A case of Manipur raiding Burma and its retaliation (1600 - 1850)

Oinam Premchand Singh *

Attack on Kaunghmudaw Pagoda (Burma) 1738
Attack on Kaunghmudaw Pagoda (Burma) 1738.
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GE Harvey wrote: "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 realize 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. The Manipuris say he was remarkably cruel; but he was only doing unto them as they had done unto his people"

Manipur (Kangleipak), a tiny state of India was once an independent kingdom that had constantly challenged the supremacy of the Burmese Empire (Myanmar), several times bigger than the size of the former. The Manipuris (Kangleicha) raided upper Burma repeatedly and Burmeseas well responded equally resulted into devastationsof both.

The Manipuri raids and the subsequent Burmese retaliation marked an important watershed in the history of both the realms. From the middle of the 17th century, Manipur was ruled by King Khunjaoba (1652-1666) who for the first time ransacked the border areas of upper Burma that was under the dominance of Toungoo dynasty (1510–1752).

Subsequently, Manipuri cavalry troops led by the respective kings continued to carry out raiding activities into upper Chindwin and Upper Burma during the power period of Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885) in Burma. They carried off cattle, loot and deported thousands of people, and killed anyone who oppose them. The raids that had begun from the middle of seventeenth century continued, but the frequency and destructiveness of it increased only in the18th century.

It was during the reign of King Garib Niwaz (1720 -1751) in Manipur that the raiding expedition went deeper and deeper into the heartland of Burma. He burnt every houses and monasteries that he could find in his way into upper Burma and slaughtered the people who opposed him. He even reached up to Ava in 1749, which was the ancient capital of the Ava kingdom that had ruled Burma from 1364-1557.

The Burmese Empire became powerless against the rising Manipuri raids, and its frailty lost its support at home and even from the nominal allegiance of its eastern tribute paying areas. As a response, Burmese emperor, Alaungpaya retaliated and ransacked Manipur in 1755 and 1758 which the people of Manipur call it as "First Devastation". These brutal invasions were followed up by another in 1764.

Thousands of people were deported, and the valley was left nearly empty for years. Many of the war captives were elite cavalry corps (Cassay horseman in Burmese language), smiths, craftsmen, weavers, etc of all sorts. They were gradually assimilated into the Burmese society and made to owean allegiance to the Burmese crown, and for generations some of them serve as servants as well as agricultural laborers for the Burmese nobility.

However, in 1782 Manipur became an independent kingdom free from the dominance of the Burmese emperor. In the early decades of 18th century, a civil war broke out amongst the Manipuri prince for usurp age of the throne. Taking this opportunity, in 1819 Manipur was again invaded and ruled by the Burmese king Bagidow from 1819-1826. This is known as "CHAHI TARET KHUNTAKPA" (Seven years of Devastation) in the history of Manipur. The entire valley of the Manipur during this period was deserted on account of the fear of the Burmese slaughtering of the masses.

Subsequently, a large scale exodus happened in Manipur to Assam, Tripura and its neighboring areas. After Manipur, Burmese also conquered Assam in 1822 which directly brought to a confrontation with the British and led to the outbreak of the Anglo-Burmese War in 1824-1826. The Anglo-Burmese war finally brought an end to the "Chahi Taret Khuntakpa".

I contend that the real motives behind the raiding expedition launched by the Manipuris into upper Burma requires a very deep study, rather than perceiving simply from a single historical narrative to explain the underlying dynamic of historical process. Historical researches in North-Eastern region of India are always neglected, may be, due to the lack of the historical interest of the people or their financial instability.

But, I must say that the history of this region is equally dynamic as in other parts of the world. The Manipuri raid into Upper Burma and the subsequent retaliation by the latter in 17th and 18th century marked a watershed period in the history of both the realms. I propose that a number of external and internal challenges that come at par in Manipur in the early 17th and 18th century might have triggered the Manipuri's to conduct the raids into Upper Burma.

Why I 'am projecting this hypothesis is just because of the contradictory historical narratives of the current scholars who fail satisfactorily to explain why the Manipuris a former tribute payer, had ransacked theUpper Burma? Was it for the thirst of blood by the "tribal Manipuri's"?

A real question could be why did not the Manipuri'sundertake similar ventures of raiding expeditions into Assam, Tripura and neighboring hilly regions? Also, there is a substantial lack of arguments of why Manipuri's raidedand ransackedthe Upper Chindwin and Upper Burma again and again? Was it simply to gain a military control over Kabow Valley? Was it primarily for war booty and resources?

Was it an attempt to spread Vaishnavism into Burma? Manipur though tributary to Burma under Bayinnaung 1551-81 had gone her way since his time. In 1647 and 1692 the raja (Manipur) had raided. Thaungdut on the Chindwin River, but these were only ordinary forays. But under Gharib Newaz 1714-54 Manipur became a thorn in the side of Upper Burma (Harvey, 1967).

"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 dispatched to stop them." (Thant Myint-U, 2009).

The Manipuris raided upper Chindwin and Upper Burma twelve times from 1647 to 1749, the Burmese in return retaliated and ransacked Manipur for five times including the most fearsome "CHAHI TARET KHUNTAKPA" (7 years of devastation, 1819-1825) in the history of Manipur (Harvey, 1967).

The current Manipuri and Burmese literature shows that there are two main reasons for conducting Manipuri raids in Upper Burma.

1) Firstly, religious point of view. One reason why the Manipuris raided Burma was that they had just been converted to Hinduism by preachers who said that if they bathed in the Irrawaddy River at Sagaing, all blessedness would attend them. Their chief Brahman insisted on coming to Ava himself in 1744 in order to convert the Golden Palace, but he fell ill and died after staying a month, and his suite of lesser Brahmins then returned home.

On the other hand, religion is supposed to bring peace and harmony to the people as no religion promotes violence and war, but history proves otherwise and the history of Manipur is no exception. Jyotirmoy Roy claims the advent of Vaishnavism during the reign of Garibniwaz as a positive sign and says: The beginning of the 18th Century saw the dawn of a new era in the history of Manipur… Though India has nothing to be proud of the new century, it has at least added a bright chapter of the history of Manipur to the history of India. (Roy, 1999)

On the contrary, there are claims that Hinduism has brought caste system and division of the people in the casteless society of Manipur. There was no notion of caste in pre-Hindu Manipur (Singh, 1978) and it all changed with the coming of Hinduism. The king and all the Meiteis (Majority ethnic group of people in Manipur) were declared as Kshetriyas. The Meitei became a single caste society.

2) Secondly, from a geographical standpoint, Kabaw Valley was the Flash Point of Hatred and Anger between the Manipuri People and the Myanmarese people from the written evidences of history of the Hindu period in Manipur. According to "Meitei Ningthourol (Manuscript)", a Yanache (treaty) was signed between the Manipuri prince Marjit and the King of Ava.

This 'yana-che' Treaty has been signed after many years of spending time by prince Marjit of Manipur in Burma and his request tothe Burmese king to install him in place of Chourjit in Manipur as King. As a part of the treaty Marjit has to give Kabow valley to Burma.

* Oinam Premchand Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a student of MPhil, Jawaharlal Nehru University
This article was posted on April 02, 2017.

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