There is only one place in India where you can see islands floating in a lake with houses, fishermen, animals and birds. Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Bishnupur district of Manipur, is home to a series of floating islands not found anywhere else in the country.
These floating islands, called Phumdis, are of different shapes and sizes and cover a substantial part of the lake. With thickness ranging from a few inches to several feet, Phumdis are landmasses made up of vegetation, sediments, soil, and dead organic matter that have thickened into a solid form. Crisscrossing roots and underground stems hold them together.
The Phumdis or floating islands provide a habitat for lake dwellers, including fishermen, and migratory birds. The Phumdis are becoming a major tourist attraction as locals host visitors and give them a glimpse into the life on the lake.
Loktak Lake in the Moirang town is an offbeat tourism destintation. There are around 55 suburban and rural settlements within and around the lake. The floating islands host over 200 species of aquatic plants and 400 species of animals, including the rare Indian python and the endangered dancing deer called sangai in the local Meitei language.
Fishermen build huts, locally known as Phumsang, on these islands and use their wooden boats as transport vehicles across the lake.
The huts are built on bamboo bases to keep them well above water and they have roofs of plastic or wood.
Apart from fishing, the other source of livelihood for the locals is the cultivation of vegetables including cabbage, cauliflower, potato, brinjal, ladyfinger, parkia (tree bean), bamboo shoots and other edible plants and roots from the lake.
Phumdis – the uniqueness of Loktak Lake
The level of Phumdis or floating islands goes up and down throughout the year depending on the seasonal fluctuations in water level. With the draw-down event during the dry season, Phumdis stay rooted on the periphery, especially on the southeastern boundary of the lake.
During summers, the water becomes very clear and the bottom of the lake is visible.
The islands move along the direction of the wind, which is north to south, during drawdown. When the lake gets refilled, the Phumdis again float northward spreading in different parts of the lake.
In 1990, Loktak Lake was declared a Ramsar site, which means it is a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. The depth of water in the lake varies between 0.5 and 4.6 m with an average depth of 2.7 m. Its maximum length is 26 km and its width is 13 km.
The colour of water in Loktak Lake changes with time, varying from blue to green and grey to black as phytoplankton growth increases. The largest single island is in the southeastern part of the Loktak Lake and is spread over covering 40 sq km.
This island is the world’s largest and only floating wetland park -- Keibul Lamjao National Park. This swampy grassy wetland hosts a rich diversity of flora and fauna in addition to the Sangai deer.
Apart from being a source of livelihood for the fishing community, this ancient lake also plays an important role in Manipur’s economy. It provides water for drinking, irrigation and hydropower generation.
In recent decades, the lake has been contaminated by domestic and municipal waste from urban areas and agricultural runoffs from the catchment area. It faces ecological problems due to deforestation in the catchment area, infestation of water hyacinth and pollution.
In June 1993, Loktak Lake was also added to the Montreux Record, which is a register of wetland sites of international importance where ecological changes are taking place due to pollution or other human interference. Wetlands are home to 40 percent of the world’s plant and animal species. Acting as natural sponges, they help in flood prevention and also filter pollutants from water.
With its unique ecosystem, freshwater resources and socio-economic significance, Loktak Lake requires action for its conservation and sustainable management.