bag of rice, vegetables and other commodities stationed nearby. We were able to rescue majority of the rations, rather we chose to believe we did. The meals that followed afterwards had the aroma of kerosene, but none of us complained.

Tharol welcomed us, a bunch of wet, dirty, mud-smeared and exhausted to death people. The thrill and excitement of adventures that lay ahead uplifted our sprits and most of our misfortunes were forgotten. If I were a painter I would have loved to paint the portrait of each of us in such spirits. I was eager to unfold the adventures, which lay ahead of me.

Before we could admire the beauty of the place, we were given briefing by our team-leader. And through the briefing it was decided unanimously that the mysterious beauty of the cave should be unraveled without wasting any more time. We gathered our necessary equipments and gadgets viz. torchlights, candles, matches, cameras, water bottles, etc. and emergency provisions such as dried coconuts and candies (in case of starvation).

Each group was given ropes, which were to help us give directions in the darkness of the cave. Writing chalks were distributed so that each leader of the group can leave some markings to assists anyone in the right direction. In the short briefing, it was emphasized that everyone should maintain their calm inside the cave and no unnecessary noise should be produced as it hampers communication of vital information to and from the guides.

The tour guides were none other than the locals who have mastered the techniques of climbing and clinging without any formal training. They have also learnt by heart all the possible routes and ways in and out of the cave. Through them it was discovered that there are 140 different routes in the cave out of which only eight have dead-ends.

The rest are open-ended routes. At the mouth of the cave, upstair, our guide pointed to the ceilings of the cave, which looked as if it was painted in red. Legend says that it was the blood of two lovers who have died inside the cave. Today, the chamber is popularly known as the "Lovers hall". What a great way of immortalizing love. It made me sigh.

We entered the cave in small groups of 10 to 15 people and experienced guides and officials as well as the media personnel leaded each group. The first day was a disappointment. We were advised against visiting the inside of the cave as it was too wet hence dangerous to go inside. The local guides casually shrugged their shoulders.

What is adventure if it does not have a tinge of risk? The following day we had our encounter with Tharol. With much precaution we ventured inside the cave and explored the "Upstairs" and "Downstairs" routes as the locals call it. After daring the wet, slippery, stone cold clefts and making awkward twists and turns, our crawling body passed through the narrow crevices of the upstairs.

And voila! We had the opportunity to discover the space inside the cave which they call the "Dancing hall". We also sat and chatted for a wee while in what they call as the "Dinosaur's cave". I still cannot figure out why they call it so. Some other groups had the privilege to venture through the "Downstairs" route. Few of us saw only the demonstration of going down the cave with the help of ropes, which was tied to a huge log above. Apparently it is 20 ft long and it is supposedly the most adventurous of all. Unfortunately, I would not know for certain if they were indeed true.

Most of the time, my heart beat hard against my chest --- fear, fascination and awe. I must admit I was admiring the beauty of a rare creation of nature. The cave had/formed layers of rocks piled one above the other and years of exposure have carved images upon them deepening the mystery of creation all the more. I stopped by to imagine and relate myself to the years that have somehow been captured right in the walls of the cave. Legend says that Meitei Kings used to hide in these caves during wars.

In the dim light I could see tiny sparkles which looked liked diamonds imprinted with caution. To me, they appeared as treasures abandoned. I was not disappointed on realizing that they were droplets of water, which dripped from unrecognizable pores of the walls of the cave. This was one of the best mimicry nature pulled on us, something we can learn.

We had been warned beforehand about encountering unwanted odor, insects, millipedes, centipedes and bats, etc. Call me lucky; I did not encounter any of them. Call me crazy, somehow the smell of the cave appealed to me. Sometimes the passage was so narrow, I thought I would get stuck halfway through. Being as inexperienced as any layman, there were passages where I thought I would dive hopelessly and break my neck.

The courage of the guides helped me come over such obstacles and I had already developed a particular fondness for these gentlemen. When I successfully expedited a route, someone joked if I really fit in the crevices. Others joked that I made things easier for them as I enlarged the crevices on my passage. What made the cave more enigmatic are the streams of water that flowed inside the cave so peacefully. Typical to its nature, they would not stop at anything, not even to pause a while and see the beauty of the cave. They keep flowing until they reach their destination, who knows, may be a lake or a sea.

Happy yet wanting faces came out of the exit of the cave. Few others and I missed out on several routes due to the shortage of time, as the army trucks were to come and pick us up and drop us to Tamenglong. We hurried through our lunches and I stole some moments to bathe in the nearby stream -- just like a cave woman. Later on, a handsome local guy offered me orchid plants and oranges, plucked with care, as mementos of love and friendship.

Some of us volunteered to walk through the transit up to the place where the big truck awaited us. The trekking of one hour was tiring but immensely refreshing, as I chatted through the way with the local guy. He narrated me stories of the bygone days and of the ones to come. I was much interested to be informed abut the "Orange Festival", and wished I could stay there till January to be a part of the festival. The festival as I gathered is organized to exhibit different varieties of oranges, cultivated and harvested the year round from different parts of Manipur.

I felt disappointed to learn that the so called official farm which is under the government's supervision is no longer functioning well and apparently all the plants are not giving decent productions. The orange plants in the farm have lost their yield, the soil have lost the fertility due to negligence. Yet, the spirits of the festivals is kept alive each year thanks to the "never say die" attitude of the small time farmers. Thus, biding farewell to Tharol and its people, we brought along with us mementos of love and hope, of a future in the making.

I felt a sense of mixed emotion when I left Tharol. I was delighted for I would be sleeping in the comfort my warm bed the next day and enjoy the simple pleasures of being at home. I also felt a sense of contentment that I had the opportunity to see a place, which is unknown to many of us. I felt enlightened in knowing a part of our society, which is so much a reflection of our own past, and perhaps the present too, and because relating to them is not that difficult.

I immersed myself completely into it and learned that ignorance perhaps is bliss. I felt sorry because this was all that I could do for them at the moment, though perhaps there are thousand ways to pay my gratitude back to them. I appreciate the small gesture of the Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association (MMTA) of presenting the local youth club with some gifts for the children, which they accepted with a warm smile and modesty.

We traveled back through the same roads amidst laughter and songs sung in gay abandon. Popular Manipuri numbers have been my favorites and I should confess I could not award my local friends with any Kabui numbers. Tamenglong headquarters awaited us with its cool refreshing breeze. The District Collector had showed up after a while to welcome us from the expedition.

He generously donated MMTA some amount of money, so that the tired guides and the expedition party (the cave men) could have a proper meaty meal. Everyone applauded merrily and we sang through the night in front of the bon-fire of candles. It was a shame that we couldn't light up a proper bon-fire considering the tension and the consequent curfew. I exchanged email addresses and mobile numbers with the lasses from Tamenglong and also with the boys from many parts of the city.

The night passed by in a din of noises and voices. We had to persuade the boys to lower their vocal chords so as to steal some sleep. In the morning we didn't manage to get any tea or breakfast due to the rain. Everyone was just happy to be in the bus ready to head back home. We gathered some eatables from the market and shared them in the bus. The bus broke down several times but managed to reach Noney.

At Noney while we enjoyed our lunches, the driver and the handy man tended the sick vehicle. After much waiting and yawning the tyre was mended and we headed back to Imphal anticipating the participation of the closing ceremony of the three-day long Tourism festival. I felt anxious at the thought of shaking hands with our respected Chief Minister amongst flashes of camera lights and renowned personalities from different parts of the state.

The trip being an official one, there was much restrictions on our movements in and around the town which somehow restrained the beauty of the trip. We missed visiting the waterfall nearby and the lakes, which are given the name according to the fauna, which it niches, namely the "Tortoise Lake". Hence, most of us promised to come back again to Tharol on personal tours which will some how give us the freedom to go to places and be daring enough to explore and satisfy our own curiosities.

Now, I am in my brightly lighted room, and am trying to reflect on to the lives of the people in the far away place. Their simple attitude towards life has touched me deeply. Their struggle and contentment from the little they get inspires me. Their world of trees, forests, mountains and all the things available in the vicinity, for which they are both the benefactor and guardian, fascinates me and fills me up with envy.

I try to visualize Tharol in the years to come, say ten years down the line, and it is not difficult to imagine. Most probably, many of the hunters who swarm in and around the cave would wear the official tag of a tourist guide, and lead lives in a more organized and respectful manner. The Chairman's house where we had put up would then be a traveler's inn entertaining at least hundred tourists every night.

There would be an overall development in the infrastructure of the village, including a much-needed hospital. Several shops would emerge to cater to the needs of the locals as well as the tourists. Imagine Tharol with a shopping complex where local garments and handicrafts, exotic plants, flowers and fruits, etc. are sold, much cheaper than the Imphal markets.

Yes, Tharol could be the model village, a merger between a rustic and ethnic lifestyle with that of a modern urbane. Imagine Tharol being the centre of tourist's attraction of Manipur and very soon Manipur constructing its second airport in Tamenglong.

The Chief Minister had said in his interview during the closing ceremony that in order to encourage tourism, the law and order of the state should be kept under control. Although I wish to revisit Tharol, I wonder how the trip would be like if I have to go without any official assistance. Couple of things is sure. For one, I would be asked a thousand questions at every army/police check post and would have to grease the palms many concerned officials.

Most likely, I would end up in a shabby hut, which stands for a hotel. And if the weather turns bad there would be no army-trucks to rescue me as it has happened this time. I had asked my friend from Tamenglong if all the people in his town are as kind-hearted and friendly as they are. He replied with a shy smile that as long as he (they) is with us everyone would be nice to us. He promised me that whenever I (we) call upon them they would be more than willing to accompany anyone of us and show us around.

I do not know yet if I will ever go back to visit Tharol again. But the imprints of the place and the experience will stay with me forever. We went there as mere tourists but returned as ambassadors of an enchanted land, to tell the world the beauty of simplicity it inherits.

All I am trying to share is the lesson I learnt along the journey, of eco-tourism, conservation and preservation, and if I am able to convey to you these, I believe my trip has been a successful one.

P.S: This article is just a personal note about the experience and not an official publication of the expedition.

Related Links:

  • Check the gallery pictures for Manipur Tourism Festival here.

* Yaiphabi Chanu Thoudam contributes regularly to e-pao.net . She went on this expedition which was organized by Ministry of Tourism and Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association as a part of the three-day long Manipur Tourism festival 2006. . This article was webcasted on November 17th, 2006


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