My memories of Imphal from 1941
- Part 15 -

Dr Mohendra Irengbam *

 Pre- World War II photo. Western side of Ima Keithel by the Naga River, Maharani Thong on the right0
Pre- World War II photo. Western side of Ima Keithel by the Naga River, Maharani Thong on the right
Picture Courtesy : Shanti Kumar Moirangthem

The monograph of this swiftly produced series is an anthology of images of places and people of Manipur that existed more than half a century ago. From the pieces' beginning, it surveys Manipur's postwar cultural and political landscape with its old-fashioned glamour and heft; their interpretation and identification, from memory.

It is as much presence as absence of the people missing from those years in Imphal. It also highlights how the Meiteis have been holding the bonds of time and distance fairly tight, and how our language and culture shaped our history.

It was on the insistence of my late "nephew" Moirangthem Shanti, ex-IGP, that I do it before I kick the bucket or before the stress of COVID-19 causes havoc on my mental health.

 Shanti Kumar Moirangthem passed away on December 8 2020
Shanti Kumar Moirangthem passed away on December 8 2020

It grieves my heart that the wings of destiny did not wait to carry Shanti aloft to dance with the stars. He became a candle in the wind. A victim of COVID-19. He did not live to see the end of this series. It was Shanti, who sent me the above photograph of Ima Keithel. It was his hobby to collect old photographs of Manipur and read its rich cultural heritage of not so long ago Manipur. In the end, the pitiless fate about which I had no intuition did indeed prevail. He will always be in my heart.

The arrival of Japan Lan to Imphal in 1942, did not make much of a deep and dialectical flow of feelings among the laid-back Manipuris. The War remained a distant crisis even with the shock and surprise bombing of Imphal town. To put it another way, their awareness of the arrival of WWII was like a dream. Little did they know that the imminent change in their modern way of living, social outlook and educational status, would take a new shape because of the cataclysmic War and the genie would never return to its bottle.

We are now approaching the beginning of 1942. After the prevailing disquiet of 1941, the shadowy silhouette of the Japan Lan was hanging over the Manipur sky like the cloud of an impending storm. Everybody knew for a few months that the Japanese were coming, when many mules arrived in Imphal for the transport of military logistics into the jungles of Burma.

There were slit trenches dug up in the bazaar area and along the main roads like Uripok and Sagolband. Some were straight, some V-shaped. Imphalites were told to dig up such bomb shelters in their Ingkhol. We had a V-shaped and covered trench. There were black-outs at nights. Air-raid sirens blasted sometimes, which Imphal people thought to be practice runs. It was known much later on, that the Japanese reconnaissance planes were flying over Imphal and the sirens were to warn people. But no one was aware of it.

  [L] Irengbam Gulamjat Singh [died March 1992] :: [R] Christopher Gimson [died Nov 1975]
[L] Irengbam Gulamjat Singh [died March 1992] :: [R] Christopher Gimson [died Nov 1975]

My father, Irengbam GulamJat Singh, knew months before, from Christopher Gimson, the Political Agent that the Japanese were on the way to Manipur. He then prepared a lodging for our family by renting a mamang shangoi [front outhouse] from a family in the Senjam-Chirang village, about 19 km from the hydroelectric power house at Leimakhong, which he kept running during the War. In anticipation of the Japanese bombing, my father coincidentally, hired the lorry from our neighbour Kangabam family, to take us to this village, on the same Sunday afternoon of the first bombing.

Senjam-Chirang village is not very far off from the village of Phayeng, further west in Imphal Valley. I mention Phayeng because it is unique in that, it is the village that produced the first known Meitei Christian, Angom Porom Singh, the right hand man of the missionary Rev Pettigrew, a canny Scot missionary from Edinburgh (1869-1943).

Pettigrew established the first Baptist Christian Church in 1901 in Ukhrul, with the help of Porom. Pettigrew also organised the Manipur Labour Corp for the WWI with Porom as one of the interpreters. Phayeng is also the first in India to be a carbon positive village. Phayeng still continues to celebrate Lai Harouba in the ancient Manipuri dialect.

In 1942, my father also knew that somewhere on a hilltop, south of Imphal, a section of Assam Rifles was posted with orders to watch for Japanese aircraft and to heliograph a message to headquarters at Kangla, whereupon a siren would be sounded from the top of a metal pole erected near the western gate. In good old days the siren was a steady blaring sound everyday exactly at noon. Imphalites then knew it was 'numityungba' (noon).

The Meitei primitive innocence had a knock on the head when the first Japanese bombs fell upon Imphal town on Sunday, May 10 1942 and again on Friday, May 16 1942. The townspeople of Imphal were jolted with the sounds of the first bombs exploding over the town centre. The chilling truth flashed in their head that the Japanlan had indeed arrived after all.

Having switched off the chatter of everyday talk of the coming war, most people from central Imphal fled their homes to the outlying villages as news quickly spread from word of mouth that the Japanese were really dropping bombs in central Imphal. Soon, not only the Meiteis but the Marwaris from the town centre, left for Calcutta as soon as they could, along with the Indian refugees from Burma, who were put up in temporary huts at Koirengei, about 10 metres from Kangla, Central Imphal. A military aerodrome was later built at Koirengei in the early phase of the "Battle of Imphal".

An estimated 60,000 refugees, mostly Indians with a handful of Europeans, trudged all the way to Imphal from Burma, across the steep rugged mountain footpaths and via the Manipur border village of Moreh. It began in 1941. Among them there were a few Sikhs. A handful of them continued to stay in Imphal. As diligent Sikhs go, they soon became prosperous and affluent in the next few years. They became so well established that there is now a large Gurdwara in Imphal and another at the business town of Moreh at the Indo-Myanmar border.

When the Japanese bombs were thudding in the Bazaar area, I was eating some raspberries on a khongnang mana (leaf of a peepal tree) on the Uripok roadside. I saw people running helter-skelter. So I walked home to find our family members packing bags and bundles. I did not know what was happening. But I was soon off with our family, walking down Kangchup Road towards the west.

We left the house locked up. We traipsed all the way to Senjam-Chirang via Lamshang Keithel. Half-way, I was riding piggy-back on my eldest sister-in-law Ibemhal. The lorry that my father hired understandably, was unavailable.

The evening was closing in by the time we arrived in the village. We settled in our prearranged dwelling place like a hotel, which my father had rented and converted as our family home with adequate lighting by hurricane kerosene lanterns. The next morning, my two brothers cycled to Imphal to see that our home was not looted.

Our Senjam-Chirang village was a peaceful place with a crystal clear shallow brook running through its centre on a bed of pebbles. I loved the sonorous sound the flow of the water made as the currents impinged on the pebbles causing small eddies.

Though the hosts in the village were very welcoming, tension gripped the refugees, in the way storm clouds gather when there's going to be rain. It exploded after a couple of month, not from the Japanese bombs, but from the malarial parasites. Three or four people in the village, were cremated on the banks of this stream every day. Some of our family members including me, survived malaria.

Thanks to our father, who knew about the disease. He procured bottles of the bitter green liquid quinine for treatment, from a previous compounder (pharmacist) of the Civil Hospital in Imphal. As a boy at that time, I thought I wouldn't survive to be an adult. Our next door neighbour, the Pangangbam family, lost half of its members.

My father used to commute every day on his bicycle, from the village to Sanahal Lokchao at Leimakhong where the hydro-electric plant was built. Sometimes, he stayed there for a few days when he took me with him. The powerhouse was guarded by a section of the Gurkhas of the 4th Assam Rifles from the Kangla Cantonment. In the mornings, it was such a delight for me to eat a hot juicy paratha that they gave to me. They spoke Manipuri.

War refugees at Koirengei, Imphal : RKCS Art Gallery
War refugees at Koirengei, Imphal.
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery

My father cycled to see Mr Gimson in Imphal after a couple of weeks. He told him that Imphal Town centre was deserted and the abandoned shops were guarded by the Gurkhas from Kangla. Many small time thieves had a field day in the couple of days after the bombing. The Marwari merchants from the town centre, also left by motorised transport to Dimapur with some refugees. Many other refugees left Imphal on foot, along the Old Cachar Road for Silchar.

Gimson was bemused that, while a few bombs fell on his Residency compound on May 16 1942, one of them spurt a shrapnel that blew a hole into his old favourite gramophone. He gave my father a small jagged twisted metal piece, which he brought home for us to see. One of the bombs demolished the main gate of the Imphal jail and all the prisoners escaped.

Gimson told my father further, that all the policeman had also deserted. He made a request for two Burma Police officers (British) to come and organise policing at Imphal. His liveried servants had also fled home to Assam. He had to manage his own meals.

It might be of some interest to the reader that the Koirengei airfield that was hurriedly built by the British Army, was later discarded because of cross winds that made it dangerous for aircrafts to land. I knew what it meant.

Once on my way back home from Calcutta by a propeller Dakota aircraft of the Birla Airlines, it happened. It was 1954 and I was returning home after one year from College in Bombay. The plane nosedived and was about to land over the runway when it took off again. The Captain's voice from the tannoy explained what was happening and we were headed for Silchar to spend overnight.

It was extremely disappointing for me. Then, perhaps looking at the riff-raff of the passengers, we were to be lodged in a dingy third class hotel. I argued vehemently that we were first class (Train) passengers as we paid first class fare, and therefore we were entitled to first class accommodation A few Manipuri students joined in. Whereupon, we were put up at the old British Tea Planters' Club building for the night.

Because of the crosswinds, American Engineers built the Tulihal Airport on British specifications, early in 1944. And the runway was longer than planned. Here in England, I met an Englishman who was involved in constructing the airport. When I asked him he said, Americans units for measuring distance had significant differences from the British Imperial units though they followed the same non-metric system of measurement. An American yard was longer than British one by 0.00087 inch.

During WWII, the Allied Army also constructed four aerodromes apart from Koirengei: Tulihal, Palel, Sapam and Kangla sagolmang, for the supply of troops, ammunitions, food and drinks including water for the beleaguered Allied forces in Manipur and for pushing the Japs back to Burma.

The war was a windfall for Manipur. In the early 1950s, the disused Koirengei aerodrome came to life when Birla Airlines, a private company in collaboration with N Gourahari Singh, the father of my friend, the late Nishikanta from Moirangkhom began to operate a daily passenger service from Calcutta to Imphal and back with a half hour stop-over in Gauhati.

Many left-over American Dakota planes from the War were brought to service. When I flew in 1952, the fare was 50 rupees one way and it took 4 hours. The planes were not pressurised. Cotton wool to plug the ears and wrapped sweets were served as soon as the aircraft was airborne, to equalise pressure, outside and inside of the ear. While in Gauhati airport building, alcoholic drinks was available for 4 rupees a peg.

Back to wartime from my jolly air travel during the 1950s. In mid-1942, we were making ourselves comfortable, gelling together with the village folk of Senjam-Chirang and leaving ourselves in the lap of the gods. One year later, one morning, my second brother Yaima took me to Imphal, with me sitting sideways on the horizontal bar of a bicycle to watch a matinée show of a Tarzan film with Johnny Weissmuller at MNB cinema hall in the town centre. A friend of his came along with us.

The town centre was deserted with most buildings in ruins. A few Meitei traders under temporary shades in the northern part of the Sadar bazaar (present Paona Bazaar), were vending several oddments, such as fish, vegetables and other commodities to various multi-ethnic soldiers, white, black, and brown. It was quite deserted, but the cinema hall was full, both Meiteis and military.

Imphal was under Military Rule during the War. By the autumn of 1943, Imphal with about 8,000 homesteads, containing 20,000 villages were requisitioned by the British Army. But the changes in the political system had no visible effects on Manipuris except on the economic pattern. For many, the War gave unemployed Meiteis work in road-building with so much inflated money printed to finance the war. Something that had never been seen before.

By about the end of 1942-43, the Allied Army started building a two-lane all weather Road from Dimapur to Imphal and from Imphal to Moreh Road in an urgent footing, primarily for the evacuation of retreating British troops from Burma. It was named Indo-Burma (IB) Road (cf. P 16), stretching 290 km from Dimapur to Moreh. It ran through the centre of Imphal, by the western gate of the Kangla Fort and through Palel, which is 30 km east from Imphal, and beyond to Moreh.

Palel was highlighted in the "Battle of Imphal" as it was the airfield where only a known battle involving Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army (INA) took place. It was during the night of May 2 1944. Unfortunately for them, it was guarded by the battle-hardened Gurkhas who were well entrenched. The INA soldiers were repulsed, with over 200 causalities. After 2 days, by May 4, they withdrew to Khanjol, their base. Worse still, the Japanese despised the INA for lack of valour.

During the early phase of the War, there was a lot of money to be earned by cutting the hillsides in large hilly stretches of the IB Road that connected Dimapur in Assam, through Naga Hills and Manipur, all the way to the border village of Moreh on the Burma border.

For people in our village and adjoining villages, there was a small stretch of hills by the Feidinga bend, around where there is the ruins of MK Priyobrata's disused house on a hillock, across the river. My brother who was the architect of this building told me once, why Priyobrata left the building in ruins. It was because of the difficulty to get water supply.

The IB Road had to be built on a war footing, as the victorious Japanese Army was advancing in Burma, and thousands of refugees, both civilian and British military, including the famous Gen Slim himself, had to evacuate. They had to trudge along the rugged mountain foot path and across the mountains from Tamu in Burma to Moreh in Manipur. The latter sweep was 65 km long. The allied Army needed to build the IB Road as a two-lane motorway in a hurry for the evacuation of retreating soldiers.

And they did. Money was no problem, as Indian rupee notes were mass printed. This road construction was a boon for Manipur's economy. They needed massive labour as the road building equipment was rudimentary. Many Meiteis from our and nearby villages, went to work as labourers and contractors (thikadars). My eldest brother Gokulchandra, a civil engineer, who was unemployed due to the War, also got a job as an engineer.

Our village was alive with the smell of money. A labourer could earn so many rupees a day, which would have taken a month even if such work was available. The hill-cutting as it was known, was extremely slow and tedious, which involved hand-carving of the hill sides with tools, such as lance-like metal jemmy bars (known as jumpet in Manipuri), pick axes, shovels and baskets. It took a few months to complete the work.

Our village erupted with festivities with the money generated at Feidinga. Women folk in the village glittered with gold ornaments. They had gold necklaces, arm bands, bracelets, many rings on the fingers and dangling earrings. The earrings with so much gold, were so heavy that the earlobes often split. Each had to be supported by a gold chain fastened in front and back and hooked around the ear.

There were fun and frolics in the village. Touring circus, magic shows, Khubak Ishei, Shumang Lila, Lai Harouba and various other entertainments filled the evenings at large mandabs. The thikadars lavished money so much, as to draw hilarity over their lack of prudence. They often became targets of Meitei comedians like khutamacha, who appeared in a shumang Lila (outdoor drama) with a heist of pantomimes.

About this time, when the War was ending in Manipur and by the winter of 1944, my father organised a Ras Lila performance in our village. The venue was at an open field that was lit up with electric lamps from a generator operated by my father's electricians. Four or five Gurkhas from the unit, guarding his Power House, acted as security guards. My little sister Rupobati played a Gopi (cowgirl) and her cousin Nungshi played Radha.

The most popular and the only educated Meitei girl soprano, called Chandrakala from Lairikyengbam Leikai in Imphal, gave a stunning performance. She was the first Manipuri, who made a vinyl record of her songs: Waman khareda itasa, leijararoi Brindabanda...

The tragicomedy of the arrival of the Japan Lan was a windfall for Manipuris. Despite the tragedy of the War it energised the Manipuris who were like a river that was never in a hurry, to make their efforts to push new boundaries.

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 29 2021 .

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