Khongjom Day - April 23

By Haobam Bhuban Singh *


  1. The battle of Khongjom fought in April 1891, was not only Manipur's last war of independence, but it was also the last battle fought by any Indian Prince against the British Paramount Power because:
    1. Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore died fighting the British in the battle of Seringapatnam in Feb 1799.
    2. The Maratha Empire had disintegrated after the Third Maratha War in Dec 1817, and
    3. The Sikhs, after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, had been humbled in the battle of Gujarat in Feb 1849.
  2. About a year ago in May 2007, India celebrated its 150th anniversary of her First War of Independence, earlier known as Sepoy Mutiny 1857 in our British Indian history.
  3. I was invited by Akhil Bharatiya Nidyarthi Parishad to speak on 'Manipur's Role in India's First War of Independence' at the Kangla Fort Auditorium.
  4. To my utter surprise, I found that Manipur was an independent kingdom under Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh and fought to supress India's First War of Independence.

    It happened like this:
    1. Sepoys of 34 Battalion of Native Light Infantry stationed at Chittagong revolted under some Native officers. They marched towards Dacca and then turned north, came to Sylhet and Cachar.
    2. Some exiled Manipuri princes joined the mutineers and marched towards Manipur to dethrone Chandrakirti.
    3. On the advice of Colonel McCulloch, the British Political Agent at Imphal, Chandrakirti sent about four hundred troops to engage the mutineers, who were defeated. Some prisoners were caught.
    4. One Nepali, caught as prisoner, was Niranjan Singh, who joined Manipur Army and rose to become a Subedar. He was hanged on 13 Aug 1891 in Imphal Jail along with Kajao and others for killing British officers in March 1891.
  5. For supressing the mutineers, Chandrakirti was given a dress of honour, a belt and a sword.
  6. Chandrakirti continued to maintain good rapport with British.
  7. In Oct 1879, Mr. Damant, the British Political Agent at Kohima was murdered by Nagas. His assistant, Mr. Cowley sent an SOS message to Major General Sir James Johnstone, the British Political Agent at Imphal for immediate help.
  8. On the request of Johnstone, Chandrakirti immediately sent 2000 soldiers under the command of his eldest son, Yuberaj Surachandra Singh, accompanied by his third son Tikendrajit Singh and General Thangal.
  9. Johnstone with his security guard of about 80 men of Bengal Infantry and Cachar police joined this force.
  10. Kohima stockade, where British officers, wives and children were sheltered, was relieved and rebellion supressed.
  11. In recognition of Chandrakirti's timely help, the British conferred Knighthood to Chandrakirti by grant of KCSI (Knight Commander and Star of India).
  12. But the egoistic Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh of Manipur refused to be called Maharaja Sir Chandrakirti Singh.
  13. Chandrakirti died in July 1886. But before he died, he made arrangements with the British to recognise his eldest son, Yuberaj Surachandra Singh as Maharaja of Manipur.
  14. Sir James Johnstone had left Manipur a few months before Chandrakirti's death. Gathering of war clouds.
  15. Surachandra became king. But he was a weak king. Senapati Tikendrajit Singh wielded all the Royal powers.
  16. On one midnight of Sep 1890, Prince Angousana, a Tikendrajit loyalist climbed the wall of Maharaja Surachandra's Palace and fired a few shots.
  17. Fearing that it was a full-scale attack, Surachandra ran to the Residency for British protection. Not feeling safe even in the Residency, he requested the Political Agent, Mr. Grimwood to arrange for his safe journey to Brindaban.
  18. Mr. Grimwood reported to Supreme Government of India of Maharaja Surachandra's desire to abdicate voluntarily. But when Surachandra Sihgh reached Cachar, he denied it. It is possible that this had happened due to language problem between Mr. Grimwood and Surachandra Singh.
  19. Supreme GOI rejected Surachandra's appeal and decided to recognise Kulachandra as King, but exile Tikendrajit, the alleged power centre of all Palace intrigues.
  20. Mr. J W Quinton, Chief Commissioner of Assam was told to enforce GOI decision.
  21. Quinton with a battalion of Gurkha troops under Col. Skene left Golaghat on 7 March 1891 and arrived at Imphal on the morning of March. A Durbar at Residency with all Princes was ordered.
  22. Maharaja Kulachandra Singh and all. his brothers arrived on time, but were told to wait at the Residency gate inobtrusively because the Manipuri translation of GOI order was not ready.
  23. After waiting for half an hour in the hot sun, Tikendrajit left for his residence at Kangla.
  24. When the Durbar was held a full two hours late, Mr. Quinton found that the most important Prince was missing.
  25. Word was sent to Tikendrajit to come to the Durbar, but he replied that he was too sick to attend. So, the Durbar was postponed to 8:00 am of 23 March 1891.
  26. Again, on March 23, Tikendrajit expressed inability to attend due to sickness. Mr. Grimwood, who knew Tikendrajit well, persuaded Tikendrajit to attend, but failed.
  27. Quinton decided to use force.
  28. His officers advised Quinton to wait for arrival of 2 companies of Gurkha Light Infantry under Captain Cowley, expected in a day or two.
  29. But Mr. Quinton wanted immediate action. So, a small force under Lt. Brackenbury attacked Tikendrajit residence at Kangla on night 23-24 March. Though the residence was captured, Tikendrajit escaped. Brackenbury was mortally wounded, and died at the Residency.
  30. Next morning, Residency was attacked very heavily. Mr Quinton called for ceasefire and negotiations.
  31. In the evening or late afternoon of 24 March, Mr Quinton, Col. Skene, Mr Grimwood, Mr Cossins and Lt Simpson accompanied by a sepoy orderly went to Kangla Palace. Residency was informed at midnight that the British officers might not return. In fact, they were killed.
  1. The belief in the Residency was that the British officers were taken as prisoners. Soon, Residency got news that they were all killed. Obviously, this killing of British officers was an invitation for war.
  2. As the situation was worsoning, the idea of defending the Residency was given up. Time then, was midnight of 24 March.
  3. Mrs Grimwood and the remaining British officers escorted by 200 Gurkha troops left Residency at 2 am of 25 March on their way to Cachar.
  4. They met with Capt Cowley's party at Laimatol, 30 miles away from Imphal. The two parties joined hands and reached British territory in Cachar on 31 March and gave the disastrous news.
  5. Capt Cowley was court-martialled for cowardice.
  6. When Manipuris realised absence of resistance, they occupied the Residency and burnt it down.
  7. The British Garrison at Canchipur withdrew towards Tamu. On their way, they met with Lt Grant and his men about 80 in number from Tamu Garrison and they joined hands and harassed Manipuri troops at Thoubal area.
  8. There is still a memorial stone of soldiers who died in Thoubal area, under Lt Grant. The memorial stone is near the present DC's office, Thoubal. Grant was awarded the Victoria Cross for extreme bravery.
  9. The British reacted with full-scale invasion of Manipur. The seeds of Anglo-Manipuri war were sown.
  10. A three pronged attack was planned. These are:
    1. Major General H Collett commanding the whole operation was to march from Kohima on 20 April 1891.
    2. Tamu column was commanded by Brig Gen T Graham.
    3. Cachar column was under command of Colonel RHF Rennick.
  11. All the three columns were to converge on Imphal on 27 April 1891 morning.
  12. The Battle of Khongjom was fought for three days that is 23, 24 and 25 April 1891 between Manipuri Forces and the British Tamu column only. Manipur lost, as we all know.
  13. Khongjom Day, April 23 is the day when Paona Brajabashi, a distinguished and gallant hero of Manipur died.
  14. Descendents of Paona Brajabashi of Keishamthong Top Leirak, Imphal used to offer Tarpan on 23 April every year. Public attendance increased. It became a State Function now. Along with the increase in the status of Khongjom Day, the public are led to believe that the Khongjom battle was fought and ended on 23 April. It is not true.
  15. The Kohima column and Cachar column reached Imphal unopposed.
  16. On 26 April 1891, Maharaja Kulachandra Singh fled from his palace.
  17. As planned earlier, all the three British Army columns converged on Imphal (Kangla) in the early morning of 27 April.
  18. The British pulled down the seven-colour Manipur Maharaja's flag and hoisted the British Union Jack, at 8:00 am of 27 April. Thus ended the Anglo Manipuri War on 27 April 1891. Therefore the exact date for the loss of Independence of Manipur was thus 27 April 1891 because Manipur could still fight on even after 25 April which we did not do.
  19. They also blew up the two Kangla Shas and the Western Kangla Gate. An exact replica of the Kangla Gate, exactly on the same spot now stands when it was rebuilt by former Governor Lt. Gen. V K Nayar under guidance of Shri Ningthoukhongjam Khelchandra Singh. This restoration work is going on and the reconstruction of Kangla Shas are under progress.
  • To think and imagine that Manipur in 1891, could challenge the mighty British was like committing suicide.
  • At that point of time, British had achieved the rare status of the famous saying "The sun never sets on the British Empire".
  • When the Maharaja Ranjit Singh was shown the map of India, the Lion of Punjab asked his nobles as to what those red areas meant. He got a reply that those were British-occupied areas. Upon this, the wily Maharaja winked his single and only serviceable eye and said, "Very soon, the whole of India will turn red".
  • When "Biggs-Gordon Committee on Boundary Line" demarcated in 1842 more areas of Manipur to Naga Hills, Maharaja Chandrakirti did not hum and fume. He tried quietly and diplomatically for readjustment which happened in 1851. Diplomacy, not hotheadedness was the key.
  • If Manipuris were sober enough and befriend the British in 1891, we could still exist as a buffer state now, like Bhutan where the King with his royal consent have recently introduced democratic form of Government.
  • And, finally and most importantly, the present insurgency problem for freedom and independence could have been avoided, since Manipur would have been independent, though economically, financially, spiritually, defensively, educationally, commercially etc, Manipur has to continue to have links with India, like Bhutan now.
POSTSCRIPT:- Lazy as I am, in the evening (6 pm), I was watching TV programme of Khongjom Day, April 23 2008. A play on the heroic death of Paona Brajabashi was on the screen. It showed the death of Rajkumar Chinglensana, a disciple of Paona, who went to the battle field, despite his mother's earlier objections, but who ultimately agreed and blessed her son.

From the dialogues, it transpired that the Manipur Army was fighting the British with swords and spears, whereas the British had cannons and rifles. It was surely a war fought with courage only.

My own grandfather, who died circa 1934, fought in the Khongjom battle, when he was about 25 years with two children, my auntie (five years) and my father (two years). I remember my grandfather taking his morning meal in the courtyard near Tulsi Angan basking in the winter sunshine and his stories of Khongjom war passed through Phunga Wari (stories told and passed from mouth to mouth from generation to generation near the fireplace (Phunga).

Grandfather told us that Manipur Army had no centralised cooking (Iunger) system, everybody cooked their own food, had to fetch water for drinking, no morning ablution arrangements, no bivouac for shelter, no musket, no canon and no administrative support system.

Manipur did not seem to believe in the age-old saying that "The Army marches and fights on its stomach".

On the other hand, the British had not only better weapons, also had even brought Manipuri speaking soldiers on their payroll like Subedar Khelendra Singh of Cachar, and also Subedar Laxman Singh (as revealed by yesterday's IV play) etc.

When grandpa told us that the British soldiers spoke to them through funnelled speakers in Manipuri language, advising them to run away from the battle field,' we thought grandpa was pulling a fast joke on us. But now, we find that it was true.

The Battle of Khongjom was a complete mismatch between the opposing armies in terms of weaponry and logistic support. Manipur lost the battle before it began, because of Palace intrigues and mutual distrust.

NOTE:- The above is a point-form lecture delivered by H Bhuban Singh on the occasion of Khongjom Day on April 23 2008 at the State BJP Office, Imphal.

* Haobam Bhuban Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express . This article was webcasted on July 01, 2008.

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