Manipuri Pony : A Cavalry Horse Par Excellence
- Part 2 -

Moirangthem Shantikumar Singh *

'Save Manipuri Pony Awareness Procession' : Flagged off from Pony Breeding Farm, Lamphelpat :: 28 September 2014
'Save Manipuri Pony Awareness Procession' at Pony Breeding Farm, Lamphelpat in September 2014 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

The saga of Manipur cavalry with a chronicled time line starts with the advent of Khagemba at Kabaw Kyangkhampat in 1470, reaches the pinnacle with the lightening sack of Sagaing by Garibniwaz in 1738 and ends with the treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. Khagemba's equine experience starts with Mayang Lan his battle with Muslim mercenaries of Bengal who were in the service of the king of Cachar. The captured Muslim mercenaries included grooms and riders who were made to settle down in Manipur.

The stories of Pangal Sagonsenba (Muslim Groom) and Pangal Sajikphaba (Muslim Grass Cutter) are very common in Manipuri folk tales. Now the king's stable had expert grooms and trainers. The king's mounts were watched very closely by the men assigned to look after the ponies Sagolsenba, the grooms, but the majority of the horses in the king's cavalry were not so lucky.

Taken from farms and fields all over Manipur, the majority of the war ponies had never been further away than the Mapan Kangjeibung, Manung Kangjeibung and various grazing grounds in Manipur. However, with the increase in frequency of cavalry exploits in Burma and Cachar the number of veterans among war ponies increased like their master.

The personal mount of the kings like Kartik Thaja of Raja Nara Singh was given special status as Sagon Yaisa with prescribed rituals. Kartik was already a war hero having seen conflict in several battlefields proudly carrying his master, the brave King Narsingh, on his back: the horse was made of the same fibres as his owner.

Alaungpaya's treatment of Manipuris during the period of "Seven Years Devastation" was extremely brutal; but "he was only doing unto his people" Burmese historians write. Notwithstanding the probable jaundiced view point on any chauvinistic historian, the records say that the exploits of the Manipuri kings in their external ventures had always been ruthless and unsparing.

The kingdom of Manipur was a tiny state with a miniscule population compared to its adversaries like Burma and other surrounding neighbours. What it lacked in size and number had to be compensated with swiftness and intensity.

GE Harvey writes, "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 realise that Burma was several times the size of their country, that they were laying up for themselves a frightful vengeance (Seven Years' Devastation) and the only reason vengeance seemed never to come was that Burma happened to be under an incapable king".

Earlier, Raja Charairongba, father of Garibniwaz had presented one of his daughters in marriage to a Burman King. Garibniwaz suspected that the princess was not well treated. In 1724, the king said he would present another girl to provide company for the one presented earlier. But when three hundred lords, ladies and attendants from the Ava Court came to escort her at the mouth of the Yu River in the upper Chindwin district, not far from Tammu, they were met not by a tame princess but by wild horsemen who carried them as captives into Manipur.

Cheitharol Kumbaba, the Royal Chronicle records graphically, "...Manipuris swiftly moved closer to the garrison and hand-to-hand fight started near the stockade; 10 men including Thangsaba Hidang Khagokpa, succumbed to the musket shots. Inside the forest, 90 men and 10 women who came to escort the princess were captured by Khullakpa's party on the bank of the River".

The Burmese expedition sent in revenge was ambushed at Heirok and captured 157 Burmans with 160 muscats and 10 horses. The survivors retreated back to Burma. Thus, continuously for decades, Manipur caralry became the terror of Burma. In 1738 Sagaing was completely devastated when the Manipuri King "burnt every house and monastery up to the walls of Ava, and stormed the stockade built to protect the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda at Sagaing).

They slaughtered the garrison like sheep in a pen and killed the commandant, a minister of the Hluttaw Council; the old door-leaves of the pagoda's easter gateway show a gash made by the sword of Gharib Newas when he was forcing an entrance." The famous sword mark on the door of the pagoda was an much a testimony to the high potential of these legendary Ponies as to the valoour of thier masters.

Garibniwaz's cavalry-mount was completely fearless and invincible. All the more noticeable in the ponies was what the jungle-war veterans often call, a built-in "wood-sense" of the breed. It defines how the ponies develop a natural way of traversing water obstacles and swamps without panicking or getting stuck in the mud.

If a horse panics in water, then it is not a complete war horse. Having expereinced the swamps in the valley of Manipur, the ponies were deterred neither by the tropical rain of Burma nor by the torrential streams crisscrossing the Indo-Burma border.

The scrambling in a melee in the polo field taught the ponies and thier armed riders to be alert and quick-witted during a cavalry charge. The scene could be graphically visualised when the young warrior King Garibiniwaz stormed Sagaing on the advice of his royal Hindu priests in the first decade of the 18th century.

In the thick jungle of Kabaw valley, the puddles and pools of water could be laying on top of the ground until they were trodden into sludge by the thousands of hooves when the trial of warriors and horses were passing through. Yes, soemtimes the monsoon wind battered the rain against the pony's flanks and the hill tracks blurred under the swell of so much water.

The Burmese war of 1824-26 was the last battle which the Manipuri cavalry had to engage in the field, outside Manipur boundary. With the establishment of a Political Agency in Manipur, the British had virtually taken charge of the security of the "native state" and the British had rviewed the positional relevancy of the cavalry.

Still, Pemberton complained in 1835, "[t]hat cavalry were of little or no use on the eastern frontier....(is a) mistaken impression." He said that it was the Manipuri Cavalry that saved the day when the British forces under Lieutenant Brooke faced a strong Burmese offensive at Rangpur, Assam, Manipur had a regular cavalry stenth of 100 at that time.

Time changes, Manipur is no longer a stand-alone sovereign state requiring a cavalry for the war front. Moreover, mechanisation and motorisation has changed the mounts from horse to tracked and whelled vehicles, through the missions of reconnaissance and security remain the same.

We have polo to be pursued in the traditional style of the game when the height limit of the mount was restricted at 13.2 hh. Like the international games of tennis which are played at the grass, clay and hard courts to suit the veritable tastes and aptitudes of individuals and nations, we can have separate formats of pony-polo and horse-polo to add to the variety of the sport; and help preseve the ancient gene pool of the original Polo pony for the future of mankind.

By providence we have the heritage Manipuri Pony in our midst with a minuscule population of less than 1000, as a vestige of the bygone era and a relic of the past. The heritage Manipur Pony is a symbol of our society's cultural entity, the indelible part of our heritage and a precious link with our past.

Can we give the Manipur Pony a place under the sun before it slides into extinction?


* Moirangthem Shantikumar Singh wrote this article for Imphal Times
This article was posted on June 08, 2018.

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