Rise of Manipuri women in sports shaped by a unique way of life
For a Manipuri child, there is an option other than studying and that is to play and takes wing at a young age through local clubs
When one of India’s greatest moments in weightlifting was being hoisted into reality by the legendary Karnam Malleswari, at the Sydney game in 2000, the state of Manipur was laying the ground for their own moment in the sun albeit 21 years later. Barring the Beijing Games, the state has sent four different weightlifters over five Olympics - a generational effort that culminated in Mirabai Saikhom Chanu’s monstrous 202 kg combined lift for the Tokyo Olympics Silver medal in the 49-kg weightlifting category. Two decades of consistently churning out weightlifters that are among the best in the world is Manipur’s reminder that the Olympics are not a once-in-four -year’s event, but a way of life - a way of life that takes shape at a young age because of the state’s unique way of organised sport for young children through local clubs.
Former commissioner of Youth affairs and Sports for Manipur, RK Nimai Singh tries to put into words this lay of land when he says, “The sport Clubs culture has been a part of Manipur for centuries now’’. These clubs aren’t associated with any state or national associations. They are only present because of the love of sport and an outlet of activity for young kids. For a Manipuri child, there is an option other than studying and that is to play.
Manipur, a tiny state with an area of 22,327 sq km in the Northeastern part of India, is home to diverse ethnic groups and sub-groups. The sex ratio, according to 2011 census is 934 per 1,000 male and has decreased as compared to 975 per 1000 in the last census prior to 2011. Manipur has a literacy rate of 79.85 per cent with male literacy 86.49 per cent and female literacy at 73.19 per cent. In general, women hold a high and free position in Manipur.
Manipur is a state where women occupy a very unique position in the society since time immemorial. The Manipuri women enjoy much more freedom to move around and so are much more enlightened and intelligent unlike in other parts of the country, where women are kept inside their homes. Women have always been held in respect and accorded honour in Manipur.
Manipuri women are usually inspired by the ideal women depicted in literature both mythology and legendary. It may be said that most women while discharging their duties in the families are still following in varying degrees, the principles and norms prescribed by IMOINU, a mythological goddess for the maintenance of peace and welfare of the family.
In addition to their household responsibilities, women also participate in social function and religious ceremonies. Since early times, women have been taking active parts in the performance of religious rites and rituals. Another important contribution of Manipuri women is in the field of art and culture. They have added a lot to the cultural heritage in dance, literatures and the like.
The world famous ‘’RAS LILA’’ is performed by female artists only. Manipuri women’s contribution in the field of sports is not the least to mention.
The rise of Manipur women in Indian sports has been phenomenal. From weightlifting, boxing to football, Manipur in the North-Eastern state has provided one of the finest sporting talents to the nation over several years. The terrific supply-line of Manipur sports has also won them two Olympics medals. Let us have a look at the five times when Manipuri’s women made India proud in sports.
Before the eminence of Mirabai Chanu and Mary Kom in the international stage, Kunjarani Devi, led the state of Manipur in sporting glory. She has won seven silver medals in various world championship over the years and shared the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award with Leander Paes.
Sarita Devi, was one of India’s finest boxers in the recent past. Devi was crowned the 2006 world champion gold medalist. She also begged the bronze medal titles in the 2005 and 2008 world championship. Devi is also known for her Asian games bronze medal in 2014 which was marred by controversy as she denied receiving the medal after allegations that the judges were partial and did not reward her the points after she knocked her opponent out in the third round.
Bembem Devi, nicknamed as the Durga of Indian women football, is arguably the greatest women footballer of India. Devi is a central midfielder and has won the Padmashri for her football Laurels. She won the SAFF women’s championship thrice and also was the two-time gold recipient of the South Asian Games with India. Devi last played for Manipur Police in the Indian Women’s league back in 2019.
Mangte Chungneijang Marry Kom is an obvious choice as the greatest moment of Manipur sport. Kom became the first ever athlete from the state of Manipur to win an Olympic medal as she clinched bronze in the flyweight category at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The Padma Vibhushan has also clinched six world championship and five Asian Championship. She also won her first and only Commonwealth Games Gold medal in 2018 at Gold Coast, Australia. Kom is a mother of four and is still going strong in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Saikhom Mitabai Chanu became the second medalist in weightlifting and only the second Indian woman to win an Olympic silver. Chanu lifted her way to second place in the women’s 49-kg to win India’s first medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Chanu broke the world record in women’s 49-kg weight lifting as she lifted an astounding 119 kg in clean and jerk in 2020 Asian Championship, making her one of the greatest weightlifters in history.
Thokchom Anuradha represented India in the 2016 Olympics as a forward player of India’s women hockey squad.
Pukhrambam Susila Chanu represented India for the second time in the Tokyo Olympics of 2020 and her team marginally misses a medal due to lost in semi-final.
The first Indian woman judoka to participate in the Olympics, Lourembam Brojeshwori represented India in 2000 Olympics while Khumujam Tombi in 2008 Olympics.
For 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Likmabam Susila is the only Indian Judoka who qualified for the event.
Laishram Bombyla is the only woman from Manipur who participated in the archery event in the Olympics so far. She represented India three consecutive times in 2006, 2012 and 2016.
Thingbaijam Sanamacha and Nameirakpam Kunjarani participated in the weightlifting event of women’s 53 kg and 48 kg weight category in 2004 where Kunjarani was placed fourth.
Ngangbam Sonia competed in the women’s 48 kg category in the 2012 Olympics.
Anita Chanu, coach of Mirabai, was once a prominent international weightlifter.
Bala Devi, earned the No-10 jersey in the Scottish women’s premier league Club "Ranger’’.
Today, Manipur has about two dozen women professional polo players representing two-third of all women polo players in India, effortlessly challenging a stereotype that polo is a sport for men.
In Manipur, children are afforded the opportunity to decide what sport to play and what sport to pick. By the time they reach their teens, they may not be specialists in a particular sport but consistent level of physical activity leads to a far easier transition than most young athletes when moving professionally into a discipline. As has been the case from the start of the century a steady stream of women in weightlifting, heading to the farthest corners of globe to compete in the best tournaments offer, continues to fuel the desire for what is a casual aspect of life, to become the centre point of their existence. But what happens when these kids start to grow up?
In the beginning of 90’s, people started to realize that sport could be an earning profession. The opening of a Sports Authority of India’s centre in Imphal suddenly gave weightlifters in the state the opportunity to go from spare parts of automobiles as weights to real imported equipment. Former weightlifters were also part of the change as their career transitioned from athletes to coach.
Mirabai Chanu’s story trudges along the same line -- a young 12-year-old child lifting heavy logs in her hometown of Nongpok Kakching, 44-km away from Imphal who one day got noticed by Anita Chanu, a former international weightlifter and coach. What Anita Chanu saw in the Mirabai Chanu was something most Manipuri experts in sports say is an intrinsic part of their cultural identity. Anita Chanu said, when she saw Mirabai lift for the first time, she had a killer instinct. And how that killer instinct quantified? Explosive strength, stresses, Anita Chanu, who further explains by saying that people from the north-eastern states of India are smaller in height but make up for it with a Maradona and Messi- esque low centre of gravity, a crucial aspect of why Manipur does so well in sport, be it weightlifting or football or boxing.
That low centre of gravity saw Mirabai pick almost four times her body weight across five successful lifts in snatch and clean and jerk categories. But it isn’t height or body type or region, that defines their abilities. The secret also lies in what is put into their bodies. Or rather, what has been put into their bodies for generations over the years.
Most athletes in lower weight categories come from Asian countries like China and South Korea. These countries are famous for sticky rice being a part of their diet. In Manipur, most people eat rice as a primary source of energy, says Sunil Elangbam, the secretary of Manipur Weightlifting Association. This simplistic way of nutrition, one that has been generational staple for them, is considered a prime source of fuel by experts for essential carbohydrates that end up aiding in physical training. These carbohydrates do the twin job of being easy to digest while pushing the body to recover faster after intense workouts. It is this combination of the right kind of food, the lay of land and generations of women to look up to in weightlifting, the brewed itself into the perfect storm.
A silver medal in Tokyo, borne out of a killer instinct that now adorns the state, just as its glory in the Olympics do. This is an undeniable fact that Manipuri women are always in the forefront in any field of social activity which is not found in any part of the globe for which we bow to the Manipuri women for their glory every time, anywhere.
(The views expressed are personal)