Manje La's who runs the Singpho Eco-Lodge near Margherita has for his sole aim keeping the Singpho identity alive even asthe declining 25000 odd population of theSingpho community struggles to survive.
Manje La, also a tea grower whose phalap tea is accessed by people from all over the world, provides insights into why growing organic tea on a large scale is not viable in the north east. Excerpts from an interview:
Tell us something about your family and educational background
I was born at MungongPathar in Margherita. My father was Haren Manje and mother Roseng, both of who have passed away. My father cultivated different crops on our agricultural land. I studied at an LP School atMungongPathar, then consecutively in two ME Schools at Inthong and Ketetong, respectively and passed higher secondary from Margherita Public HS School. I graduated in the Arts stream from Digboi College in Tinsukia district. It was at that time that I got involved in cultural activities in a bid to promote and protect the Singpho culture and heritage .
Could you please tell us something more of your involvement in trying to preserve the Singpho culture?
In 1985 I formed the Singpho Cultural Society of which I am the Secretary at present. It was formed with the express purpose to preserve the Singphocultureand traditions. We held the SingphoJatiya Festival in which the Singpho food was promoted and to this day I continue with this etnic fare which has been savoured by thousands of people during the festival periods due to its natural flavours. In 1986-87 I made a cinema in the Singpho language showcasing our culture but it did not make much of an impact. My next venture was a Hindi Cinema entitled DihingKinare. The story was based on a non-Singpho boy falling in love and marrying a Singpho girl in which we showcased our culture and especially the Singpho marriage rituals. The script was written by the then Punjab National Bank Manager Tony Koyo, edited by Satish Bhattacharjee and I directed and composed the music for the film which was made in the VHS format But right after that Operation Bajrang by the Indian Army started and the producer and some other artistes were picked up and they all faced a lot of harassment. I escaped because I had directed the movie and was not part of the production.I promoted our phalap tea in the IIFT at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi where I got the Best Selling Award in 2017 and 2018 having sold Rs 1.5 lakh in 14 days in my Singpho Tea Stall. I was taken to Pragati Maidan by the state Department of Commerce nad Industries.
I am also involved in the Shapongyong Mano Poi which means Singpho dance festival. Festival which will be held in Bordumsa this year from February 12 to 15.
You have been involved in making of a Singpho dictionary to promote education in Singpho language. Please tell us something about this project?
In 2011 was the Singpho Development Council Chairman when we started three schools in 2011, 2012, 2013 as a pilot project where children would be taught in their mother tongue, one of which was the Singpho language. For this we needed uniformity of spelling of Singpho words and a lexicon clearly denoting meaning of the words was required. I was also chosen to be the president of the SingphoBhasa Committee which brought out the Singphodictionary . It had 28000 words so that teachers could refer to it for spelling and meaning. The Roman script was adopted because we do not have so many academicians to come up with a different script
The Baptist missionary Miles Bronson was the first to bring out a multilingual dictionary in the English, Singpho, Assamese and Nagalanguages. It is interesting to note that in the dictionary brought out in 1939 tea timetea was known as phalap as referred to by the Singphos in Assam and there was no such word as cha. This also gives credence to the theory that the Singphos were the first to make tea in this part of the country. The story of Robert Bruce being served a concoction of this energising drink and the British taking up commercial cultivation of tea after coming to know that the tea tree grew in this region,is also well known, and it could be said that the Singphos gave India its tea. But I am digressing.
As I said three schools were started as a pilot project and a workshop was organised by Summer Institute of Languages, Don Bosco Communication and Gauhati University English Department to train teachers. But the schools were closed when government funding stopped. Now the government is promoting the teaching of children in their mother tongue till class VII so let us see what happens.
It is heartening that the Arunachal Pradesh government has recognisedSingpho language as its third language. There are about 12000 Singphos residing in Arunachal.
How did you conceive the idea of establishing the Singpho Eco-lodge at Inthong?
It is a long story and there are several strands interwoven which gave shape to the eco tourism lodge.
In 1999-2000 an environmentalist named Richard Drake visited us from Canada, he had led a demonstrated in Rio De Janeiro against global warming. Drake came and stayed for months at Inthong village in the house of Rajesh Singpho, in whose house then there was a western style toilet. .During his stay he observed that the Singpho foods were very hygienic and non spicy and he enjoyed the home stay. He advised us to start an eco-tourism business, giving us several tips on how this could be done. Afterhe returned to Canada we organised our trial package tour of six days for a couple and the feedback helped us to enrich our knowledge. Again, I got an opportunity to travel to Thailand in between 2001-2004where I visited many eco tourism sites in Chingmai, which helped me to gain more confidence. It was in 2002 after several discussions with ethnic community leaders that the DehingPatkai Festival was organised on January 16, 2002. The then Industries and Commerce Minister PradyutBordoloi took the key role to organise the grand festival, the main objective of which was to promote and showcase ethnic food and cultures of Singpho, Tai Phake, Tangsa, Tai Khamyang, and Sema tribes residing in Tirap Transferred Tribal Belt under Margherita sub division of Tinsukia district.
Since 1985 Ihadgathered a bit of experience in holding the Singpho festival --Shapongyong Manau Poi (Singpho dance festivals), where we served our cuisine, it followed that in the DehingPatkai Fest alsowe served the best of Singpho cuisines to all those who thronged our stalls and among who was the the chief guest -- the then President of India Dr Abdul Kalam. I had the opportunity to lead the communities and perhaps for the first time in North East theSingpho Ethnic food exhibition cum sale was displayed in such a grand way.Thousands of visitors tastedthe oil free herbal Singpho cuisine. People from outside showed interest in Singpho food habits and recipes and were curious to know howvegetarian and non-vegetarian food could be cooked without spices and oil. The stall earned Rs 3 lakh in three days and I grew confident of opening a Singpho restaurant in Margherita,
I also met a lady from USA during the festival Carin Fischer, who encouraged us in starting an eco tourism venture in this frontier part of the country. In 2003, she organised a seminar at Ledo Club on Eco Tourism and its Potentialities in Margherita sub division, which was a part of the Festival promoting the ethnic tribal communities.
I remember that we had a discussion with the district administration at Superintendent of Police headquarter at Tinsukia where the then Deputy Commissioner Sanjoy Lohia and Apurba Jiban Baruah, Superintendent of Police, were present along with our community leaders. Carin Fischer who attended the meeting made a proposal of the project under the state government guidelines. The same year Shapong Yong Manau Poi was held at Ketetong February 13, 14 and 15.
Fischer came to meet us during the festival and held a discussion on theSingpho Eco Lodge.We showed her alocation where we would set it up once funding was confirmed. We got financial aid from the corporate sector and the first project was sponsored by Premier Oil Company in 2005. Around 15 lakhs were given to Tai Phakey community at Phaneng village under the company's CSR scheme. Tai Phake Eco lodge was completed in 2005 and tourists started coming to theTai Phake village at Phaneng, and this was the beginning of a new concept that of eco-tourism, in this part of the country. For the next project, we submitted an approximate estimate budget of Rs. 11, 19,085 for theSingpho Eco Lodge to Carin Fischer in 2005. Within one week we got a message from. Fischer that DS Group Ltd was ready to provide funds for the project and that the and the PRO of the company Bhavana Soodwas coming to Inthong with her. Eventually they arrived and we had discussion with them and after lunch we showed three sites the same day, but she selected the Inthong site. The place belonged to my father-in-law, late BhupesarNingda. I remember Bhavana Soodsaying, "Manje La ji,"mai ye fund dene keliye ayihun, wapaskarnekeliyenahin, ( I have come here to finance your project not to take back the funds with me)" After hearing this comment my father-in-law donated the plot of land in the name of *Singpho Eco Tourism Society' and Bhavana Sood handed over the first instalment of Rs. 5 lakh in front of.Fischer and our community leaders. The rest of the money was released later and I invested more than Rs 3 lakhs of my own money.
These are the overlapping strands of how the Singpho Eco lodge was established at Inthong
Can you tell us more about the concept of the Eco Lodge
Singpho Eco Lodge is a community based project run by Singpho Community to showcase the traditional community life to its visitors. The lodge also provides its visitors with an opportunity to spend few moment of their life amidst serene beauty of green lushes of Mother Nature. It covers an area of 2.5 bighas of land (around 46481 sq.feet), a small beautiful Singpho village and just 7 kms far from Margherita town in Tinsukia district of Assam, India. The main objective of the lodge is to highlight Singpho traditional food habits, the way of living, the folk culture to visitors and to generate revenue for various development works in the culturally vibrant community.
How did you sustain the Eco-lodge during the Covid 19 pandemic?
During the pandemic we took to farming in the adjoining paddy land belonging to other people by doing adi. Adi is a system where the paddy or produce is divided 60 and 40
With the owner of the land taking 40 per cent and we taking 60 per cent. This way I could pay abit of wages to my four permanent employees. I did not have to sustain myself as I have a small tea garden and also cultivable land which gives me enough for my living. The 15 odd temporary workers residing in the village all have agricultural land and so there was no problem.But the pandemic hit us and we dismantled about five of the 11 bedrooms.
Who runs the lodge? How do you get customers?
My wife, ProtimaNingda, supervises the cooking of the Singpho dishes and entirely manages the lodge along with my son. I also help and we have 15 temporary workers and four permanent employees. I get customers mostly through people who visit and spread the word. Deputy commissioners and other state government officials who go back to Guwahati also recommend my lodge and many have visited via that channel. I do not have a website. I have a facebook page wher I sometimes upload photos. A few travel companies like Jungle Travels and Network Travels include the lodge in their itinerary. Sometimes I am contacted via email.
You are also a tea grower and produce organic tea. Is organic tea a profitable enterprise? Pls tell us something about how Phalap is made?
I have a 35 bigha tea garden out of which I can grow organic tea on only one hectare.It is not viable to grow organic as in India the people do not prefer such teas as Green tea or Oolong like the Chinese do. The domestic market here isfond of CTC which they drink with milk and sugar. I make about 100 kg of phalap annually but cannot export small quantities. Despite the government blowing its bugle about ease of doing business it is not possible to send small quantities of teas outside. There are many hurdles especially regrding payment methods and the government is yet to make an App that will help us. I just give the amount directly to the foreigners who cometo visit and stay in the lodge where I have a boutique and courier to other parts of India.
Phalap has a smoky taste and was made by our forefathers by crushing the leaves and storing it in a bamboo. It was kept over a fireplace so that it did not get spoilt by the high humidity in this region. This was a kind of preservation and gave it its smoky flavour. I also make loose phalap and package it.
You are associated with the government of Arunachal Pradesh and its Unsung Heroes Project. Please tell us something about this
The Unsung Heroes project attempts to identify with proper documentation all the heroes who fought against the British colonial power for freedom of our country but are unknown. The exercise is being conducted by the Rajiv Gandhi University at Doimukh. I am the Chairman of theSingpho History, Research and Analyses wing. We identified seven Singpho heroes out of which the names of three,which have been recognized by the Centre, will be announced on Republic Day. The three are Bom Singpho, Beesa Gam and NingrooThumung, all of who were jailed or killed because of their revolutionary zeal.
I am also associated with the Arunachal Pradesh tableau which will be presented in the Republic Day celebrations at Delhi. The tableau will display in three parts -- the Donyi Polo airport gate so that people will know about the airport and visit the state, the Singphocolourfuldances which is part of the Singpho dance fest and the valour of the Arunachalees during the 1962 Indo-China War.
What are the awards you have got?
I have been presented the Assam Tourism Ward in 2014 and been selected for the Assam Gaurav award for promoting eco-tourism in the region. I have also got several citations from different organisations.
What would you like to tell the young generation?
My life has been dedicated to preserving Singpho language, its culture, traditions and customs. I would like more Singpho youths to come out and work alongside me and some others like me. Because of assimilation much of Singpho tradition has been lost. The next generations should feel a pride in being a part of the Singpho community and take our traditions onto the global stage. This will help us to retain our identity.