Rediscovering a heritage

Print edition : September 09, 2005

Restoration work gets under way at the historic Kangla Fort in Manipur.

The main entrance of the Kangla Fort in Imphal.-

ON November 20, 2004, when the Assam Rifles handed over the Kangla Fort in Imphal to Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh in the presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it marked not only the end of 113 years of occupation of the fort, but also the beginning of the revival of a 2,000-year-old lost glory.

An artist's impression of the old Palace Gate or main gate of the fort.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Kangla Fort came under British occupation in 1891 when they conquered this ancient capital of Manipur. Assam Rifles occupied it in 1947. The people of Manipur, who regard the Kangla as the embodiment of their culture and heritage, had for long been demanding that Assam Rifles vacate the fort. Although the Centre promised to hand over the fort to the State, it did not. The demand gathered momentum when the State erupted in protest against the alleged rape and killing of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel last year.

Soon after the formal handing over, the State Archaeology Department moved in to begin restoration work at the fort complex.

A file picture of the Kangla Sha, the sculptures of two dragons, which were destroyed in the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The State government also engaged Professor Nalini Thakur of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, to prepare a concept plan to restore Kangla's lost glory. "After the completion of the development work, Kangla Fort will become a unique archaeological and heritage park in the entire northeast," Sapam Bheigya, Superintendent of State Archaeology Department, told Frontline.

Also assisting in the effort is the Paris-based International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which is at work on the ancient ruins and monuments of the Kangla, spread over 237 acres on the banks of the Imphal river.

N. Khelchandra Singh, an authority on Kangla, explains the old Kangla map.-

The essence of the Kangla development project is the preservation of the State's heritage and the revival of Kangla's pristine glory. This will involve the development and beautification of the historical ruins and sacred places inside Kangla, the reconstruction of Kangla Sha, the state emblem, which was destroyed by the colonial forces at the end of the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891.

"According to Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Manipur, the Kangla housed the royal palace ever since Nongda Lairen Pakhangba ascended the throne in 33 A.D. In the pre-Pakhangba period, a ruling clan named Khaba ruled from Kangla," says N. Khelchandra Singh, an authority on Kangla, who has in his archives a large number of archaeologically and historically significant documents and maps of Kangla.

The royal chronicles have many references to the construction of the Kangla by successive kings of Manipur. One chronicle records that in 1632 Khagemba constructed a brick wall at the western gate of the fort.

"It appears that the art of brick-making was imbibed from Chinese prisoners captured during the Chinese invasion of the western frontier of Manipur. Khagemba's son Khunjaoba (1652-66) worked on the fortification and beautification of the fort. It is said that Khunjaoba excavated a moat on the western side of the fort," says Khelchandra, a member of the Kangla Fort Board headed by the Chief Minister.

Restoration work in progress at the Govindaji Temple in the fort complex.-

A citadel was built in the complex during the reign of Garibniwaz (1709-48), most probably to defend the state from attacks from Burma (now Myanmar).

The fort's big boundary wall, which the British destroyed.-

The Burmese occupied Manipur from 1819 to 1826, a period known in Manipuri history as "Chahi Taret Khuntakpa" (Seven Years' Destruction). After the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26), Maharaja Gambhir Singh (1825-34) shifted the capital to Langthabal, also known as Canchipur, about 7 km from Imphal. In 1844, during the reign of Nara Singh, Kangla became the capital again.

Remains of an inner wall inside the fort.-

In 1866 Captain E.W. Dun penned the picture of Kangla in the Gazetteer of Manipur thus: "In the centre is the Raja's enclosure or it is called Pat (Bengali word for Kangla). Every road converges upon it, and it is in every sense the heart of the city and the country. The Pat is the only portion of the town which possess any serious attempt at artificial defence. It is surrounded by a moat 20 yards broad and 6 feet deep at the deepest part, near the western gate. During the cold weather this moat only contains water round the southeastern and southwestern corners. It is divided into sections by bunds over which the roads pass as they enter the four gates."

A British bungalow inside the fort, which was used as an officer's club by the Assam Rifles.-

The ruins of "Uttra", the coronation hall of kings, inside Kangla, are also of archaeological importance. The building housing the coronation hall was destroyed in Japanese air raids during the Second World War and only the flight of steps leading to the Uttra and parts of the foundation remain.

Just beyond the flight of steps are two pedestals on which two dragons made of brick once stood. In his book The Meitheis, T.C. Hudson mentions that the dragon was the national emblem of the Meiteis.

A samadhi for personnel of 1-India Reserve Battalion inside the fort.-

About the existence of the dragon structures, Dun wrote: "In the front of the royal residence stood the statue of [a] mythical beast called "sha" by the Manipuri and dragon by the British.

According to a booklet on Kangla published by the State Archaeology Department, the dragons were erected by Chinese prisoners of war. Sir James Johnstone, the British Political Agent in Manipur from 1877 to 1886, has recorded in his book My Experiences in Manipur and the Naga Hills (1896) that "Kangla Sha were blown to pieces by the British after their occupation of Kangla Fort in 1891. The site is remembered historically as the place where four British officers were beheaded by Manipuri soldiers."

At the western gate, Johnstone observed, stood "a quaint and picturesque old gateway, not beautiful, characteristic of Manipuri". A big square in front of the western gate was a parade ground, and the banks of the moat (the present Kangla park) and the square were places of rendezvous. Opposite the gate was the Sana Keithal (Royal Market), where women sat in long rows on raised banks of earth without any shelter except for umbrellas.

Wood work in progress for the restoration of the fort.-

The first Anglo-Manipur battle, according to Khelchandra, was fought when British forces attacked Kangla on March 24, 1891, under orders from J.W. Quinton, the then Chief Commissioner of Assam. "Manipur was an Asiatic power in alliance with the British sovereign. This undeclared aggression infuriated the Manipuris. However, they agreed to negotiate with the British officials when approached. The negotiations failed and the Manipuri commander ordered the execution of the British officers, though the King had asked him to keep them as prisoners. Then the British declared war on Manipur and attacked it from three sides - Silchar, Kohima and Tamu (now a town on the Indo-Myanmar border) - on April 27, 1891, and ultimately conquered it," he says.

One of the structures marked for renovation is the temple of Govindaji, constructed by Maharaja Chandrakriti Singh in 1869. It is a rectangular, late medieval period, brick-and-Burmese teak rafter structure with a portico, a sanctum and covered circumambulatory paths. The royal chronicle records that the bricks were made during the reign of Maharaja Gambhir Singh at Langthabal but Gambhir Singh died on January 9, 1834. Maharaja Nara Singh, who came to the throne in 1844, initiated the construction of the temple with bricks brought from Langthabal and in 1845 A.D the temple was completed and dedicated to Maharaja Gambhir Singh. It collapsed in the great earthquake of 1868 and was rebuilt with the same type of bricks in 1869 during the reign of Maharaja Chandrakriti Singh. After the conquest of Manipur, the British removed the marble slabs paved in the temple and sold them in a public auction. They also removed the gold leaf of the temple dome.

In the fort complex is another brick temple, of Brindaban Chandra, built by prince Tikendrajit Singh. A rectangular structure, it has a sanctum sanctorum, a covered circumambulatory path and entrances on all four sides.

The Slim Cottage constructed in 1901, which was the residence of Field Marshal W.J. Slim during the Second World War.-

Another place of historical importance is the polo ground, known as Manung Kangjeibung Manipuri on the southern part of the fort. The ground was developed during the reign of King Marjit (1813-19).

Khelchandra Singh said that the game was first introduced to other parts of India in 1863 by the British. "Two teams of Manipuri natives were taken to Calcutta (now Kolkata), where they played an exhibition match. The British encouraged the natives to play the game and even appointed polo players and polo chowkidars on monthly pay from the state under the head No. 1 - administration, vide the Manipur State budget up to 1949-50. But after Manipur was integrated with the Union of India in October 1949, the game was discouraged. The posts of polo players were abolished and the polo ground was used for other purposes."

The other important structures of the British and post-Independence periods at the fort complex include the cottage of Field Marshal W.J. Slim, who was the Commander of the Allied Forces during the Second World War; a unit hospital of the Assam Rifles; the tomb of Assam governor Sir Akbar Hydari, the residences and bungalows of British officers and later of Assam Rifles officers; the samadhi of Maharaja Bodhachandra of Manipur; and the memorial stone at Kekrupat, erected in memory of those who died during the June 18, 2001, uprising in the State against the Centre's move to extend the ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) to Manipur.

The Kangla was not only a seat of political power but also a place of worship. A number of ancient treatises that date back to the 5th century A.D., laid down the rules for the construction of the Kangla and the rulers of Manipur, who belonged to the Ningthouja clan, followed them strictly. Experts believe that these texts can be a guide for the restoration of the ruins.

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