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Up in the hills of Ukhrul district in Manipur, a rare flower called the Shirui Lily grows for less than a month in what the calendar insists is summer. The lily is not found anywhere else in the world.
Summer, like rare, is a relative concept. As our four-wheel-drive Scorpio drove up from Imphal valley, the temperature started to fall, and the clouds closed in until we were driving through them. The craggy, forested hills became blanketed in white. I pulled on my jacket; it was just a regular Ukhrul day in the middle of May, around 21 degrees Celsius.
Shirui village, at the foot of a hill on which the rare land lily grows, was festive despite the fog and drizzle. The first Shirui Lily Festival was being inaugurated (16-20 May). Regular police, police commandos with assault rifles, and soldiers of the Indian Reserve Battalion and Assam Rifles in combat gear had secured the road and the venue. Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh, legislative assembly member (MLA) Alfred Arthur and a host of other dignitaries were expected. This area has long been a hotbed of insurgency; former chief minister O. Ibobi Singh’s landing in the district last October had to be aborted after his helicopter was shot at.
Stalls were selling the local rice beer called cha thur in hollowed bamboos, with reed straws to drink through. Pork and buffalo meat spiced with the lethal Ukhrul chilli, a close relative of the variety known as bhut jolokia or ghost pepper in Assam and raja mirchi or king pepper in Nagaland, provided accompaniment.
The rain pelted down, turning the fields that were the venues for the many scheduled performances into mud pits. The roads, little better than mud tracks, turned into tests of balance, character and endurance. Doughty rally cyclists and motorcyclists rode up, slipping and sliding, along with nonchalant locals out in their fashionable best, trying to step from one relatively solid patch of earth to another.
We visitors didn’t have those skills, and were advised to invest in a pair of gumboots. The hottest-selling products in Ukhrul, these come in a wide variety. Early next morning, before starting on the trek up the Shirui peak, 2,835m above sea level, I picked one with a camouflage pattern to blend in with the locals. Sadly, in my inexperience I picked a snug fit rather than a loose fit—a crucial error, as I was to discover later, when my toes turned black and blue owing to the painful pressure they had to withstand climbing downhill.
The track was muddy and steep, and led through glades of ferns, shrubs and grass interspersed with trees, which became more numerous as we ascended. The fog thickened. The track got narrower and steeper, until it was a staircase of stones. We huffed and puffed our way up. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached a small patch of flat earth, and stopped for a break. I asked one of our two local guides, Zaza, how many steps there were in all. “Around 1,000,” he said. “Around 2,000,” said one of the Manipuri boys from the plains. “I think 3,000,” I said.
We pushed on, past tree trunks green with lichen and moss, and bare leafless trees, and heard in a glade, through the now impenetrable fog, a baby crying. “Is that a baby?” I asked. “Must be a ghost,” a voice from somewhere behind me said.
It turned out to be a family of locals out for a stroll; father, mother and baby, in their Sunday best. Baby was not too happy, but it was nothing a nice song couldn’t set right. The festive air had wafted up the peak, along with sounds of distant music. Hard rock was playing somewhere. It sounded like the AC/DC superhit Highway To Hell. Baby stopped wailing.
We soldiered on, in our gumboots and hiking gear, past old ladies in sarongs walking barefoot. Suddenly there was a sound of heavy breathing and a man ran past us, up the muddy 45-degree incline. He was followed by another. A race was on. I managed to run 10m after them before resuming the walk at a stately and dignified pace.
The fog limited our visibility to 30-40m or less. We were denied the spectacular views that we might have had on a clear day, but, in a sense, the fog saved us. The size of the peak, and the distance we might fall if one of us were to slip off the track, were hidden from us.
Suddenly, in the little section of the green glade that was visible, I spotted a dash of white tinged with pink...the Shirui Lily.
The flower is known as Kashong Timrawon in the Ukhrul dialect of the local Tangkhul language, which has at least 150 variations, many of them mutually unintelligible. British botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward, who arrived in the Shirui hills in 1948 with his wife Jean Macklin, told the world of its existence. For this “discovery”, he was able to name the rare lily after his wife; the Shirui Lily’s scientific name is Lilium mackliniae.
The first plant I saw was a small one, a little over a foot tall, with a single flower on the delicate stem. As we got closer to the top, there were more, until just before the summit, we came to a glade full of them. A rusted barbed-wire fence had long given way in most places, and there was a faded sign indicating this was a “Restricted Area”.
There was no one to enforce the restriction. In the fog, the sign itself would have been invisible to most climbers. I asked Zaza, whether the area is protected. He said that it is not.
In that case, we have the mystery of the national park that disappeared, because a Shirui National Park was apparently created in 1982.
In Tangkhul legend, the Shirui hill is associated with a fairy princess named Kashong Philava. She is said to be the protector of the rare plants and creatures on the hill, which include birds such as Blythe’s tragopan.
If the birds, animals and flowers of the area survive, it will be due to a miracle by the fairy princess. Deforestation, climate change, invasion by plant species from other places, and the pressures of hordes wandering unrestricted in the highland glades of Shirui pose threats that the delicate ecosystem may not be designed to handle.
The height of the Shirui Lily plant has apparently decreased from Kingdon-Ward’s time. The number of flowers on a plant has also come down, according to locals.
The Shirui Lily, a delicate and rare beauty, appears to be shrinking, from healthy oblivion towards celebrity extinction.