The Khongjom Day - 23rd Or 25th April
The British accounts are not sacrosanct

Chabungbam Amuba Singh *

Khongjom War Memorial Complex atop Kheba Ching in Thoubal district :: April 23 2013
Khongjom War Memorial Complex atop Kheba Ching in Thoubal district on April 23 2013 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam

While writing a life story of Major Chongtha Mia recently (25 Feb 2014) Dr Ch Jamini Devi maintained that the battle of Khongjom was fought on 25 April 1891, at the same time said that Paona Brajabasi and Wangkhei Meiraba Poila died fighting the British on April 23, 1891.

Speaking on an occasion of observing 'Khongjom Battle Day 2013' last year R K Jhalajit Singh said the same thing.

Late N Khelchandra Singh, on whose writing many subsequent writers draw, maintained that the battle of Khongjom was fought on 25 April 1891 and Paona died in that battle. He also wrote that Wankhei Meiraba Poila died on 23 April in an ambush by 'the out -numbered British army'.

Haobam Bhubon wrote in the Sangai Express ( July 2008 and August 2010) that the battle of Khongjom was fought for three consecutive days ending on the evening of 25 April 1891 and Paona died on the first day (the 23rd April).

There are many other proponents of 25 April 1891 as the day on which the battle of Khongjom (Bapam for Sapam ,in British accounts)was fought.

Cheitharol Kumbaba records that the battle of Khongjom occurred and Paona died on 23 April 1891. As for Wangkhei Meiraba, from the recordings in the chronicle it may be unambiguously concluded that he was killed in an ambush at Kakching on the dawn of the 21 April 1891.

R K Jhalajit even opined that had Dr L Chandramani (in his thesis) rectified enlisting April 23, 1891 as the day the Khongjom battle was fought there would be no confusion. But the controversy, regarding the dates of events, is not between individual scholars. It is a conflict between the recordings in the Manipur royal chronicle and the so-called 'British accounts'.

He is also reported to have said that 'on 23 April 1891 the British soldiers had not even arrived at the battle spot and thus no conflict could have taken place'. He couldn't be right. Because, on 18 April 1891 Major Charles Leslie arrived at Palel with 500 troops plus 40 mounted infantry and two mountain guns under 12 British officers including the eight who later took part in the battle of Khongjom.

I am ignorant of the methodology of learning history. I have no way of knowing how many of the British accounts (often referred mistakenly as records) could be taken as bona fide primary source. Many seem to be drawing from a compilation of columnist's reports in The Pioneer, Allahabad and G.H.H.Couchman's The Manipur Expedition 1891 which was published in 1892. I feel frustrated - like a disciple without a guru. Yet I venture to make some observations concerning the British accounts.

1. Hard-to-believe casualty figures:
Captain F. M. Rundall, the field commander of the British troops at the battle, reported the casualty figure on the Manipuri side as much more than 178 killed (128 bodies counted, plus many uncounted but estimated to be at least 50). The last paragraph of his report reads as
"Of the enemy, 76 dead were counted inside the work, and 2 wounded: and just outside the work 52 dead were counted, those killed in the nalla were not all counted as they lay in2 heaps in the water, nor did I count those killed by the guns and mounted infantry as it was getting late and the bodies were too far off. The mounted infantry estimate that they killed about 50, certainly not less than 50, and some villagers have since told me that 400 fell on that day."

Mark the last sentence! It reveals that the report was not a prompt one, - contrary to what Khelchandra made it out to be in an editorial foot-note in the Cheitharol Kumbaba.

Lieutenant Grant gave the casualty on the Manipuri side on that day as more than 231 killed. The following is an extract from his narrative dated 28 April 1891: "We gathered seventy five bodies in the fort and fifty six near it, and the shrapnel and the mounted infantry killed over one hundred. The Manipuris here say we killed over four hundred."

On the other hand, the British casualty was reported to be just two killed and thirteen injured! Difficult to believe, unless you are prepared to believe anything the British wrote!

2. Inflated report of the exploits of Lieutenant Grant:
On 28 April 1891 Lt Charles J W Grant dashed from Tamu with just 80 sepoys and three elephants to attempt a rescue of the British officers, thinking they were being held captive by the Manipuris. By his own account , he faced an estimated 800 Manipuri troops at Thoubal, killed the 'Bhudda(old) Senaputi , commander-in-chief, of the old Maharaj, and two generals' and hold off the attack for a week till he finally withdrew ,under order from Capt Presgrave, "at 7.30 pm of 8th, Saturday". The only casualty he admitted was - one man killed, his horse 'Clinker' killed, two men and one follower wounded, two elephants and two ponies wounded. Brig Graham even said that Lt Grant's party was attacked by two thousand Manipuris implying that 2000 Manipuris could not defeat Grant's 80 sepoys ( 50 Sikhs and 30 Gurkhas). Fantastic!

Notice a grave error in Grant's noting, "8th, Saturday". The 8th of April 1891 was not a Saturday, it was a Wednesday. It speaks volumes about the credibility of his narrative.

3. A four-fold discrepancy in the British accounts:
On the strength of the mounted infantry taking part in the day's battle (at Khongjom):-
Capt Rundall in his report - 35; Brig Gen Graham in his report dated 29 April 1891 - 44;
Lt C J W Grant in his narrative -50; G H H Couchman in The Manipur Expedition - 43.

4. Who out-numbered whom?
Khelchandra said the British were out-numbered; Laldena says the Manipuris were out-numbered.
The strength of the Manipuri force at Khongjom:
Not more than 370, - according to Cheitharol Kumbaba;
200, - according to Y. Mohendra Singh quoting from, "Manipur compiled from the columns of the Pioneer, Allahabad, 1891";
300 probably, - estimated by Lieutenant Cox;
About 1000, - according to Brig T Graham the commander of the Tammu column.

The strength of the British force at the battle of Khongjom:
Considering various British accounts, the assault party on that day consisted of 335 - 350 sepoys plus at least eight British officers.
From the above it is clear that unless one believes in Brig Graham's estimate of a thousand Manipuri troops one cannot say that the British were out-numbered.

5. One episode, two accounts:
The much publicised episode of individual treachery - a Manipuri soldier raising an improvised white flag and then shooting at a British officer is reported in two separate accounts: in one Capt Drury is associated, and in the other Lt Grant. Was the alleged episode a piece of romanticism?

6. The intrigue of Chongtha Mia's statement:
In the so-called statement of Chongtha Mia - engineered, prepared and signed by the British - the date of the battle was mentioned as " about 24th or 25th of April". Isn't it intriguing?

These tit-bits put a question mark on the credibility of the British accounts.

Here, it is apt to take a look at a particular recording in the Cheitharol Kumbaba. The flight of the Manipuri royal party consisting of about 200 men from the Kangla palace fort at the night-fall of the 26th April 1891 was arranged three days ahead - by sending out Moirang Tonjao Subidar with a fee of rupees 3000 and a Kabo guide to lead the royal party to (the land of) Khagee and with an instruction to wait for the King and his party (at Moirangkampu). This means that the decision to flee was taken on the 23rd April, the day Maipaksana Wangkheirakpa , the over-all commander of the Manipuri force resisting the British Tammu column , took flight to the palace fort. It would be wrong to denigrate the King and his brothers by saying that they took the decision to flee even before the battle of Khongjom was fought.

To the Manipuris the Khongjom war is more than a historical event. The battle of Khongjom gave birth to a unique Manipuri narrative art form - the Khongjom Parva. It is pertinent for the present-day Manipuri generation to know that the originator of this popular art form - Sapam Dhobi Leinou - was a soldier who participated in the fighting at Khongjom on the 23rd April 1891 as the Manipuri flag bearer. He was an eye witness to the battle, to Paona's unparalleled skill of cutting the fuse tail of a bomb (cannon ball) in flight and to Paona's sacrifice of his own life (at the hand of one Takhellambam Rasman of Cachar, a subedar in the British army, according to a legend).

To the Manipuris Paona (Paonam Naol Singh) became a legend overnight. To the British there is no Paona and no legend.

* Chabungbam Amuba Singh Lamkang wrote this article for
The writer is Former Vice Chancellor, Manipur University and can be contacted at camuba(dot)singh(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on April 19, 2014.

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