Can we, as a people, protect and propagate it?
The Shirui Lily Festival is back after two years of Covid 19 pandemic. This year the festival is being held for four days from the 25th to the 28th of May. The festival is not a traditional festival, rather it is a contemporary cultural state festival organized by the Manipur Tourism Department with the intention to raise awareness about a rare lily which has become endangered due to the lack of ecotourism. The shirui lily is a rare lily plant that grows in Ukhrul district of Manipur which is home to the Tangkhul Naga Tribe. The shirui is the state flower of Manipur and it grows in the high altitude of the hill district at an elevation between 1730 to 2590 meters in the villages of Shirui, Choithar, and Sihai. It blooms in the month of May and June. The lily has distinct pale bluish-pink petals but under a close observation of a microscope the flower has seven colors.
A popular myth about this lily is that the plant grows only in the Shirui Hills. As a kid who grew up in Manipur, I have often heard people talk about the many failed attempts to transplant the lily elsewhere, thus giving the flower plant a sacral status. The myth was so popular then that often couples traveled to Ukhrul to elope and see the shirui lily. The sense of romance around this myth is also propagated through a romantic tale. The story is about a girl Lily and her lover Shirui. One day Shirui went down to the plains for work but he never returned back to the hills. Lily waited for Shirui her whole life and died of heartbreak. She was buried in the Shirui Hills where this rare lily began to grow on her grave. Such myths and tales made the Shirui hills a popular tourist destination. But this popularity also brought with it environmental degradation which is also indicative of lack of environmental consciousness among the tourists. Poor waste management and over tourism are two main reasons behind the environment degradation.
Many efforts like establishing a national park and campaigns to revive the natural habitat of the lily have been initiated but none of these have grabbed the headlines both nationally and internationally till the Shirui Festival came along. The festival is a fusion of ecological, traditional, and modern cultures. The common scene at the festival is the ecological pilgrimage to hills to see the shirui lily. The trek to the hills takes about an hour and the elevation of the hill track is pretty steep. But the trip is worthwhile if one reaches the peak and feels the breeze in the midst of the lilies.
The evening and night events consist of traditional dances, folk songs, beauty pageant shows and music concerts. The Shirock event, which is a battle of musical bands, also witnesses live performances by international musicians. This year a British metal band called Monuments will be performing at the festival. This musical gala normally takes place at Bakshi ground in Ukhrul town. The excitement around the festival is high among the local population in Manipur since the festival has not been held for the last two years.
Songrin, a native of Ukhrul, said, “The buzz around the festival was a little less this time probably because of the state assembly election. And even after the government was formed it was not really talked about or advertised in the public as the fund sanctioned by the state government was less. But as the festival is coming nearer, people are showing interest. In the last few days, all the taxis going to Ukhrul have been booked. It is a good sign for the organizers and local entrepreneurs because the strength of the crowd matters the most to decide the success of the festival.”
Patrick, a college student, said, “Back in 2020, I was in class 12. I along with some friends had decided to attend the Shirui festival after the board exams because we all knew we were parting ways once the board results would be out. But unfortunately a lockdown happened and we couldn’t go as planned. Now after two years, I am in college and I will be attending the festival with my college musical society. We are hoping to get high on music and the climb to see the lily.”
Moi, a resident from Churachandpur District, said, “I am going to Ukhrul for a week to experience the Shirui festival and also to see other sites like the caves and others. Throughout the pandemic, we could not take part in any of the festivals. Even though some festivals were conducted online, the online culture beats the very purpose of festival which is for the people to bond and enjoy the good times together. I am really looking forward to this festival with my husband, and this is really the first time we are travelling together since we got married during the intervening period of full lockdown and partial lockdown.”
Elizabeth, who had been to the festival in 2018, recollected, “The festival was really fun. During the day there were lots of indigenous games and sports. At night there were cultural progammes, concerts and beauty contest. It was a good escape from the ordinary everyday life. To sleep in a tent, wake up to tea boiled in a fire, visiting some of the old villages and having the local food which is so distinct from food in towns and cities. And above all, it was the shirui lily that pulled us there. As a native of Manipur, we have always seen the photos of the lily in tv, in magazine or in newspapers. Seeing it for real has been fulfilling as a citizen of this state.”
Tourism has become a booming industry in Northeast India at the turn of the twentieth century. Problems of insurgency and poor communications had been problematic for the growth of the tourism industry before the turn of the century. As the Northeast is coming out from the shadow of insurgency and into the path of development, it is becoming susceptible to poor economic and environmental planning. The Shirui festival is one of the few festivals or programmes designed to raise the environmental consciousness of the people. With people looking for escape from the monotonous city life to exotic geographical locations, ecotourism should be promoted. The Shirui festival was first organized in 2017 and it is normally celebrated toward the end of May. We hope this festival will grow from strength to strength and serve its purpose to conserve the rare shirui lily.
About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.