The Seven Years Devastation (1819-1826) in Manipur

/ Guest Column / Monday, 10 January 2022 17:10

By - Maibam Chanu Babiya
The Seven Years Devastation or Chahi Taret Khuntakpawas the period of Burmese rule during which the valley of Manipur was devastated for seven years beginning from 1819 AD till 1826 AD. The episode began from the 12th day of Poinu 1819 and brought to an end in February 1826. It is regarded as the darkest and the most tragic yet landmark event in the history of Manipur. It had grave consequences overall in the political, social, and economic conditions of the kingdom. This tragic period exposed the inhuman approach of the Burmese when they carried out intense torture and plunder during which the melancholy people of Manipur greatly sufferedleaving indelible marks in their minds. Apropos to this, Dr. N Birachandra in his book “Seven Years Devastation: 1819-1826” stated “This chapter of the history will ever be remembered by the Manipuris (Meeteis) as an undisguisable scar on their face, recalling the ferociousness, inhuman treatment of the Burmese and their intention to exterminate the community which excelled the works of Hitler upon the Jews”. Manipur had never faced such a cataclysm in the past as that brought by the Burmese subjugation.
The Seven Years Devastation can be taken as a repercussion of various factors that had been taking place since the reign of Maharaj Garibniwaj (1709-1748) till the reign of Maharaj Marjit (1813-1819). Most of the ills of Manipur was led by the behavior of Garibniwaj may it be the destroying of those valuable Puyas (manuscript) or the breaking of the correct line of succession as by handing over the throne to his incompetent son Chit Shai instead of Shyam Shai who was the rightful heir to the throne.His imprudent act resulted in a war of succession among his descendants whichgreatly hampered the political stability of the kingdom. Althoughhe was the greatest king and the most successful conqueror in the history of Manipur, he was also responsible for the downfall of Manipur.
Another factor was the conspiracy and revolts which were taking place among the princes instigated by thenobles,queens, andBrahmins for their prospects. Disunity, distrust, conspiracy, revolt, frequent change of rulers, etc. were the general features of those days during the 18th and 19th century AD.
The frequent change of rulers completely shook the strong political system which Garibniwaj and his predecessors had built up. The unified Manipur, which he took all his efforts to build up, was tumbled down by his weak and unworthy successors.Instead of consolidating the nation and preparing to defend their motherland, most of the succeeding kings thought only for royal pleasure and the throne. This made it almost impossible to defend the kingdom during the Burmese invasion.
Moreover, the conversion of the state religion into Hinduism took a toll on the moral, social, and political life of the Manipuris. Earlier they were warlike people, but after the conversion, the whole community became religious minded people and gave credence to the softer sentiment of Vaishnavism based on “Bhakti and Prem” (love and devotion). Thus, in those critical moments instead of preparing for war and improving their defense system, they confined themselves in religious affairs. Above all, the adoption of the new religion started dividing the Manipuri society into two groups as Manipuri Hindus who claimed higher status, and Non-Hindus who were looked down upon as untouchables and kept apart from all social and political affairs of the kingdom. Eventually, the king of Manipur failed to receive full cooperation from the hill tribes during these critical periods which later affected the military system of the kingdom. Thus, the conversion into Hinduism can be considered as the most important factor which led to the defeat of Manipur to the Burmese.
The military system of the kingdom during those periods had many defects which made it difficult to defend the kingdom against the Burmese who were rising to great power. After the king of Manipur failed to receive full cooperation from the hill tribes, the military armies became much lesser in number as the hill tribes refused to aid irregular armies for the king. One of the major defects in the military system of Manipur was the inability to equip the soldier with firearms, unlike the Burmese. So, it was impossible to fight against the Burmese with swords and spears. In addition to this, there was a lack of leadership among the royal armies due to the absence of efficient and brave warriors and king on the battlefield. Again, the ignorance of the new war strategy and tactics by the military and the deterioration of their physical and moral behavior due to the conversion to Hinduism greatly affected their military system making it impossible to defend the kingdom against the Burmese.
While Manipur was in a state of utter chaos and turmoil, the Burmese rose in power under their brave and ambitious King Alungpaya (1754-1763). Determined to build up a united Burma, he brought many changes in the social as well as political systems of his kingdom. Their military system was reorganized and well equipped with firearms. Burma was no longer weak and divided. Their spirit of unity and imperialistic ambition led to the rise of their power in an incomparable position to the Manipuris. Thus, leading to the event of 1819-1826 in Manipur.
The immediate cause of the outbreak of the event in Manipur was the defiance of the order of Bagidaw, the king of Burmaby Marjit, the king of Manipurto attend his coronation ceremony. In 1813, Marjit ascended the throne of Manipur driving out his brother Chourjit, who was the then king of Manipur, with the Burmese help by submitting Kabaw valley along with the very independence of the kingdom.Ashamed before his nobles and subjects for his submissive position, he canceled his Burmese suzerainty and showed many signs of independence. In 1819, when Bagidaw became the king of Burma, Marjit was ordered to attain the coronation but he refused to go. Being angry at the defiance of his order, the Burmese king sent a large army under General Mahabandula to invade Manipur and punish Marjit. Marjit was defeated and fled to Cachar. Thus, the tragic period of “Chahi Taret Khuntakpa” began.
The Burmese completely rooted out the Manipuri forces and laid waste to whatever they came across on their way mercilessly killing all the inhabitants of the valley regardless of sex and ages looting and plundering the valley. Women and children were intensely tortured. It is said that they were locked up in big houses without any ventilation and bruntdry chilies until they died of the smoke. Groups of men were bound together by impaling a cane creeper called ‘’Yairi’’ through their palms and then whipped when they were taken as prisoners to Burma. About 3,30,000 captives were carried away.They continued these inhuman acts for one whole year from December 1819 to January 1821. Then, they left Manipur entrusting the administrative works under their puppet kings. There were altogether seven rulers during this period.
Meanwhile, horror and agony of the Burmese oppression caught the ear of Herachandra, a Manipuri prince. While all the other princes fled to Cachar, leaving the people in the hands of the enemy, he collected all the Manipuris hiding in the jungle and hills and founded a revolutionary party consisting of 800 men in March 1820. He adopted guerilla warfare and was able to cut off small detachments of the Burmese army step by step. His one remarkable achievement was the killing of the maximum force of the Burmese army with the help of the Manipuri women. He disguised himself as a beggar, went to the houses of the Burmese army having Manipuri wives, and made secret plans with the Manipuri women to kill their husband. The plan was executed in one full moon night. When the Manipuri women heard the voice of the conch, they suddenly attacked their sleeping husbands.Before Gambhir Singh came out to Manipur, Herachandra tried his best to liberate Manipur and made the task of Gambhir Singh easier. His love and dedication for his motherland were beyond compare.
On the other side, the Manipuri princes who had taken shelter in Cachar came together and dethrone its ruler Govindchandra. Thus, dividing the plain of Cachar among the princes viz, Chourjit, Marjit, and Gambhir Singh. Soon enough, there started a clash of supremacy among the princes. In 1823 AD, Gambhir Singh drove out Chourjit and Marjit and became the undisputed ruler of Cachar. In the meantime, the internal dissension among the Manipuri princes in Cachar, their clash for supremacy, and the aggressive designs of the Burmese Government in Assam invited the attention of the British Government in Cachar. Amid such an alarming situation,the Burmese attacked Cachar on 5th March 1824. The British demanded Gambhir Singh for a joint attack against the Burmese forces. In due course of the war, Gambhir Singh along with his 500 irregular armies successfully drove out the Burmese force. The British officers were very much inspired to see the sincerity, gallantry, and endurance of the Manipuri force though they were irregular armies and realized that Gambhir Singh could easily liberate Manipur with the British’s assistance and he might be a useful ally of the British Government. Gambhir Singh agreed with the British Government to help each other in course of war with Burma and to liberate Manipur and make himself the independent King of Manipur.Accordingly, the British Government allowed Gambhir Singh to raise a Levy called Gambhir Singh Levy consisting of 50 horses and 300 armies from the Manipuris residing at Sylhet in 1824 AD. Two British Officer, Captain Grant, and Lt. RB Pemberton were attached to the force to train drill and discipline. The force was henceforth called the Manipuri Levy. The British Government supplied the arms and ammunition to the troops and carried all expenditures. Nara Singh, a courageous Manipuri Prince was appointed as leader of the Levy.
On 17th May 1825, Gambhir Singh left Sylhet for Manipur with his Levy accompanied by Lt. RB Pemberton. On 10th June 1825, they reached the Manipur Valley and captured two outposts of Burmese armies at Nunga and Mayang Keinou. The next day, they advanced further towardsImphal and found that the Burmese had retreated from Manipur Valley. Thus, Gambhir Singh became the king of Manipur in June 1825.Then, he started the conquest for Kabaw Valley andcaptured the Burmese stockyard in Tamu. After crossing Ningthee River, they capture another Burmese camp and saved 200 captives of Manipuris. Thus, by the end of February 1826 AD, Gambhir Singh completed the conquest of the Kabaw Valley and planted his flag on the right bank of the Ningthee River ending the so-called Seven YearsDevastation in Manipur. The 1st Anglo Burmese War was also brought to an end by signing the Treaty of Yandaboo 1826 on 24th February 1826. By this treaty, the King of Ava recognized Raja Gambhir Singh as an independent king of Manipur. The Burmese Government insisted on the English to stop all their interference in the country.
The Seven Years Devastation had extensive effects. Large scale plunder and torture were carried out for about one year. About 5,50,000Manipuris were killed during this period. Manipur was economically ruined. All the buildings and temples were demolished. The Burmese looted away all their belongings and collected whatever they could. More than 3,30,000 Manipuris were carried away as captives. Thus, Manipur became an arena of plunder and fresh harvest of slaves and cattle. The Manipuri people, in fear of the Burmese oppression, remained hiding at the jungles and hills of Manipur deserting the valley. After the devastation, only 2016 souls constituted the population of Manipur.
The devastation also affected the social, political, and economic life of the kingdom. It brought about a new political system in Manipur. During those periods, there was a frequent change of rulers. Thus, there was political instability in the kingdom which brought untold miseries to her inhabitants. Above all, there wasalso an economic depression in the kingdom as the Manipuris left the valley deserted. The works of agriculture and industries were ruined. The fertile land was converted into a jungle as a result, a frequent famine occurred.
At the end of the devastation, Manipur entered an alliance with the British which later led to the outbreak of the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. Internal dissension, weakness of the ruling family, and other factors eventually led to the surrender of the independence of Manipur to theBritish. Besides political changes, there werealso changes in the socio-economic life of the Manipuris.It led to the scattering of the Manipuris in the neighboring countries i.e. Cachar, Assam, Tripura, and Bangladesh. Theeconomy was improved due to the expansion of foreign trade. The way of life was also considerably changed.
The military system was altered, firearms were introduced to the Manipuri Armies by the British. They no longer depended on their primitive weapons. After the Seven YearsDevastation, intellectual and moral awakening took place in Manipur. Thus, the Seven Years Devastation had its good and bad effects on our society.
The Seven Years Devastation remains an unforgettable event that still horrifies the minds of the Manipuris until today. It was mainly brought about by the mistakes made by our Manipuri Kings. The first mistake was made by Garibniwaj by handing over the throne to Chit Shai. This marked the starting point of the never-ending conflicts, wars, and controversies during the 18th and 19th Century AD. The one mistake he made was followed by many other mistakes among his successors which eventually led to the tragic period. In my perspective, I would say that the negligence of our religion was the root cause of the downfall of Manipur. Even though the Burmese were the ones that brought the devastation and terror, they only did what we had done to them. According to “History of Burma from the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824” by GE Harvey (London, 1925), it is clearly described that the Seven Years Devastation was long-awaited revenge by the Burmese for what the Manipuris did to them over the years. It is a well-known fact that during the reign of Garibniwaj, the Burmese suffered not less than the Manipuris. So, it would be imprecise for the Burmese to take all the blame. Moreover, the Seven Years Devastation led to the initial modernization of Manipur and marked the beginning of the Modern Period. Manipur was reborn into a new kingdom after the devastation. It was no longer flooded with conflicts, chaos, and turmoil. In the end, even though the worst resides in the event of the Seven Years Devastation, we could still see the best if we change our perspectives. So, whether or not to make it a sorrowful end lies in the perspective of each reader.
(The write up is an award winning essay on the online competition which was held during August 2020 organized by the Campaign for Peace & Democracy in Manipur. The writer is from Lairikyengbam Leikai, Imphal)


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