Bravery of Manipuri princes – OBJECTIVE BURMA II




Bravery of Manipuri princes

Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh       April 19 2012

* Note this feature is in continuation of Part I . Click the link to read the Part I of this featured article

In the late 1820s, in the Ava court, a new royal commission, of scholars and Buddhist monks, met in the Glass Palace (named for the walls covered in glass mosaics) to pore over old palm-leaf manuscripts and arrive at a new rendering of Burma’s history, ”The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma”.

Then one day a new king usurped the throne and sent king U Myer Yit and family along with the entire court of Burma, and tens of thousands of others upriver to a brand-new capital Mandalay, built in 1857/61.

GE Harvey wrote (1824): The Manipuris were occasionally troubled by Burmese levies, but usually did as they liked. Living in an obscure valley, knowing nothing of the outer world, they thought themselves heroes, able to take their pleasure of Burma when they willed. They did not realise that Burma was several times the size of their country, that they were laying up for themselves a frightful vengeance [seven-year devastation], and the only reason vengeance seemed never to come was that Burma happened to be under an incapable king.

History of Burma from the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824 - Courtesy Google Books

Mahadammayaza-dipati, king of Burma, angered at his commanders’ failure to repel the Manipuris, used to expose them in the sun with a sword on their necks, saying “If a failure like this comes to my golden ears again I will chastise you with my sword.”

In short the kingdom was doomed. The state to which things had been allowed to drift is indicated by the fact that although firearms had been known in Burma since the sixteenth century, the king now had so few that Manipuris thought he had none.

Harvey’s account is attested by Thant Myint-U (The River of Lost Footsteps, 2007), who  writes: “for decades fierce Manipuri horsemen had been raiding up and down the valley of the nearby Mu River, torching villages all around, ransacking pagodas, and stealing away captives. Led by their rajas Jai Singh and Gharib Newaz and riding the stylish little ponies for which they would later be renowned, the Manipuris defeated again and again the soldiers despatched to stop them.

The first raids into Burma had taken place in the middle and late seventeenth century, but they were now increasing in frequency and destructiveness. The Burmese Court seemed powerless against the rising menace, and its frailty lost its support at home and even the nominal allegiance of its eastern tributaries.

In the summer of 1739 Gharib Newaz’s cavalry reached the Irrawaddy itself, burning the monastic libraries on the north shore and halting, the Burmese believe, to bathe in the holy waters of the river. In 1743, the famed Manipuri teacher Maha Tharapu arrived in person at Ava, intending to instruct the Burmese king in the ways of Hindu faith. The dynasty founded two hundred years before by Bayinnaung was on its last legs.

The source of the immediate trouble was Manipur, a fertile and compact land, set today along the Burmese-Indian border. The area had been the site of innumerable warring-clans, but more recently Manipur had been united under a passionately neo-Hindu regime. Brahmin priests from Bengal, devotees of god Vishnu, had converted the Manipuri ruling class,
encouraging new ceremonies and caste rules. A fresh energy was instilled and was then channelled into a southward military advance.

Alaungpaya had already ravaged that kingdom in 1758, and this brutal invasion was followed up by another in 1764. Thousands of people were deported, and the valley was left nearly empty for years. Many of the captives were smiths, weavers, craftsmen of all sorts. They were formed into hereditary groups owing special service to the crown, and for generations they and their descendants laboured as servants and agricultural workers for the Burmese nobility.

They also formed the new Cassey Horse, an elite cavalry regiments that supplied some of Ava’s best polo players. Two more invasions followed together, and a Burmese-educated puppet prince was installed.

GE Harvey continued: “In the cold weather 1758-9 Alaungpaya himself invaded Manipur in support of a pretender there. After the murder of Gharib Newaz 1714-54, the Manipur durbar had relapsed into a series of sanguinary plots, and one of the claimants took refuge with Alaungpaya, to whom he presented some princesses. Alaungpaya now proceeded up the Chindwin, devastating the villages of the Kathe (Manipuri) Shans on the east bank; he crossed the hills by the Khumbat route, and entered the Manipur valley.

The Manipuris say he was remarkably cruel; but he was only doing unto them as they had done unto his people. At Palel in the Imole pass they gave him battle. After a stubborn conflict they fled. He entered Imphal, the capital, only to find it empty, for the inhabitants lay hiding in the woods. He halted there for thirteen days, set up a stone inscription, took what loot there was. Threw into the river two canons of a cubit calibre as they were too heavy to move, and returned home, leaving garrisons in permanent stockades at Tamu and Thaungdut.

In his capacity as a divine incarnation he promoted religion among the Kathe Shans on his line of March; in his capacity as a king he massacred more than four thousand of his Manipuri prisoners because they stubbornly refused to march away into captivity.

Manipur relapsed into a civil war and Marjit Singh, one of the princes, brought in the Burmese who invaded the country in 1812-13 and, after heavy fighting in which some of the commanders were killed, set him on the throne, and were rewarded with the cessation of the Kabaw valley.

Marjit Singh, inspite of all he owed to King Bagyidaw, disloyally failed to appear at Bagyidaw’s coronation. The Burmese therefore again overran Manipur in 1819 and stayed in the country but were seldom safe outside their stockades; they suffered ghastly ambushes, and could not do nothing because of their own devastations had made the land a desert (Seven-year devastation). The incursion ended by depopulating the country and stamping out Manipuri civilisation so completely that we can no longer say what that civilisation was like.

The people were famous for their skill in handicraft, and the Burmese valued them highly, settling them in the capital, in the riverine villages of Sagaing district, and at Amarapura.
They served as boatmen and silversmiths; as silkworkers they introduced  the acheik  patterns; they gave the Burmese  army its best cavalry (the Cassey Horse), and they supplied the bulk of the court astrologers, who at levees stood robed in white, intoning benedictions, as the king took his seat on the throne.

According to Thant Myint-U, “It took nearly 2 years after the first Anglo-Burmese War began on March 5 1824 and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Yandebo on February 24 1826. It cost the East India Company about 14 million Sterling at that time, causing financial
difficulties in India. It cost the lives of 15,000 European and Indian solders, and a higher number on the Burmese side.

After the first battle in which the Burmese General Bandula was killed, the Company’s forces rested for 5 months at Prome (Pray) – a small town 260 km (160) miles northeast of Rangoon, because of the rainy weather and diseases affecting the solders. On orders from higher up, Campbell arranged a temporary armistice for one month beginning on September 17 1825.

The two sides met halfway between Prome (British line) and Myeday (the Burmese line).
After lunch of cooked ham and claret [red, French wine], the British presented their terms –  the Government of Burma recognise the independence of Manipur and desist from interference with Assam and Cachar, cede Arakan and its dependencies, receive a British Resident at the Court of Ava, and pay two crores of rupees as an indemnity. Rangoon, Martaban, and the Tenasseim, all now in British hands, would be held until the indemnity was paid.

After many deliberations, the Ava Court sent their envoy to tell Campbell that the Royal treasury was depleted and the Court could not pay the indemnity. The Government however, would be willing to give up any claim to Assam and Manipur but that it objected to the British choice for a future Manipuri raja. They were also willing to cede the Tenasseim coastline but not Arakan. The British were unimpressed.

In desperation, in November 1825, the Burmese under Commander Maha Naymyo surrounded the town of Prome and cut off communication line to Rangoon, but the British won the battle and Maha Naymyo was killed in early December. The British forces attacked every Burmese line and routed them.

Archibald Campbell now, knew that the end had come for Ava. He advanced on to Yandebo, four days march from Ava. There he met the British ministers who were authorised to sign a treaty meeting all the British demands.

Thus the Treaty of Yandebo was signed and Manipur became an independent country again by ending the “Chahi Taret Khundakpa”.

In retrospect, the Manipuris probably did not realise how big and powerful Ava was.  That did not worry them. They knew how powerful the British Imperial Army was. That did not deter the princes from bashing the British.

I recall the famous words of Prince Nara Singh who said to his elder cousin brother Gambhir Singh, in Cachar, just before they embarked on throwing the Burmese garrisons out from Manipur: “Yambung, eigy hakchang asi shaba matamda akibagai sharuk yaoraktramale. In English: respected brother, it seems when my body was formed there was no place for fear in it.

The writer is based in the UK
Email: imsingh{at}onetel{dot}com


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