Why Manipur excels in Sports and connect with local Culture

Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, silver medalist Tokyo Olympics.
  • Read about leading Manipuri sport persons and traditional sports of Manipur. What makes Manipuri sports tick? What should Government and India Inc do to help?

The silver medal by Saikhom Mirabai Chanu at Olympics 2021 brought smiles to Indians worldwide. An Indian woman winning a medal is cheered. That she did so on the first day of the Tokyo Olympics was even more important.

Chanu hails from the Indian state of Manipur. Although it is nestled in one corner of India and shares a border with Mynamar, Manipur’s contribution to Indian Sports has been creditable.

In the 1988 Asian Games, the late Dingko Singh reignited the boxing spirit in the country, by winning a gold medal for the country in the Asian Games after a gap of 16 years,” former coach Ibomcha said. Source Indian Express.

Boxer Late Dingko Singh.

Another boxer of repute is Sarita Devi. She has 5 Asian titles under her belt and is also a World Champion. Source 

Boxer Sarita Devi 

Mary Kom is a legend who has become immortal because of the movie made on her.

So even though Manipur is a small state, its sporting tradition and rich culture, music and dance have made it known both, within and outside India.

The game of Polo was founded in Manipur. “The game of Polo (Sagol Kangjei), according to Chaitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Manipur was introduced by king Kangba, writes Gyanendro Ningombam.” Source

Polo at oldest polo ground in the world.    

Before going into the reasons for Manipur’s success we must know about local games of Manipur that in a way set the tone for physical fitness and taking to competitive sport.

Boxing is very popular in Manipur. There are private and government run training schools. The 2014 pic that you see is a semi-final match of the North Eastern Games being played at the government run Sports Academy in Imphal.

Boxing Match at Sports Academy, Imphal. North-eastern games. 

Manipur has a local version of hockey called Mukna Kangjei which means wrestling and hockey. It is a combination of modern day hockey and rugby. Players have a cloth around their waist. It allows the other team players to hold the cloth and prevent you from moving. Here players pick up the ball. Having got the ball they run towards the goal of the opponent. Catch me if u can. They play hockey too, dribbling with ball but their hockey stick design is different from what is seen in contemporary hockey. Great fun to watch.

Manipuri Hockey Match., 2014.

Manipur has wrestling too. It is called MUKNA. The game is a must play during the Lai Haraoba festival. See the linkage between culture and sport.

Read “Mukna, generally regarded as one of the manliest of sports has been perhaps with Manipuris from time immemorial. It is a very popular game of two persons who are trained by the village 'Ojha' (Master), who received the title of 'Jatra' (Unbeaten) person. It has fundamental Rules agreed by all Mukna organizations. Traditionally the game is controlled and organised by Pana Loisang of the Ruler of the state and village organizations.” Source

A major dream of the young is to win the title of 'Jatra' (Champion) of Mukna of Manipur. Motivation to win and social recognition start at a young age.

Wrestling match, Sangai Festival. 

Manipur has a tradition of martial arts too.

Pic you see is of THANG TA, the traditional martial art of Manipur.

Martial Art, Sangai Festival 2014.

Local Games, Sangai Festival 2014.  

Also read

All about Indigenous Games of Manipur

Pictures of Indigenous Games of Manipur

Manipur contributed to Indian sports before Dingko Singh and Mary Kom.

In 1970 N. Maipak Singh won the Mr. India contest. Thereafter, he represented India at the Mr World Universe in Paris and finished at number 8 position.

This win motivated talented Manipuri athletes to take part in national games in hockey, football, weightlifting, judo, wrestling, boxing, karate, badminton and cycling.

A short stint as Union Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports, during rule of Rajiv Gandhi, by Rajkumar Joychandra Singh was a turning point for Manipuri sports. Joychandra established international standard sports training facilities at Imphal that helped produce weightlifting stars like N.Kunjarani Devi, Anita Chanu, Sanamacha Chanu, Monica, Sanjita and Tokyo Olympic silver medalist Mirabai Chanu etc. The facility also produced international boxers namely S. Suresh, Dinko Singh, Suranjan Singh, Kiran followed by MC Mary Kom, L.Sarita Devi and Lady Hockey stars like W.Surajlata Chanu, Ksh.Tingongleima, Sangai Ebenhal Chanu, G.Manorama etc.

One and half decades before Manipur had its Astro turf stadium (1999) came the hockey Olympian P Nilakamol who represented India at Los Angeles Games as Goalkeeper. Next games at Seoul saw Thioba Singh in the national team. Tiken, Chinglensana, Kothajeet also featured in many international matches

The soft and modest Manipuri girls also followed the footsteps of Nilankamol and Thioba. Surajlata and Tingongleima were captain of the Indian Women Hockey team on many occasions.

Archer Laishram Bombayla Devi has the distinction of participation at three consecutive Olympic Games namely 2008 Beijing, 2012 London and 2016 Rio De Janerio. Judoka Ksh. Tombi also represented India at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Manipuris have excelled in football too. Many boys and girls play for Indian clubs. Ng. Bala Devi became the first Indian woman player to play professionally for a European team. Many other Manipuri football players have been honoured, not so famous, by the Football Federation of India.

Maisnam Meiraba Luwang is BWF World number 2 (Times of India 2020) and a product of Prakash Padukone’s Badminton Academy.

Five Manipuris are representing India in the Tokyo. Two hockey players, one judoka, Mary Kom and Chanu.  

What makes Manipuri Sports Tick?

A retired Lt General, who had served in Manipur tweeted, “Manipur has culture of clubs-Who organize sports and cultural events at micro level. These are not affiliated with federations but are Voluntary and community funded. Also, Short height allows greater dynamic balancing and women play a significant role. Eating of sticky rice with high protein helps Manipuri athletes.

These local sports clubs are the biggest supporters of talent. They also fund sportsperson taking part in national championships. The reimbursement from the state government, invariably in part, comes much later.

Manipur has a rich sporting tradition as is noticed by the variety of its indigenous games.

There is a linkage between its culture and sport for e.g. wrestling called Mukna is a must play during the Lai Haraoba festival. This festival has significantly contributed to the sporting culture of Manipur. Also played is traditional hockey.

Manufacturing and service industries are not significant employers in Manipur so for many sports is a way to economic freedom. International medal fetch government awards, even though subsequent to victory for e.g. Mirabai Chanu is to receive a cash award of Rs 1 crore and a job with local police at a senior level. Financial security is important for all.

A Business Standard article of July 29 makes the following points. 

Mirabai Chanu says, “We have an annual festival Umang Lai. There is a sports event in every village on the day of the festival – athletics, football, foot hockey and every kid takes part. That’s where the magic starts.”   

Manipuri society is divided into neighborhoods called Leica. A leikai is a cohesive social organization within neighborhoods. Every leikai will have a sports club, it is just integrated into societal culture says L Somi Roy who has worked in Manipur to revive arts, culture and sports.

What can the government do to help?

The State and Union Government can create more and more sports facilities and provide better employment opportunities to promising sports persons including opportunities for career progression. Participation in national and international events should be encouraged and supported. Cash Awards should be announced before the sporting event.

India Inc can help by investing in sports in Manipur. State government can facilitate the investment because most investors might not be familiar with Manipur.

Every state has something unique that it and the nation must capitalize on, something that comes naturally to the people living in that state. For Manipur it is SPORTS.

Author  is a resident of Manipur. Article pictures by Sanjeev Nayyar.

Also read

1. Manipuris have in-born qualities to excel in sports

2. Polo at Sangai Festival, Imphal 2014

3. Women’s role in 20th century Manipur

4. Manipuris thriving in football

5. All Women Market at Imphal

6. Sangai Festival Manipur

7. The iron women of Manipur who live Olympian dreams   

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