Rock Hunters in Manipur: Part 1

On 27 Feb 1948 the renowned plant hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward arrived in Ukhrul, a far-flung outpost in the northeast Indian state of Manipur, setting out on an eight-month expedition to discover and document new plants for the New York Botanic Garden[1]. Exactly sixty-eight years later we (TeBi) rumbled into Ukhrul in our ‘Govt. Duty’ zonal taxi driven by the indomitable Michael. Ukhrul seemed just as obscure to the outside world as it was in 1948 (if not more) and it was to be our base of operations while we delved into the Nagaland-Manipur Ophiolite, remnants of the ocean floor that once existed between India and Asia.

Though it had the body of a weak and feeble two-wheel-drive, it fought with the heart and soul of a Land Rover

With hardly eight days let alone eight months to traverse the Indo-Burma Range there was no time to lose in our search for the Tethyan Ocean. Nevertheless, while passing through Imphal, the state capital, we did manage to squeeze in some non-geological diversions. Manipur is probably best known for introducing polo to the modern world via the British after the region’s incorporation into the Raj. We were lucky enough to catch the end of a match played on one of the world’s oldest polo fields.

We arrived just in time for the last couple of chukkas.

Along with Nagaland (the bordering state to the North), Manipur was the scene of Allied campaigns against the Japanese incursion into Burma during the Second World War. Since then, Manipur has slipped under a veil of obscurity which may have something to do with its strained relationship with the rest of India. Though India gained its independence in 1947, this region of remained a semi-independent princely state ruled by a Maharaja until 1949 when it was fully incorporated into the rest of India. Until very recently, Manipur was a tightly-controlled ‘Protected Region’ due to internal separatist insurgencies.

Imphal War Cemetery is impeccably maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

We also took the opportunity, while in Imphal, to visit the Kangla Fort, an ancient citadel that formed the centre of the Kingdom of Manipur. Within its walls we came across the Pakhangba Temple, so named as it is decorated with Pakhangba motifs. The Pakhangba is a traditional Manipuri heraldic symbol in the form of a dragon or serpent coiled around itself and devouring its own tail forming an eternal loop. This is symbol also appears in Classical European traditions as Ouroboros, embodying a concept of an infinite cycle of creation and destruction.

Pakhangba Temple is found within the old Kangla Fort

The more abstract-minded may have noticed the similarity between this and the TeBi RG logo. Conceptually, this was not altogether accidental as we drew parallels in our depiction of the continuous cycle of creation and destruction of lithosphere at spreading centres and subductive margins. We had no idea it would feature so prominently in the cultures that surrounded us in the field. Allowing ourselves to indulge in a little fantasy and mysticism, which is sometimes difficult to avoid in India, we took this as a good omen.

More about ophiolites and the geological implications of our trip later [2].

 

[1]See Kingdon-Ward, Frank (1952) Plant Hunter in Manipur, Jonathan Cape, London.

Available online: https://archive.org/details/PlantHunterInManipur

[2] For some preparatory reading, a good overview of the current state of thinking as regards ophiolites may be found in the recent Ophiolites issue of Elements Vol. 10 Issue 2 (April 2014). Available online: http://www.elementsmagazine.org/archives/index.html