Home » The Cassay Horse – Elite Manipur cavalry in Burmese Royal forces

The Cassay Horse – Elite Manipur cavalry in Burmese Royal forces

by Rinku Khumukcham
0 comment 7 minutes read

By- Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba

The Cassay Horse is a Burmese appellation given to the Manipur cavalry who were forcibly brought as war captives and employed in various campaigns because of their effectiveness in Burmese wars during the military aggression of the Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885 CE) during which Manipur and Assam was devastated. The celebrated, Kathe Horse, have won in English books on Burma fame unknown in their own country (Manipur Kingdom). Kathe is the name applied to the Manipur Meiteis by the Burmese, since ancient times.
Manipur Meiteis adored horses in the olden days and their extraordinary horseman skills, were highly appreciated by British officials, Europeans during their colonial days in NE region and Burma. So much was the respect, that a deity Marjing was attributed to ponies of the state.
E Dalton writes “their enthusiastic love of horses and skills in equitation” have distinguished themselves. The national game was hockey placed on a small bred of pony back from which the British officers adopted it as a “manly amusements of the English in India.”
Highly prized, was theManipur horseman that Burmese Royalty during the 18th and 19th century maintained their cavalry, with war captives from Manipur. Konbaung would go on to devastate Manipur, Assam, defeat the British in battles at the outbreak of 1st Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26 CE) till their final defeat at the 3rd Anglo-Burmese war.
Dr. New Ni Hlaing says Kathe Horseman formed a significant role in the Burmese army formation, and actively participated in successful battles against the Chinese, Siamese and British. Then records stated Cassay Horse fought both for and against the British as well.
Manipur’s elite force during medieval era
During medieval periord, when Manipur asserted as a reckoning force in Upper Burma, her forces counted on their fast riding to deal severe blows against the more advanced Burmese forces and other smaller Shan principalities.
Manipur valley was blessed with wetlands, providing her ponies natural habitat where owners let the species roam freely till their assistance is required for playing horse hockey “Sagol Kangjei” or launch wars against hostile nations.
Mounted on these ponies, horseman would put dozens of indigenous weapon Arambai, a deadly dart which has an iron-made pointed head, attached tightly to peacock feathers, in quivers on either side of the horses. The horseman, galloping at great speed, would swirl these poisoned darts and throw upwards with unparalleled accuracy.
Often, numerically inferior, the cavalry madestrategy to shockenemy forces. Small forces would ride towards the enemy with great speed and suddenly turn back giving impression of retreat allowing the enemy to believe the invading cavalry had retreated and chase them only to witness the cavalry making a sudden U-turn to attack with fatal results.
Major RB Pemberton,in his 1835 Report,says “the national game of hockey which was played by every male of the country capable of sitting on a horse, were expert equestrians, and that it was the men who were well trained that the princes of Manipur were able to not only repel Burmese attacks” but also managed to “score the whole country east of the Ningthee (Chindwin) River and plant their banners on the right bank of Irrawady.”
Writing in mid-19th century Political Agent Johnstone recorded “Manipur in old days possessed a famous breed of ponies, larger and better bred than the so-called Burmese ponies that come from the Shan state. On these ponies were mounted the formidable cavalry that in the last century made Manipur feared throughout Upper Burmah, and enabled her rulers on more than one occasion, to carry their victorious arms within the sight of Ava, where their Rajah Pamheiba erected a stone pillar to commemorate the event.”
However, the era of the horse cavalry could notmatch against the marauding battle-hardenednumerically superior Burmeseforces who hadaccess to European firearms, compounded by Manipur’s own political instability due to factional fighting among the royal princes.
Political Agent Dr. Brown informed”the Manipuris themselves had justified that half of their efficiency is lost from the want of this arm, which formerly enabled them to offer an obstinate resistance to the encroachments of their powerful enemy.”
However, the cavalry which had won much admiration, became obsolete and “thing of the past” in Manipur after demise of Rajah Gambhir Singh in 1834 CE.
Fighting for the Burmese Royal Crown
Burmese kept record ofthe role and significanceplayed by the Manipur cavalry during the Qing Chinese invasions of Konbaung Burma along with other campaigns against the British. When Sino-Myanmar war broke out in 1769 CE, 500 Kathe horsemen accompanied the Myanmar army, Dr. Hlaing writes.
The cavalry defeated the British in Rakhine front at the outbreak of the First Anglo-Burmese war in May 1824 at the Battle of Ramu, when the Burmese General Maha Bandula launching an invasion of Chittagong from Arakan. British troops numbering several hundred men were routed and forced from Ramu on May 17, withBritish casualties amounting to more than half the strength of the garrison.
Wilson Horace,describes theaccount of the Battle, in the Calcutta Gazette Press–
“A small body of Horse attached to their force, by whom the men that fell off from the main body were instantly cut to pieces, filled (our) troops with ungovernable panic, which rendered the exertions of their officers to preserve order unavailing.”
In 1852, when the 2nd Anglo-Burmese war broke out, Kathe Cavalry, marched to battlefield of Hantha-Waddy and Mottama columns under their own chiefs and further fought the British in the Sagaing Front during the 3rd Anglo-British war. (Dr. Hlaing)
Konbaung’s expansionist vision unleashed a reign of terror against neighbouring Manipur, Assam, Siam (Thailand), gained decisive victories against invading Qing Chinese and achieved notable victories against the British during the Anglo-Burmese wars.
Evolution of the Cassay Horse
Alaungpaya conquered Manipur in 1758, and brought “2000 households and had organised them into cavalry groups “granting lands for residence and subsistence and their abdomen was tattooed on the abdomen.” They also had horse figure tattoed on the abdomen and offered provisions and wealth in terms of gold, silvers, clothing and lands for residing and subsistence. (Dr. Hlaing)
Konbaung Era witnessed Manipur being plundered several times on a scale never experienced in her history. The devastation was presumed by Francis Hamilton in his account: –
“Burmans carried away or destroyed 300,000 persons of different ages and sexes; and indeed it was informed, when I was at Ava, that 100,000 captives remained near that city.”
Pemberton observed, Burmese were deeply “impressed with the superiority of the Manipur horse, that up to the present moment, the eliter of their cavalry consists of this description of trooper whom they rarely ventured to meet in the open field.”
“All the troopers in the Kings’s service are natives of Cassay, who are much better horsemen than the Birmans” Lt Col. Symes had recorded further citing, they rode, “like all orientals, with short stirrups and a loose rein; their saddle is hard and high, and two large circular slaps of strong leather hand down on each side, painted or gilded, to the quality of the rider.”
Of the attire used by Manipuri horsemen serving in the Burmese royal army, they wore a tight coat, with skirts reaching down to the middle of the thigh. They had turban, rolled hard and plainted, which forms a high cone that bends backward in a graceful manner.
The cavalries were provided with a spear about seven to eight feet long, which they managed on horseback with great dexterity, seldom requiring or making use of any other weapon.
Order issued in October 1808, read that “Kathe who are originally in the services of Prince Pagan, Prince Makkhaya and Prince Mindon shall remain so but any extra men shall be added to any one for the Horse groups, these horse men under eight leaders shall join the marching 5000 Kathe men under Nay Myo Gamani Thin Gyan.”
Manipuris living along Irrawady River also served as boatmen, divided into boat or war-canoe groups and in 1782, they”were employed in the establishment of Amarapura new capital,” and had to be alerted for military duty during war times.

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