My memories of Imphal from 1941
- Part 13 -

Dr Mohendra Irengbam *

Jila Durbar in the Kingdom of Manipur in early 1900s
Jila Durbar in the Kingdom of Manipur in early 1900s
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery

By now, our learned readers must have understood that my writings are not a narrative based on research, but simply telling stories of Meitei cultural ethos that I, as a young boy experienced as a way of life, just before and after WWII. It is a humanitarian narrative of an age – a period of naiveté, style and simplicity of living in Manipur that was ruled by kings and courtiers, in times gone by.

This chapter pulls at my heartstrings as it echoes the timeless ballad of Ibemni Devi of Khongjom Parba fame, as she in her demure comportment, rendered the story of 'Jila Durbar' in her special tempo and rhythm, of how one Tamar Singh ran all the way from Silchar to Imphal and back.

Tamar Singh was one of the rays of light amid the encircling gloom. Although the strength was born out of desperation, it mirrored the gift that the Meiteis had in the sporting arena.

Meiteis are good in sport. They had a variety of indigenous indoor and outdoor sports, which in the past, were encouraged by their kings. Sports were competitive. There were compelling cultural and political reasons why they took to the wire in such contests, awash in a sea of competitive optimism.

Meiteis for centuries, had to protect themselves and survive. Darwin's theory (1869) of the "Survival of the fittest" was a self-evident axiomatic truth for ancient Meiteis. It is reasonable to conceptualise that the Meiteis have an innate talent for sport in the light of evolution by natural selection, when individual characteristics favourably align with the specific requirement of a spirited sport. It is a genetic disposition. It is a bold and punchy observation; sure to ruffle academic feathers.

In Manipur we can glean glimpses of highly competitive games such as 'lamchel' (lam= ground, lambi = road; chelba to run). These were foot races by two men for a distance of about 800 metres. This was a royal thing involving the monarch.

The races were between two 'panas' at a time. The one winner at the end, was excused from lallup (labour for the king in lieu of tax, as the king owned all the land). More recently, just after the War, cycle racing for a short sprint with baits of money between two men were common at about the time of Yaoshang festival.

Lamchel was an early form of human transport in Manipur as it was worldwide. Running is quicker than walking. Our first ape ancestors began to walk on their two hind legs, known as bipedal apes, in the savannah of North Africa, 4 million years ago, when the forests began to thin out because of drought.

It was about 2.6 million years ago that they had the skill to run in order to hunt animals that ran very fast. The first mode of transportation was created to traverse on water in dug-out tree trunks. People eventually learnt to use animals for transport, such as donkeys and horses. In the snowy Lapland and Alaska they used dogs to pull a sledge.

The invention and the use of wheels changed the world of transportation. The first wheel was invented in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) in 3,500 BCE, but the name of the inventor is unknown. The first wheel with spokes came out in 2,000 BCE. The first passenger air travel took place between Petersburg and Tampa in Florida (USA) on January 1 1914.

Manipur today, has a very low per capita transport system. One can imagine what it would have been like in the 1940s. The history of transport is largely one of technological innovations. Manipur like the vast majority of places in India, had no modern transport until after the War. Bullock carts, and buffaloes with sledges, were commonly available in the villages for transporting goods and personnel.

There were elephants and ponies and palanquins for the Royalty. Apart from them ponies and palanquins were used by a few courtiers with the express permission of the king. Many ponies were available in Manipur, but they were used mainly for the sport of Sagol Kangjei (hockey on horseback) in peace time and for war by the cavalry. Most households in the villages, had 2 or three horses. The Lamphel pat during the dry season was a grazing land for horses belonging to people living around it.

In the main, walking to a destination, long or short, was the only form of transport. All the British pioneers who came to Manipur from the British base of Silchar and Cachar in Assam, came to Manipur on foot and horseback. The well-known character of Mrs Grimwood walked to Manipur most of the way and at times, on the back of a Hillman. The British forces that invaded Manipur from three directions came to Imphal on foot. The officers rode on horses where they were practicable.

The top-down history of the Meitei athlete Maibam Tamar Singh, who used running as a mode of transportation is unique. Fortune favours the bold. It was during the critical days of the infamous 'Jila Durbar' of Chandrakirti Maharaja with the Governor general Lord Northbrook at the village of Malugram in Cachar. Chandrakirti travelled on the back an elephant while his courtiers rode on horseback.

The rest walked on foot. The legend had it that Chandrakirti after reaching Silchar, had a foreboding. He forgot to bring the flowers that he offered as oblation to Govindajee at the Palace temple (cf. Ibemni's Jila Durbar).

To ditch the pensive mood of the king, Tamar Singh volunteered. He ran day and night all the way to Bishnupur along Tongjei Maril (212 km). From Bishnupur he rode on a horse to reach Kangla in Imphal. He went back the next day in the same manner, after collecting the flowers from the temple (Nirmala), which he presented to the king in time for the Durbar. That boosted the morale for Chandrakirti Maharaja, and he conducted himself totally appropriate to a Manipuri king.

In Manipur, in the late 1930s, pedal bikes, known as bicycles became the first mode of mechanised transport in Imphal, but only for a very few who could afford to buy them. Owning a bicycle was high society. It was a far cry from owning a motorbike let alone a motor car in those pre-War days. There were 2 or 3 brands of cycles differing in qualities. The most expensive ones were made by Raleigh and Humber. They all came fitted with a bell ringer fitted on the right side of the handle bar, and mudguards.

The luxurious ones had extra fittings as optional, such as a longer leather saddle and chain cover, which could be half or full. The cover prevented the crank and chain from chewing trouser bottoms for those who wore them. A flat metal carrier for carrying luggage in the back and above the rear mudguard was an option. So was a small kerosene-fuelled front light for night cycling.

Immediately after the War, a small front mounted electric lamp, which was operated by a tiny dynamo in a casing attached to the left hind frame bar became fashionable. As the bicycle moved, the rubber tire of the back wheel turned the small metal wheel on top of the dynamo, producing enough voltage to induce electricity to produce light.

Imphal had hardly any automobile before the War. I can remember only an old car that was owned by a friend of my father. Sometimes he used to take me and my father for a long ride. I believe Maharaja Churachand had a Ford car – the first car that he bought from the Kasturi Marwari family in Imphal. This family in the early 1950s owned a big American car with fin-end designs, which he parked on the street of Maxwell Bazaar, in front of his building.

The political Agent Mr Christopher Gimson did not have one. I remember Mr Pearson, the pen-ultimate British administrator had a small Morris Minor in which my friend Ta-Gojendra and I had a ride once from his residence to the Manipur Dramatic Union Hall, when the Shakespeareana Theatre Party came to Imphal in 1946. We went to the Residency to ask for tickets to watch Macbeth.

He and another Englishman very kindly took us to MDU and provided tickets for us. Interestingly, Mr Pearson went back home in England. He became a farmer and later an MP in Parliament and was conferred the honorific title of MBE. He became a Baronet and died only in 1991. Here in Manipur, a village in Churachandpur, was named after him.

A few years before I was born, Marwari businessmen in Imphal, introduced 2-ton lorries in 1930, to bring merchandise from Dimapur and back to Imphal, rather than using bullock carts that took 12 days one way.

Most Manipuris had to walk for three days along the Tongjei Maril road to Cachar. From there one could get on a train for Calcutta, or a boat for Dacca, as my father did when he went to Dacca to study engineering at the Ashutosh Engineering College.

There was one bus with a galvanised body of sheet metal, which transported passengers from Moirang, Bishnupur and Nambol and back. It was parked by the main road at Wahengabm Leikai near thong nambombi (Hunch-back Bridge) over the Nambul River. There was a red-painted Dak Gari (mail lorry) that was for transporting mail to Dimapur and back. It was owned by the Marwari Kasturi family. There was a bench in a narrow compartment, partitioned just behind the driver's seat. That was used by VIPs to travel to Dimapur to catch a train to go elsewhere and again on return.

It is not known when bullock carts were introduced to Manipur. They have been there long before I was born. Bullock carts were used to transport goods from Dimapur to Imphal and back by the few Marwari traders who settled in Imphal.

In Manipur, they were mainly used by farmers for transporting farm produce, especially paddy from different locations in the valley to their respective landowners in Imphal, once a year during the harvest season. The paddy was filled in gunny bags, each of which contained a measured quantity, a standard Sangbai-full of the grain (30kg).

For each 'Pari' (1 hectare) of the rice field they were required to give 14 Sangbai-full to the landowner while the rest belonged to the farmer. These bullock carts with wood-spoked wheels were fitted with a steel rim as tyre.

It is hard to exaggerate the cultural and social aftermath of WWII, both in the valley and the hills of Manipur. The influence of meeting people during the War and the sights and the smell of the War, the foreign food, dress and the habits of day-to-day life were all pervasive. The seeds of modernisation were sown in the fertile Manipuri soil, beginning from the European dress styling to the reintroduction of carnivorous dieting habits among teenagers.

It had steered a new dawn on the horizon that ushered in mechanised transport. Thanks to the ingenuity of Meitei Mechanics, who, though they had not been trained or apprenticed, could assemble motor vehicles from bits and bats which were found in the WWII junk yards, such as 144 CRP that was located at Moirangkhom by the main IB Road and the beginning of the slip road of Sougaijam Leirak.

In 1947 after the War, and before the Indian independence, Imphal looked like a small modern town with many jeeps, motorbikes, trucks for transport of goods and buses for passengers. Travel to Dimapur Railhead and back to Imphal became comfortable and faster taking about 6-8 hours each way. Transport from Imphal to outlying villages became easier as private buses were scheduled every day. Life had become much faster because of motorised transportation.

The mountainous and serpentine dirt roads to Ukhrul and Tamenglong became tarmac roads fit for jeeps. So was the road to Churachandpur in the south. By 1952, the Birla Airlines started one daily flight from Calcutta to Imphal, using the WWII aerodrome at Koirengei, with one stop-over in Gauhati. Life in Manipur became rosy. Oh! What a war?

Author's website:

* Dr Mohendra Irengbam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on January 13 2021 .

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