I first lay my eyes on Loktak lake in 2019, on my first trip to Manipur. Sitting on the roof of a small van, trying not to lose my balance, I gaped wide-eyed at the stunning beauty of the lake. The next best option was the footboard on the back of the van. The glassy waters of the lake reflected the pastel colors of the sky and the masses of vegetation looked like they were floating amongst the clouds.
Loktak lake is a hidden jewel of our country and is the largest freshwater lake in the North East of India. No matter how many pretty lakes you have been to or how many pictures of Loktak lake you have seen, once you are here, you will be amazed by the magnificence of Loktak lake.
What are Phumdis?
Loktak lake has a distinguished ecosystem with thousands of floating islands created from moving biomass called Phumdis. Phumdis are essentially heterogeneous mass of vegetation, soil, and organic matters at various stages of decomposition.
Once our boat left the shore, I noticed the entire lake was scattered with phumdis. As we waded through crystal clear waters, I felt a sense of calm in its serenity.
The Phumdis start their lives at the bottom of the lake. They absorb nutrients during the dry season, i.e from the months of November to March. However, in the monsoons, we see these fascinating biomasses float on the surface providing food for the fish below. Some Phumdis expand to a whopping size of 500 sq km. This lays the foundation of many temporary homes for the locals and so the cycle of sinking during the dry season and floating during the monsoons continues.
Deteriorating State of Loktak Lake
The Loktak Hydroelectric Project is primarily the reason for substantially higher water levels in the lake throughout the year. This has adversely impacted the phumdis which are now unable to reach the river bed for nutrients. Hence, the Phumdis are eventually thinning and slowly breaking away.
Additionally, an increase in silt accumulation from nearby streams and rivers is affecting marine life and the entire ecosystem underwater. Not surprisingly, higher water levels have led to vanishing species of fish.
Efforts are being made to restore the degrading ecosystem. Two sections made in the lake are a no-development zone and a conservation zone. In the no-development zone, existing homes of the fisherfolk and their vegetation are not touched but no new structures are allowed in this area. The conservation area is free of phumdis and with absolutely no huts in this zone.
During my stay at the lake, I pondered at the complexities of Loktak’s tourism industry. While the lake provided a livelihood to the locals, their dependency on the deteriorating lake is a cause for concern.
How the Locals Build their Homes?
People from the surrounding villages are predominantly Meiteis, natives to Imphal. The locals build makeshift homes (phumsang) on the lake. During the months of August to October, phumdi movement in the lake is at its peak. The locals use this period to pick the best phumdi, cut it as per the required size, and tie them together using durable ropes.
When speaking to the residents, I learnt it is a community effort with everyone coming together to build each other’s homes. Tying the Phumdis together is said to be no easy task and is executed by the best swimmers who use heavy stones to anchor these floating masses.
Once the foundation is laid out, the construction of the hut begins. To make a stable platform for the hut, bamboo is put above the phumdi. The roof is usually covered with hay, tin, or tarpaulin. The lifetime of these huts on the lake is typically 2 years. If the surface gets marshy, a new phum is positioned under the existing one to make it sturdy.
My Homestay Experience on Loktak Lake
After two weeks of whirlwind travels on challenging Nagaland roads – attending the Festival of Festivals, discovering Naga culture in Khonoma, and exploring the unique state that Nagaland is – I needed a place to slow down and Loktak did just that. A hut in the middle of the lake, detached from civilization to observe life from this floating homestay.
A friend suggested Loktak and sent me pictures from the lake, I closed my eyes and saw myself on this floating piece of heaven.
Several small homestays are scattered on the lake. I love Suresh’s Homestay for its tranquillity and spectacular views on the lake but most importantly for the gracious hospitality that his family offers.
Here, they have kitchen gardens on the phumdis with cabbage being the easiest to grow and they rear livestock like chicken and duck as well. However, being in the center of the lake, fish ought to be the main constituent of the diet.
Living with Suresh’s family was an incredible experience. The family is so warm, welcoming and they collectively are involved in running the homestay away from other setups on the lake. Suresh was more than happy sharing their fishing techniques and emphasized how fishing is crucial for their survival. It was heart-warming to hear about the strong bond the Meitei community share and the unity they have in the challenging times the villages around are facing.
Suresh has not been able to promote his homestay on the internet. You can reach out to me for more details on his homestay.
For the one’s looking at a more luxurious stay – Sendra Park & Resort by the Classic is the best option.
How Fishing is Key to Survival?
Fish serves as a major food source for the locals and fishing in the lake is the only livelihood for them. Fish yield in the lake goes up to 1500 tons every year resulting in fisherfolk building homes on phumdis in the lake.
Would you have thought about catching fish using specially crafted masses of land? Well, the locals here use a fishing technique, building large circular phumdis called Athaphums. These essentially serve as ponds to catch the fish. Building the ring (athaphums) takes atleast 4 people where phumdis are cut into the desired size. Within the rings, a net is placed for 15 – 60 days and the fish are fed rice and grains regularly. You can imagine the fiesta on the day of the catch when all of the fishing community gathers. Apart from this, you will also see many fishermen out on the still waters catching their daily feed.
Another interesting fishing technique is used at night. The local’s prowess as fishermen leads to bounteous catch at night as well. By using a bulb tied to bamboo which is planted in the phumdis, they attract insects who are perfect bait for fish.
Things to Do Around the Lake?
Keibul Lamjao National Park
The largest Phumdi at Loktak lake is the Keibul Lamjao National Park. It is the only floating National Park of its kind in the world and home to the endangered Sangai or Manipur brow-antlered deer. You’re most likely to find yourself struggling to spot the Sangai. But worry not, a forest guard is sure to appear with binoculars. We went to the park at mid-afternoon. Every time a faint breeze swirled the grass, the sun tricked us into believing we finally spotted the Sangai.
The park extending 40 sq km has rich biodiversity including a wide range of vegetation, flora, and fauna. Keibul Lamjao was declared a Sanctuary in 1966 and was subsequently declared a National Park in 1977.
The national park has provisions for a boat ride between the tall elephant grass. I’d recommend taking the ride at the break of dawn when there is a good chance to spot the elusive Sangai.
Visit the Nearby Villages
After visiting the park, I went to a village nearby where fisherfolk sell their catch. At one of their homes, the lady at the house explained how they need to preserve fish by drying them in the sun and later smoking it in the fire. Dried fish can be kept for extended periods until the sale is made. In conversation with the lady, she lamented that demand for different varieties of fish is often not met due to the declining species of fish.
Loktak Lake: Travel Tips
Imphal to Loktak Lake Transportation
Loktak lake is 52 km From Imphal. One of the travel options is to hire a private cab till Loktak lake. For the budgeted travelers, you’ll first have to alight a local bus to Moirang or take a shared winger taxi (atleast 15 ppl) for INR 60.
From Moirang, a seat in a shared winger is INR 20. But since all the seats were taken, the next available option was to get on the roof.
How to Reach Imphal?
By Air: All flights to Imphal are via Guwahati.
By Rail: Manipur has no rail connectivity. The nearest railway station is Dimapur in Nagaland which is about 215 km from Imphal.
By Road: Imphal is connected to Dimapur and Guwahati which are the capital cities of Nagaland and Assam. A share taxi from Dimapur to Imphal costs INR 750 and takes around 8 hours.
Best Time to Visit
I traveled to Loktak lake in December which is the best time of the year for its cool weather and almost no rain. The weather is pleasant in the day and it gets significantly colder by evening.
How to Travel Responsibly?
To begin with support and encourage eco-friendly homestays at the lake. Their huts are made of bamboo and electricity is provided by solar panels. The boat used to commute to the village is a rowing boat unlike the fuel-driven motorboat used by the state authorities.
Avoid the use of products in plastic packaging. Also, keep a carry bag for trash when you are boating at the lake which you can bring back to the homestay and have the locals dispose of it responsibly.
Loktak lake is a true wonder and there is no other lake of its kind in the world. Unfortunately, the ecosystem of the lake has seen constant degradation. Let’s do our part by minimizing our footprint on this depleting ecosystem.