Right at the centre of the fast growing capital of Manipur, Imphal, is a fort that has been continuously occupied since 33 CE, for nearly 2000 years. The Kangla Fort which is in ruins now, is central to the history of Manipur.
Manipur got its name as the ‘land of the jewel’ only in the 18th century. Prior to this, it was known as Kangleipak and was ruled by the Meiteis, a community that continues to dominate this state today.
The Kangla fort was the political heart of Manipur from the 33CE to 1891 CE, when the British took control and made it their military headquarters. Interestingly till 2004, a small part of the fort continues to operate as the base of the para military force, Assam Rifles.
The earliest reference to the Kangla Fort comes from a court chronicle ‘Cheitharol Kumbaba’. While little is known about who wrote it or when, this chronicle claims to record Meitei history from the founding of the ruling dynasty in 33 CE. It mentions that the Kangla Fort was the seat of a Meiteis clan, Ningthouja, whose ruler Pakhangba became the first King of the Meiteis. But there is no archaeological evidence of the era and the dates could be an exaggeration. Excavations at the citadel of the fort have however, unearthed pottery from a much later date.
Based on studies, it is clear that the Kangla Palace and its fortification evolved over a period of time. In fact in the 5th century CE, one of the rulers of Meiteis, Shangben Laiba even laid out a detailed list of rules for the construction of various palaces within the fort. The book Kangla Hou was meticulously followed, down the centuries, as the fort complex was expanded.
Looking through the history of the region and its strategic significance, as it borders Myanmar and large tribal tracts; one of the most important rulers of the Meiteis was King Khagemba. Literally meaning ‘Conqueror of China’, the King acquired the name after his repeated (and successful) invasions into Chinese territory. Records claim he invaded areas under China four times while his queen is said to have invaded them twice!
An important battle is said to have taken place around 1631 CE in the Chinese province of Yunan, bordering Myanmar around 500 miles from present day Imphal. After the success of the campaigns, his son, Khunjaoba reworked the fortification of the fort, also building the moat locally known as Thangapat, on the Western end of the fort.
A lot of the construction, for the wall added to the fort for instance in 1632, was done using the brick making skills of the Chinese prisoners who were captured during the Manipuri excursions into China.
The 18th century was also important for the kingdom. During this time Hinduism is said to have spread across the Kingdom by missionaries from Sylhet (present day Bangladesh).
The Meitei King Meidingi Pamheiba (1720-1751 CE), adopted Hinduism and came to be known as Garibnawaz, literally meaning ‘Kind to poor’. He is said to have built the first cremation site for the hindu kings, locally, called Manglen. He also worked on the citadel as a defence against the Burmese Invasion.
In 1824 CE, during the first Anglo-Burmese war, locally known as Chahi Taret Khuntapa or seven years of devastation, King Gambhir Singh (1825-1834 CE) shifted his capital to Langthabal (13 kilometres from Imphal). It was, however, shifted back to Kangla in 1844 by Nara Singh (1844-1850 CE). Even the Govinda Temple, which is very popular among Meiteis today, was built in 1846, during the time of Nara Singh. The temple was severely damaged in the 1868 earthquake and was rebuilt by Maharaja Chandrakriti (1859-1886 CE).
After this there was a period of peace until the British attacked the fort in 1891CE, triggering the Anglo-Manipur War. The Meitei forces were defeated and the area was taken over by the British. A description by Captain E.W. Dun, in the Gazetteer of Manipur in1866, reiterates the fort’s importance even in the 19th CE, He writes, ‘In the centre is the Raja's enclosure 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.’
There were two statues of ‘Kangla Sha’, a mythological animal that is the emblem of Manipur and is considered to be a protector of Meitei kings, which is said to have been destroyed by the British after their occupation in 1891. It was made of bricks and stood in front of the Uttra or the coronation hall of the Kings. The present pair of Kangla Sha was built in 2006 and is placed inside the fort premises.
Today, there is hardly anything left in the fort premises that could remind one of the many historic events that this fort witnessed over a period of approximately 2000 years. Yet, thousands of locals visit the Fort each year to pay their respects at a site, that is closely tied with their identity!
The Kangla fort was handed over to the State Government in 2004 and is now open for visitors.