Arambai - the Meitei weapon that kept medieval Burmese at bay

Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba *

A Meitei horsemen throwing Arambai while galloping
A Manipuri horsemen galloping at full speed prior to throwing of the Arambais.

Prior to the beginning of modern warfare, medieval and ancient warriors determined the outcome of battles and war with their innovative weapons and indigenous tactics. From the mighty Mongol cavalries from the steppes of Asia, the Samurais from Japan and marauding horse cavalries of the incredibly ferocious Huns, horse cavalries have proved decisive in wars, helping great military leaders carve huge empire that mankind will forever reckon.

However, in an obscure region far from the attention of global socio-political and economic scenario, that shaped destinies of nations, existed a tiny sovereign nation later came to be known to be as Manipur in the present Indo-Myanmar border.

This very state, with her 2000 years old unique history, had produced a breed of horses referred to as Manipuri ponies and men that would catapult the tiny nation into a force that the mighty Burmese empire in her eastern frontier would find not just hard to contain, but also acknowledge the superiority of her warriors especially her Cavalry armed with regular weapons such as swords, spears and particularly Arambais. Interestingly, the cavalries are assumed to have not used bows and arrows during any form of conflict.

Though, like any other men of war, Meiteis more popularly known as Manipuris, used regular spears, and swords in battles with her neighbours and other wild tribes, they employed an indigenous weapon that would later came to be dreaded by the Burmese who themselves had a reputation of being successful in wars against the Mongols, and the Siamese people.

Arambai, literally meaning darts, is a simple weapon at first sight. The weapon has an iron arrow head, which is attached to feathers of peacocks though kites' feathers were also used in the past. Users of these weapons, who are horse riders, swirl the deadly poisoned darts and throw it to the enemy with an unparalleled accuracy and speed which is gathered through fast galloping of the Manipuri ponies.

Arambai trainees getting ready for demonstration at Imphal pologround during Sangai festival (Above right); the deadly poisoned Arambai dart
Modern day Manipuri horsemen dressed in traditional warrior costumes before showing their skills at the 2014 Sangai Festival, Imphal.

According to Secretary of All Manipur Arambai Association Maisnam Khelen, who himself has involved himself in horse-related activities for more than twenty years; "Arambais" can be used both for attacking and during retreating in battlefields. Curiously, and quite interestingly, a tactic used by the Arambai throwers of Manipuri cavalries surprisingly resembles a tactic employed by the mighty Mongol themselves.

In the past, Manipuri cavalries would presume they were retreating from battlefield with the enemies pursuing behind them, but all of a sudden the Manipuri cavalries would turn back instantly and charged towards the enemies and throw the arambais with deadly effect. Horsemen would equip themselves with almost hundreds of such dart-weapons on either side of their ponies to be used in the battle, mostly against the Burmese.

Legend has it that Burmese soldiers in their battles with the Meiteis, would often look up in the air in apprehension, to see if Arambais are being thrown against them or not. Even British writers of the late 19th century who were stationed in the frontier Indian region of that time acknowledged the terror created by Manipur cavalry and their Arambais in Upper Burma, though it had gradually fallen out of use after the devastating seven years occupation of Manipur by Burma from 1819 to 1824.

Cassay Horse and Burmese emperor Alaungpaya

The supremacy of Manipuri cavalry also lies in the breed of Manipuri ponies itself, which is extremely adaptable to any environment, sure-footed, and had far more enduring power than their counterparts of the region. Khelen, a resident of Khurai Thongam Leikai, also claims that Manipuri ponies can just adapt itself in a muddy ground as well.

However, what is to be of pride for every Manipuris today, is that these horsemen from the tiny state comprised the Burmese cavalry in the wars of Burmese Emperor Alaungpaya against their Siamese enemies in the 18th century. Reportedly, of the 3000 cavalry of Ava, 2000 consisted of Manipuris. The services of these Manipuri horsemen with their "Arambais" were honoured with the term Cassay Horse. Cassay is the name given to Manipuris by the Burmese (Avas) back in the medieval period.

Resurging interest in Arambais

Unfortunately, these great heritage which had once protected the former sovereign nation of Manipur from repeated assaults by the Burmese, Tripuris, and the Cacharis from the West has fallen out of the imagination and the knowledge of today's generation.

Nevertheless, resurgence in this ancient art form has been developing ever since tourism festival started to take more serious foot in this state. In this regard, the All Manipur Arambai Association which had organised the Arambai demonstration show on November 29 2014 following the finals of the 8th Manipur Polo International at the historic Imphal Pologround, as part of the just concluded tourism event Sangai festival, had been taking pains to see that the art form becomes more prevalent and knowledgeable to all.

Khelen, says the Association which was established in 2005 and has its office at Dewlahland, had been training young students in throwing the dart weapons. He says, at present 20 students are being taught several skills to learn the art form for which horse riding, accuracy of throwing Arambais, gaining of speed, and different swirling is necessary.

As of the feathers used in the weapons, Khelen who was the team captain at the International Polo held in 1991 at Imphal, opines it is to spearhead the dart and to make it more accurate. As to the objectives for the establishment of the Association, the deeply passionate horsemen, remarked the necessity to preserve and maintain heritage and promote it as part of tourism festival were two major reasons behind the effort.

On the other hand, to ensure that the art of throwing Arambais remains for all eternity, Khelen says his Association has been trying to convert it into a sports discipline.

See a photo gallery of Arambai demonstration show on November 29 2014

* Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba wrote this article for
The writer is with People's Chronicle and Assamese newspaper Asomiya Pratidin and can be contacted at phanjching(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on December 17 , 2014.

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