The Glorious Exploits of the Manipur Levy: 1824-35

Prof. Gangmumei Kamei *

The Temple of Shree Shree Govindajee was built by Maharaja Nara Singh in 1842 AD at Kangla.
The Temple of Shree Shree Govindajee was built by Maharaja Nara Singh in 1842 AD at Kangla.

The Manipur Levy was the first standing army of Manipur. It was born out of the Manipur national struggle against the Burmese rule during the Seven Years Devastation popularly known in the history as the Chahi Taret Khuntakpa (1819 - 1826). The Manipur Levy was the most effective force for the liberation of Manipur from the Burmese reign of terror. And Maharaj Gambhir Singh was the national liberator and the hero of the war. He was the creator of the Manipur Levy. Historians rightly describe him as the saviour of the Meitei nation and the maker of modern Manipur.

The Burmese reign of terror in Manipur

The early decades of the 19th century was a dark period in the history of Manipur. With the rise of the Burmese imperialism Manipur was facing great political instability which gave the opportunity for Burmese intervention in the internal affairs of Manipur during the reign of the sons and successors of Maharaja Bhagyachandra. When his third successor Chourjit Singh was ruling, another son, prince Marjit Singh revolted and fled to Ava. And with the help of the great Burmese emperor Bawdawpaya, Marjit Singh invaded Manipur and defected Chourjit Singh who fled to Cachar. Marjit Singh ascended to the throne of Manipur with the Burmese help. After six years, Marjit Singh was driven out by the Burmese who inflicted a great defeat on him. Marjit fled to Cachar with a large population . Burma occupied Manipur in 1819 and ruled the Kingdom for seven years and let loose a reign of terror. Burma took away 30,000 Manipuri prisoners to Ava. The valley was depopulated. It is estimated that at the height of the Burmese reign of terror, the population was reduced to 2000/3000 souls only (Brown: 1873). The people fled to the surrounding hills particularly the western hills of Tamenglong on their way to safer kingdom of Cachar. Manipur was put under the rule of two Burmese commanders. The Burmese army also faced great tribulations as they did not get cooperation of the people and food supplies. The people of Manipur did not accept the Burmese rule. And a war of resistance was carried out under the help of several princes like Prince Herachandra, a son of Labanyachandra, Prince Yumjaotaba, Gambhir Singh and others.

Manipuri Princes in the Kingdom of Cachar

When Marjit Singh usurped the throne on Manipur in 1813, his other brothers Chourjit Singh, Gambhir Singh and prince were taking shelter in the Kingdom of Cachar. Chourjit Singh and Gambhir Singh supported Govind Chandra, the king of Cachar during Marjit's invasion of Cachar in 1819. When Marjit fled to Cachar, he surrendered the regal authority of the kingdom of Manipur with the images of Govindajee and Brinamchandra. Seemingly, the royal brothers were reconciled. Govind Chandra, the Raja of Cachar was a weak and wicked ruler. The three brothers with the assistance of their followers occupied Cachar which was parceled out among them. Raja Govind Chandra fled to the British territory of Sylhet and sought the protection of the East India Company which refused to comply. By 1823, in the absence of Raja Govind Chandra, Chourjit Singh ruled from Sonaimukh, to the south of present Silchar, Marjit Singh was confined to Hailakandi and Gambhir Singh has his headquarter at Bikrampur near Badarpur.

However, even at this critical juncture of their history, the princes could not unite. Chourjit Singh retired to Sylhet. Marjit also moved to Sylhet. Gambhir Singh with the help of his distant cousin Nara Singh continued to mobilize help from the British to liberate Manipur.

Burmese Threat to British Indian empire: David Scott

Burma conquered Manipur, and then she conquered Assam and occupied the whole Brahmaputra. Burma had also conquered Arakan which was adjacent to Chittagong hills of Bengal. The Burmese aggressive postures created threat to Bengal. And David Scott, the Agent to the Governor General for the North Eastern Frontier anticipated that Burmese forces would march from Manipur and Assam to Cachar for an onward advance to Sylhet and Bengal. Raja Govind Chandra on his failure to obtain the British protection invited the Burmese to march to Cachar to drive away the Manipuri princes. And they invaded Cachar. Meanwhile there was a change of policy on the part of the British government. And they made preparation to liberate Assam and Cachar and Jaintia in North East India.

David Scott made several plans to involve the Manipuri princes as allies to drive away the Burmese from Cachar. He had met the three princess, Chourjit, Marjit and Gambhir Singh and made a proposal in which Chourjit was to be the Maharaja, Marjit Singh, Jubaraj (Crown Prince) and Gambhir Singh as Senapati. The proposal failed as the two ex-rulers expressed their inability due to old age while Gambhir Singh was a very ambitious prince to be the future ruler of Manipur. However Gambhir Singh made a close understanding with Nara Singh. And they helped the British in the fight against the Burmese: the battle of Tilian, Bikrampur and Dudpati. The British operation against the Burmese was successful. But Manipur was great a great problem.

David Scott and Gambhir Singh:

David Scott was determined to involve Gambhir Singh in the liberation of Manipur; and Gambhir Singh was also intent to join the campaign. David Scott negotiated with princes. Ultimately, he decided on pensioning off Chourjit and Marjit in Sylhet (Rs. 100/- p,m) where the two ex-rulers died. Gambhir Singh was interviewed by David Scott. Sir James Johnstone writing many years later gave an imaginary account of the interview. He wrote. "One day, a young Manipuri prince waited on Mr. Scott and asked leave to raise a Manipuri force to fight on our side. He was short and slight and of indomitable courage and energy; and the agent to the Governor General recognizing his ability allowed him to raise 500 men". An assurance was given by David Scott in April, 1824 that is the eventual liberation of Manipur Gambhir Singh was to be restored to the throne of the Kingdom of Manipur. It was also made clear that Chourjit would not be made to share any power with him in the future Manipur government. David Scott knew him as bold aspiring soldier and a useful future ally.

Raja Gambhir Singh Levy

By April, 1824 David Scott and Gambhir Singh were closely involved in the operations against the Burmese. And the force of 500 soldiers was originally named Raja Gambhir Singh Levy. By July. 1824 recruitment was completed and military training was imparted to them at Badarpur which was supervised by on Col. Inns along with Gambhir Singh and Nara Singh.

The original Levy consisted of the following categories and ranks:

1. Cavalry : 40
(a) Sirda : 4
(b) Troop : 36

2. Infanty : 460
(a) Subedar : 5
(b) Jamadar : 10
(c) Havildar : 10
(d) Naik : 23
(e) Sepoy : 412

The recruitment was form amongst the Manipuri and some Kacharis. During the Burmese conquest of Manipur, a large number of Manipur refugees had settled down in different colonies in Cachar valley.

General Suldham's planned invasion of Manipur abandoned

But October, 1874, all the Burmese were cleared of Cachar and they were concentrated in Manipur valley and Kabaw valley. Therefore, the British government decided to send a large military force in Jan, 1825 under Brigadier-General Suldham, Commanding Eastern Frontier to Manipur and upper Burma. It consisted of 6000 soldiers, cavalry and infantry. Supplies were to be carried on camels, bullocks and elephants. 1000 large and 4000 bullocks were employed for the purpose. A road from Badarpur to Baskandi was constructed. General Suldham moved from Sylhet to Dudpati with artillery. Gambhir Singh was engaged to give cover to the pioneers constructing a pathway from Baskandi to Jiri. The country from Baskandi to Manipur a continuous range of thickly wooded hills; the soil was soft and it was muddy. In carrying supplies to the pioneers and advanced guard, several hundred bullocks, camels and elephants perished. General Suldham spent a month in moving his force from Dudpati to Baskandi through the rains and bad roads. On reaching Baskandi, General Suldham realized the impracticability of penetrating to Ava through Manipur. The plan was abandoned and the force broken up and the headquarter removed to Dacca. The native infantry, Sylhet Local Corps and Gambhir Singh Levy were left in Cachar.

Manipur Levy's liberation of Manipur

After the withdrawal of General Suldham's army, Gambhir Singh proposed to liberate Manipur with the help of his own levy. Permission was granted to Gambhir Singh to march to Manipur. Lt. R.B. Pemberton volunteered to accompany the Levy in this plan with additional objective of obtaining accurate information regarding the different passes, its resources and the strength of the Burmese forces. The Levy left Sylhet on 17th May, 1825, reached Baskandi on 23rd May. The force proceeded through the western hills of Manipur, perhaps through the Akhui route which was described by R.B. Pemberton in his Report of 1835. The force advanced through constant rain and suffered all sorts of privations without the slightest dissatisfaction. They were patriotic soldiers determined to liberate their motherland. On 10 June, 1825, the force appeared on the western edge of Manipur valley; they encountered the Burmese pickets, 12 miles west of Imphal, the capital of Manipur, a large number of Burmese were killed. The Royal Chronicle records, "In the month of Kalen (1825), Maharaj Gambhir Singh arrived at Maklang with a European officer (Pemberton). The Burmese troops of Manipur Palace opposed Gambhir Singh's advancement. After a hard battle Gambhir Singh gained victory, the Burmese fled. Gambhir Singh managed to capture 74 men of the Burmese." On June 11, it was learnt that the Burmese had evacuated the capital which was occupied by Gambhir Singh and Pemberton. The Burmese halted at Andro, 11 miles distant to the eastern side. Gambhir Singh proceeded to Andro but on the way it was learnt that the Burmese had deserted the place and left Manipur.

Gambhir Singh and Lt. Pemberton returned Sylhet leaving behind 300 infantry and 20 cavalry in Manipur under the command of Nara Singh. Before leaving Manipur he ascended the throne of ancient Kingdom of Manipur. 700 Manipuris also joined the military contingent. Thus there was a force of 1020 men in Manipur.

When Gambhir Singh and Pemberton reached Sylhet the British government was happy at the achievement of Manipur Levy, a fect which could not be accomplished by a regular army of General Suldham. Gambhir Singh was given assistance of 1500 muskets with ammunitions. He raised the requisite number of men. The Levy was formally named the Manipur Levy commanded by Captain F.J. Grant and Lt. R.B. Pemberton. The force returned to Manipur. It was learnt that the Burmese army had deserted Kabaw valley but the 700 local Shan forces at Tamu. Maharaja Gambhir Singh, Captain Grant and Nara Singh proceeded to Tamu where the stocked was destroyed after a five days fighting. Gambhir Singh distinguished himself in this battle. Grant reported, "The activity, judgement and skill he (Gambhir Singh) displayed on this occasion has proved the justice of the opinion previously entertained of his merits."

On February 1, 1826, Gambhir Singh at the head of the Manipur Levy arrived at the western bank of the Ningthee (Chindwin) river, the natural boundary between Manipur and Burma. The Burmese fled from the entire area. The inhabitants fled. They allowed the Manipur prisoners to escape. They left behind their cattle. A historian writes, " From the standpoint of Gambhir Singh and his Manipur Levy, the liberation of Manipur was complete on February 1, 1826 with the occupation of Kabaw valley". And the First Anglo-Burmese war was concluded by the Treaty of Yandabu signed on February, 24 1826. Art. 2 of the Treaty recognized the independence of Gambhir Singh as the King of Manipur.

The Manipur Levy which was increased to 3000 men was equipped, trained and commanded by the British military officer, F.J. Grant and Francis Jenkins. The soldiers of the Levy were paid by the British. The Manipur Levy was used for the subjugation of the hill tribes of Manipur 1862-29, the defeat of the Khasi rebels 1830. The conquest of Kohima (Thiboma) in the military expeditions to Naga Hills 1832-1833. However after the death of Maharaja Gambhir Singh, the British Government changed their policy. They withdraw their military and financial support from the Manipur Levy. And Lord William Bentinck the Governor General refused to sanction the Levy and instead established the office of Political Agent in Manipur. George Gordon the adjutant to Manipur Levy was appointed the first Political Agent.

Strength of Manipur Levy, 1835

At the end of the British support, the Manipur Levy, according to R.B. Pemberton, had the following strength.
1. Infantry : 3000 men
2. Cavalry : 100 troops
3. Golandauz (artillery) : 100 men attached to four 3 punders 3 Battalions of Infantry consisted of 10 companies each were commanded by native officers. I lieu of pay, grants of lands were made to men and officers. The arms and ammunitions were supplied by the British government. Up to the death of Maharaja Gambhir Singh ammunitions were given free of expense.

Deployment of the forces 6 companies were centred in the villages immediately around the present residence of the Maharaja at Langthabal.

4 companies were constituted of the refugee Manipuri from Ava territory and they were posted to guard the eastern frontier.

2 battalions were distributed in companies through different villages under the immediate control of the native officers. The people of Manipur remain grateful to the great king, Maharaja Gambhir Singh and his famed Manipur Levy for the liberation of Manipur from the Burmese rule and expending the hegemony of the state over the hill people and neighbouring hill regions, Gambhir Singh was the maker of modern Manipur.

* This article was written by Prof. Gangmumei Kamei for Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
This article was posted on January 14, 2012.

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