The enemy’s shell can land in our camp whereas ours cannot in theirs. My fellow countrymen! It is a disgrace to die fleeing. Death is now certain for us. But we will never retreat: Paona Brajabashi
Manipur, a land of natural beauty with a lush green valley surrounded by lofty hills, was an independent kingdom, but lost her independence to the British in 1891. The history of its people which had run a long course of about two thousand years is evident in the chronicles and old manuscripts. During the long course of her history Manipur had often been fiercely attacked by her neighbouring kingdoms and often ably defended. Attack and defense have sunk in the yawning gulf of time, but it sailed on its majestic course along the ages with its heroic sacrifices of her sons for the sake of her liberty and freedom. Many great sons, who had sacrificed for their motherland, were born in this land of natural beauty.
The history of Manipur from the 18th century to the first quarter of the 19th century was mainly a story of struggles with her neighbouring kingdoms of Burma (now Myanmar). After king Garibanawaja (1709 – 48), in the second half of the 18th century; the political situation of Manipur was very unstable due to disunity among the princes. The Burmese who got firearms from the French did not fail to take the chances of the situation. They invaded Manipur several times with the determination of extirpating a race that they found impossible to subdue permanently.
The frequent invasions of the Burmese led King Jaya Singh to seek help from the then British East India Company. King Jaya Singh sent Haridas Gossain as his agent to contact the officials of East India Company at Chittangong and conclude an alliance with them on his behalf for supplying troops with fire arms to fight the Burmese. Haridas Gossain contacted Mr. Verslt, Chief of the Chittagong Factory, and after some preliminary talks proposed articles for a treaty of alliance between British Government and Manipur. However, nothing significant was affected by the alliance. In 1819, the Burmese again invaded Manipur and defeated king Marjit and devastated Manipur for seven years. In 1824, when the First Anglo Burmese broke out, the British came to realize the strategic of the North-Eastern border of British East India. The British began to keep their eyes on Manipur. In the meantime, Gambhir Singh appealed to the British East India Company, to help him in liberating Manipur from the Burmese occupational force. The British on their part agreed to arm 500 of his men with muskets and to provide British officer Richard Boileau Pemberton, to lead them. The force was known as Manipur Levy. Gambhir Singh’s campaign was a complete success.
By the Treaty of Yandaboo signed on 24th February, 1826, the king of Ava agreed amongst other things to abstain from all interference in the affairs of Manipur. The treaty declared Manipur an independent kingdom, with Gambhir Singh as its kings. Gambhir Singh died in 1834, leaving a two years old prince, Chandrakirti as his heir. In 1835, the British established a Political Agency in Manipur; it was in the nature of an embassy in a friendly foreign independent kingdom.
During such a period of political ups and down of this small kingdom in 1823, on the 20th day of December, to the close vicinity of Kangla capital, at Haobam Leikai, a child was born to Paonam Tulsiram, Laipham Lakpa (Head of Laipham Panah). The child was none other than Paonam Naol Singh, later came to be known as Paona Brajabashi, who created a myth in the Battle of Khongjom and whose indomitable courage shown in the battle of Khongjom 1891, has created the nostalgic Khongjom Parva, the patriotic songs of War Saga.
When Naol Singh was about 7 years, Tulsiram took him to his friend Major Loma Singh Longjamba, a renowned figure in martial art and techniques of warfare. Within a short time of the training Loma Major could see the gifted nature of Noal Singh in martial art and the militant character. Soon, he became the most favourite student of his master. Loma Major was determined to train Naol Singh all the secrets of warfare, whatever he had earned during his long career in the army.
Naol Singh had a thorough training in the use of martial weapons and techniques of fighting under the constant guidance and supervision of Major Longjamba. His maternal uncle Haobam Binodo Major Athouba (Athouba means courageous) also meticulously coached him in martial sports like riding, fencing, free-hand combat and other secret warfare. Such early and methodical training had sowed the seed in Naol Singh to become a dauntless fighter.
In 1850, Tulsiram died leaving his wife Haobam Kunjeswari and his only son Naol Singh. Haobam Binodo Major Athouba took care of his sister and nephew. Young Naol Singh decided to perform the death ceremony of his father at Vrindavan. He also secretly cherished the desire of getting training in the arts of combat from the prominent masters of Upper India. Accordingly, he requested his mother to give him permission to go on pilgrimage to Vrindavan and other holy shrines of India. His mother Kunjeswari could not see her only one son Naol Singh more than a tender child even though he was grown up with full vigour and strength. She thought he was still too young for the journey to Vrindavan. Kunjeswari affectionately said to her son ‘My child you are too young for the hard journey; the journey through the lofty jungle clad hills, inaccessible terrains and inhospitable deep forest.’ However, she could no longer stand the persuasive strain of her son. Finally, she permitted him to go to Vrindavan with a group of pilgrims.
In 1850, Naol Singh left Imphal for Vrindavan while he was barely 17 (seventeen) years old. Having performed the rites, the group started for their return journey. But Naol Singh stayed back and proceeded to Banaras where he found the opportunity of sitting under the feet of many distinguished masters. Towards the end of 1856, Naol Singh was on his way home and had arrived in Imphal in the same year.
In 1856, at the age of 23, Naol Singh began his military career by joining the King’s army as a junior officer. As recorded in Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Royal Chronicle of Manipur, Maharaja Chandrakirti led an expedition with a contingent under Haobam Binodo Major and Loma Major against the uprising Akam Tribe of Chin Hills. The king had a narrow escape as he and his men were ambushed. In the melee the Manipuris lost 202 guns, the royal palanquin and umbrella. However, the uprising was overcome. Naol Singh played an important role in subduing the enemy. Maharaja Chandrakirti was told by Loma Major about the courage displayed by Naol Singh in saving the Manipuri force and the king being much pleased, promoted Naol Singh to the post of Subedar and rewarded three hectares of revenue free land along with Ningthou phi (A special royal cloth given as reward).
While introducing Naol Singh to Maharaja Chandrakirit Singh, Haobam Binodo Major, the maternal uncle of Naol Singh narrated the story of Naol Singh’s long stay at Vrindavan. The Maharaja affectionately called him Brajabashi. Henceforth, Paonam Naol Singh came to be known as Paona Brajabashi. Paona Brajabashi married Hemomala, the daughter of Kabrabam Setu Senapati.
In 1879, Maharaja Chandrakirti received a request from the then British Government of India to send a contingent of Manipuri troops to help an expedition against the Angamis to punish the murderers of Mr. Damant. In response, the Maharaja sent a force of 2000 army under Jubaraj Surchandra in October, 1879. The Jubaraja was accompanied by Thangal Major, Tikendrajit Kotwal, and Subedar Paona Brajabashi etc. Gallant and courageous role of Paona in the expedition was reported in the Top Garod (Top Guard, Artillery HQ) and he was rewarded. In the expedition of Kendat Paona also showed his gallant in the battlefield.
During the last days of Chandrakirti Maharaja’s reign Paona Brajabashi sought permission for resignation from the service of the royal army. The resignation of Paona Brajabashi from the royal army was definitely prompted by some weighty reasons. The main reason was that Paona disliked the relation between the Maharaja and the then British Government.
During his seven years stay in U.P. Paona Brajabashi had seen enough of the British administration and their attitude towards the other colonial states in India. He was afraid the same state of affairs enforced in British India might be installed in Manipur too if Manipur was annexed. Paona Brajabashi did not like to make himself subservient to the British in his life, and if he continued to serve in the army he had an apprehension that such an un-salutary thing might happen someday, and so with all his worthiness for promotion to a higher rank in the army, he chose the option of retirement. Thus giving his higher aspirations he retired as a Subedar in 1886.
In the event of the Palace revolution of 21st September, 1890 Surchandra Maharaja left the palace along with his followers and took shelter in the British Residency. According to a letter sent by Kulachandra Maharaja to the Governor General of India it was stated that Surchandra Maharaja abdicated the throne voluntarily. According to Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Royal Chronicle, Surchandra Maharaja left Imphal for pilgrimage on the 23rd September 1890, along with his 60 aids and 35 Gurkha sepoys. However, it was not a pilgrim. The mission of Surchandra Maharaja was to approach the then British Government to restore himself to the gadi. Surchandra Maharaja made a representation to the then Governor General of India to help him to restore the gadi (throne). But, unfortunately the British Government took a stand which might be treated as a demand and a decision. The demand was that Jubaraja Tikendrajit should be handed over to the British Government while the decision was that Kulachandra would be recognized as the king of Manipur by the then British Government of India. However, the demand was a gross interference of the British Government in the internal affairs of Manipur.
Mr. Quinton arrived at Imphal with 400 Gurkha soldiers on the morning of 23rd March, 1891. On the day of his arrival Quinton made a request to Maharaja Kulachandra for arresting Jubaraj Tikendrajit for a Durbar in the Residency of Political Agent. Sensing the hidden agenda of Quinton for trapping Tikendrajit in the Durbar, Tikendrajit did not attend the Durbar. Mr. Quinton was much disturbed at the failure of his plan. Finally, he decided to execute the wish of the British Government by engaging 500 soldiers. On the night of 23rd March, 1891 an attempt was made to arrest Jubaraj by force. That also failed. On 24th March Lt. Brackenbury, Captain Butcher and Lt. Laggard marched from the Residency and besieged the portion of the palace occupied by the Jubaraj. The guards of the palace opened fire when the British sepoys made a bid to enter the palace. There was a heavy exchange of fire between the Manipuri and British forces.
Paona Brajabashi heard the news of the fighting and the trouble in the palace while he was at his residence Keishamthong Laishom Leirak. Although he was not called, he rushed towards the palace amidst the volleys of canon and guns and joined the fighting against the British intruders. He entered the capital and took away the canon from the citadel and fired towards the British Residence. The fight continued for hours and after suffering heavy casualties on both sides, the British gave a cease-fire signal. Paona Brajabashi’s firing of cannon to the residence on 24th March is clearly stated by Aya Purel Major Alias NIlamani Singh and Maharaja Kulachandra in their statements on the trial of 1891.
Statement of Aya Purel Major alias Nilamani Singh son of Kala Singh, Village- Nongthonbam Leikai, Age – 55, Manipuri.
“I am Aya Purel Major in the service of the Manipur state and have charge of the portion between the capital and Kabaw Valley. All others on any subject connected with this direction are sent through and carried out by me. In Manipur itself I am in command of the Maharaja’s bodyguards and of the citadel, on 22nd March. The Maharaja and Regent went to the British Residency to a Durbar and I accompanied them.
We arrived at the gate and there we were kept waiting. The senapati was waiting there and soon afterwards feeling unwell he returned home. We waited at the residence for some hours but did not see the Chief Commissioner and returned to the citadel. I always reside in the citadel, both eating and sleeping there. On the night of 23rd March I slept in the citadel and in the early morning of 24th I heard firing on the side of Senapati’s enclosure. All day fighting continued between the British troops and Manipuris but I remained quiet in the citadel.
“The guns (canon) and ammunition were kept in the citadel and in the afternoon the Sipahi gunmen and Paona, Subedar now Major and since killed in action at Khongjom came to the citadel and took away a gun and mortar, another gun was taken out but returned as it was injured in some way. I allowed them to take the guns as they told me Angou Sana (3rd Prince) had given the orders. The guns were fired at the Residency……..”
Read over and admitted correct.
16th May, 1891, Manipur
Chief Political Officer’
Statement of King Kulachandra Dhaja accused in answer to questions by the court states:
“I was in my house when the guns were fired on the 24th March. I tried to stop the firing but was not obeyed. I was told that the Top Guard had given the order. People used not to obey my orders.
“There were no big officials at the time in the citadel. The subedar in charge of the guns would not obey my orders; I only spoke to the officer in charge of the guns.”Paona, a Major of the Top Guard first came and gave order to Joyo Singh for firing the guns. Joyo reported this to me. I told him not to do so and told him to tell the Jubaraj. I remained in my house. I made no special effort to stop the firing…
“I was unable to run away on his occasion owing to the firing going on all around.
“The guns were fired from the other side of Wangol Pond.
“I did nothing except speak to the people. No one would obey me. I don’t know the meaning of white flag”……
Read over and admitted correct.
A.W. Davis, O.D.C.
St. John Michel, Lt. Col.
President of the Court
Thus, even the king was hesitant to stop Paona, and knew well that for the cause of protecting the capital he would not listen to anybody, even the king. The next day, there was a mob as a result of setting fire to a temple and some houses of the surrounding localities of the capital by British army.
The mob was beyond the control of the authorities. They demanded the culprit of the incident. Kajao, who was among the crowd speared Mr. Grimwood, the Political Agent of Manipur. The remaining four British officers were detained and executed by the Public executioner. They are: Mr. J.W. Quinton, Chief Commissioner of Assam, Lt. Colonel Skene of the 42 Gurkha Regiment, Mr. Cossins Asst. to the Chief Commissioner, Lt. Simpson of 43 Gurkha Regiment.
The news of execution reached the Governor General in Council at Shimla and he ordered on the 10th April 1891 to dispatch three columns to Manipur styled as Manipur Field Force to capture the State, the appointed date for which was the 27th April, 1891. The British troops were converging on Manipur from three directions – Tumu, Cachar and Kohima.
According to Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Royal Chronicle of Manipur, reports on the movement of British troops from Eastern Front (Tamu) reached Top Garod on 17th April. A Durbar was held and discussed the situation. Further reports were also received on the movement of British troops on the Western and Northern Front. Troops were sent to fight the British on all three sides. For the eastern Pallel Front, Sana Maipak Wangkheirakpa was the commander and he set up his Head Quarter at Thoubal. For the western or Cachar Front, Prince Kala Sagol Hanjaba was the commander and; for the Northern Front Khwairakpa was the commander. The position of the Manipuri troops on the Eastern Front (Tamu Column) was gravely critical. Reinforcement of troops under a capable officer was required. A Durbar was held and discussed the situation of war. As decided by the Durbar, Paona Major and Chongtha Major with 400 troops were sent as reinforcement of Tamu Column. Paona and Chongtha Miya were welcomed by Wangkhei Poila. Paona Brajabashi and Chongtha Miya camped on the bank of Khongjom River. Reports of the critical situation at Sapam area and Khongjom reached Sana Maipak; the overall sought immediate reinforcement of soldiers and mountain guns at the front camp of Khongjom.
There were two columns of enemy which attacked the Khongjom camp. One of the columns moved quite close to the western sectors of Manipur camp. The second column of the enemy troop took the bridle path near the Khunuda hill, passed through Yaithibi village and reached Langathel hill. Manipur soldiers faced the two enemy columns having support of 20 pounder mountain-guns. To make an effective obstruction to the British advance Paona needed cannon out of the twenty in the palace. He sent a messenger to Wangkheirakpa to send canon, since the British were at that point out of the range of the rifle fire. However, Wangkheirakpa made the fatal decision not to release the guns despite three urgent requests.
Paona and his men now realized that victory was impossible. But rather than retreat, they determined upon a courageous but suicidal resistance to the British advance. About the difference of fire-power, determination of the Manipuris and the fight, eyewitness account recorded to Cheitharol Kumbaba (the Royal Chronicle of Manipur) runs as follow:
Major Paona Brajabashi shouted, the enemy’s shell can land in our camp whereas ours cannot in theirs. My fellow countrymen! It is a disgrace to die fleeing. Death is now certain for us. But we will never retreat.
Shouting the above war-cry, Paona charged against the enemy with two unsheathed swords. Paona Brajabashi and Chongtha Miya and other officers took hand to hand. Undaunted Paona Brajabashi was surrounded by the British cavalry. After slewing many British soldiers, in the glimmer of the evening crimson rays he felt in the battle-field performing thereby his promises that he would not turn his back to the enemy. Thus, Manipur met its Waterloo at Khongjom and its cherished independence was lost.
Thus, Manipur, a tiny kingdom, fought with the widest empire the world had ever seen, on whose empire the sun never set. Compared with her littleness of size the degree of her courage and chivalrous activities was of a very high order. Samjetsabam Leinou Singh who accompanied the British troops had seen the whole battle with his own eyes. He was the first one who sang the glory of Paona Brajabashi. Leinou was shocked to see the tragic events of the battle. His shock emotion gave vent to a moving narrative song; Khongjom Parva is the mirror through which Paona Brajabashi can be seen. When Khongjom Parva is sung every Manipuri knows it is about Paona. Khongjom Parva, a style of ballad recited with a dholok has been an inseparable part of Manipuri life since the close of the 19th century.
Today, the Government of Manipur has been observing every year, the 23rd April as Khongjom Day, memorizing the patriotic fervor, selfless sacrifice, determination and indomitable courage displayed by Paona Brajabashi and other heroes who had laid down their lives, for their morrows, in the Khongjom Battle of 1891.
The writer teaches at Manipur University. (The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The North East Affairs)