"Life is dull and predictable on land,” says Mohan Singh with
a smile. The 75-year-old fisherman spoke to me when I was at his home in Thanga
(one of the islands on Loktak lake), his hands engaged with the cane he was
braiding for the mat. Mohan Singh is part of the fisher community that shares a
deep relation with Manipur’s Loktak lake. The community finds it increasingly
difficult to live on the phumshang, a hut built over a floating landmass,
as the state government made it illegal to construct them. This ban on
settlement in the lake has affected the community in many ways. The “dull” and
“predictable” expressed by Mohan Singh partly captures their uprooting from
When I directed our conversation from fishing to divinity, he placed his cane-braid aside and began animatedly narrating folktales and stories about gods and goddesses. The community of Loktak shares a strong bond with Loktak Lairembee (goddess of Loktak). She is trusted as a mother who cares and nurtures. The lake provides the community with livelihood and shelter. As Mohan Singh spoke of Loktak Lairembee and what she means to him and the community I got an idea of their connection with the waters and the life therein. One senses the depth of respect the community have for her as one listens to the anecdotes.
The history of the people residing on the lake is somewhat hazy even among the community. However, there was a certain uniformity in the narrative. They all believe that people have been residing on the lake since time immemorial. Folktales give us rich accounts of Loktak Lairembee and the lake itself. According to one such myth, once an almighty king was supposed to have assigned places to rule among his seven daughters. One daughter was advised to stay in Loktak, and she later was considered Loktak Lairembee. It was believed that she was assigned to Loktak because of her motherly and forgiving nature, and she has been proving this ever since.
aobam Paban Kumar’s Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake) which was screened in 2016 presents the audience with a crisp picture of the fishing community and their destitution after the intervention of Loktak Downstream Authority (LDA). The state and LDA have given the community a legal eviction notice. The community resisted, and as a result LDA burnt down most of their houses. The film covers a wide range of concerns such as belief and superstition in the lake, insurgency, violence, people-state conflict, hardship and the everyday life of the fishing community in Loktak.
The portrayal of Loktak Lairembee, and the belief of a supernatural presence drew my attention to the movie. The protagonist is perceived by his wife as possessed by a spirit and is treated by a traditional healer. This particular element demonstrates how Manipuri society is not without superstition. If a person starts behaving unlike they normally do, it is often presumed that the person is possessed. The practice of traditional healers is prevalent in Manipur. When an illness is not cured by modern medicine, the patient is often taken to traditional healers. The healers are believed to be messengers between the human and superhuman. They are the mediums and the ultimate negotiators. The portrayal of Loktak Lairembee is depicted with calmness and surrealism.
As an audience, I appreciate Kumar’s direction on how he has beautifully represented their perception of her presence in Loktak. After interacting with people tied to Loktak in this intimate way and hearing their anecdotes, I could tell that Kumar’s portrayal of her is not far from truth.
In the climax, the protagonist glides his boat into the middle of the night to catch hold of a woman, because he is scared that she is following him, but in the heat of the moment he fires two bullets at her. He returns to his phumshang when he sees her fall. He hears someone knock his door. He opens the door in fear, only to see a woman handing him two bullets, the same woman whom he had shot. The movie ends with her rowing back into the vastness of the lake. This particular scene largely represents her character being calm, forgiving and omnipresent.
There are two types of fishing community in Loktak, one that comes to fish from land and one who resides on the lake by building huts on the phum. However, their respect for the lake or the goddess is no different. The day begins and ends in water for those who live on the lake. Both man and woman contribute together, but it is the woman who generally goes to the market to sell the catch. They seldom leave the lake except when visiting someone or taking the fish to the market. If the catch is small they go to the nearby market, but if it is substantial, they go to Imphal (the capital of Manipur).
They are occupied all hours fishing or drying fish. Earlier they also collected vegetables that grow in water, such as heikak (water-chestnut), thangjing (fox nut), lotus root, stems and iseeds, eekai thabi (water mimosa) for selling as well, but now this part of the business is mostly for one’s own kitchen.
One of the other interesting occupational groups connected to the lake is known as “onja”. They too are from the fishing community. These are people who work as a bridge between the fisherfolk and the market. If they are unable to take their fish to the market, the onja takes it and does the business for them. The profit is shared afterwards.
met Keshav, a 78-year-old boatman, in Thanga (a small island in Loktak) who took me in his boat to the phumshang in that area for the interviews. I heard him chanting, along with repeated gestures touching the boat followed by prostration. He told us to do the same whenever we enter the lake on a boat. The gesture is common among fisherfolk on the lake. It represents their respect for the boat. The chant invokes Loktak Lairembee for a fruitful day. She is often worshipped as Ima Lairembee (mother goddess) as well because of her protective and giving nature. Thus, they have assumed the lake is a sacred space where the goddess of Loktak resides. The lake belongs to her and they are her children.
During our conversation Keshav mentioned that “she (Loktak Lairembee) likes expensive phones”. He added with a smile that she might take my phone and never return it. We shared a laugh. His humour and turn of phrase bespoke his temperament. Remembering the days of insurgency and counter-insurgency operations, he added that these days even if someone has an infection and the blood of the insurgent is the only cure, you won’t find it even if you search the entire state. This reference to scarcity of blood points towards the changing contours of insurgency in contemporary Manipur.
He narrated an incident that happened to him a year ago. A young couple hired his boat to take them around the lake. When they were in the middle of it, the boy asked if they could hang around until late evening. Later he came to know that they were marking time before elopement, a common practice in Manipur. After a few similar incidents, he says that whenever young couple to hire his boat, he rows as slowly as he can.
At night, the lake becomes a mirror for the stars in the sky. One night, I managed to climb to a height to witness the lake. It was worth the trouble. The sky was covered with clouds, but it felt like the twinkling sky on land. The twinkling lights are the bulbs used by fisherfolk for fishing. At present, the community mainly fishes at night. They usually start after 10 p.m., and the lake twinkles from a distance. Earlier they carried oil lanterns, but now they use bulbs and batteries which run all night long. They tie the bulbs to bamboo sticks which are then inserted in the phum.
This particular floating mass, used for the purpose of fishing, is smaller in size than the one on which they stay. The bulb attracts insects which lure the fish. They are expensive, ₹700-₹1,000, the costlier the better. They also wear something like a miner’s safety lamp, on the forehead, to navigate while fishing. Soma, a 45-year-old fisherwoman, told me that if used carefully these batteries have a life of one year.
“When we are under the bosom of Ima Lairembee, there is nothing to fear,” said Laishram Mani. While Loktak Lairembee is motherly, on the other hand, Ibudhou Pakhangba (the mighty snake god) is difficult to please and easy to displease. He is famous for his incarnation of an enormous python that remains undefeated. The wooden boat in the lake is believed to be his incarnation. Hiyang Tanaba, a festival which is celebrated during the month of October-November involves a traditional boat race of Manipur. Most of the boats used in the race carry a symbol of a snake in them which represents Ibudhou Pakhangba.
n my first day on the lake, the boat was leaking. The boatman calmed me down and stated a fact that is common knowledge. Every boat on the lake has two holes. They represent the eyes of Ibudhou Pakhangba. He added seriously that if a boat does not have the eyes, it sinks in the lake. He said that once in a while the water has to be taken out. No harm will come from these eyes, but it will if one disrespects him.
Every morning, before sailing into the lake the fisher folk pray to Loktak Lairembee. They also worship the boat for their safety. Before beginning the day’s journey, they perform duli katpa (touching the boat with the hand and placing the hand on the forehead) as a mark of respect and good luck.
They told me that if there is any bad omen on their route, the boat gives them a signal. During such times, the boat and water do not blend the way they usually do. They would feel the environment turning eerie, or they get sudden goose bumps, and they know that they should return to their phumshang (floating hut). Ibudhou Pakhangba is perceived as superior and ferocious whereas Loktak Lairembee is trusted as a mother.
The fisherfolk end their day by thanking the boat for being the saviour. They express gratitude to Loktak Lairembee and request to surrender their souls to her while they sleep under her bosom. Thus, the lives of the fishing community of Loktak are closely knitted with their belief system. It is as if they live with their mythological god and goddess. Moreover, it is not just these two supreme incarnations; there are also particular places in the lake which are not advisable for visits.
They believe that there are places where gods, goddesses, and spirits (good as well as wicked) often appear. Such places are not meant for human presence. Thus, these places are respected and restricted at the same time. If someone makes the mistake of entering them, it believed that ill health may befalll on them. Here enters the traditional healers. They treat the victims with their own therapies, that include chanting and offerings. During the process, the healer tries to negotiate with the spirits or gods and goddesses. In return for the person’s good health, the healer offers fruits or sweets, often along with other things demanded by the spirits.
In his book Shamans, Mystics and Doctors, Sudhir Kakar explains how the concept of healing is not viewed as different from medicine, but falls in a mystical-spiritual domain. Healing thus becomes not just about the physical but about social, cultural and metaphysical aspects of one’s life.
The older generation is displeased with the younger for their casual attitude towards the traditional belief system. They believe the younger generation have failed to build a relation of trust with the lake. For them, Loktak is a commercial space.
It saddens them to witness the degradation of their belief system. “My son once responded, in this world of machines why would one cling to a wooden boat,” said Bir Singh, now 75 and retired. They “are hurt thinking about how Loktak Lairembee must be shedding tears to see her children disrespecting her. During their childhood days, they would sleep to the soothing rhythm of waves. Now, that is just a faraway dream.