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A corner of England cherishes links with Manipur

A little known market town in Lincolnshire is putting together a project to showcase its unique links with colonial Manipur to highlight the role of one of its most famous residents in the northeastern Indian state.

world Updated: Aug 21, 2016 09:50 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Manipur
John Comyn Higgins, seen in a photo taken in the early 1900s. After qualifying for the Indian Civil Service in 1905, Higgins worked in Manipur as the political agent and president of the State Darbar.(Courtesy Imasi: The Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi Foundation)

A little known market town in Lincolnshire is putting together a project to showcase its unique links with colonial Manipur to highlight the role of one of its most famous residents in the northeastern Indian state.

Alford, a town of less than 3,500 residents located 225 km northeast of London, was the home of John Comyn Higgins, who qualified for the Indian Civil Service in 1905 and worked in Manipur during 1910-1933 as the political agent and president of the State Darbar.

Higgins is known in Manipur for his role in suppressing the two-year Kuki Uprising from 1917, which saw tribes fiercely battling British forces that burnt several villages during clashes. He and his family also developed close links with Manipur’s royal family.

Like many British personnel in India, Higgins kept diaries and recorded his experiences that, in many ways, were a world away from the Edwardian surroundings in Alford. His records include his views on the potent local brew, Zu.

For more than 150 years, Higgins and his family lived in the most famous house in the town, Alford Manor House, built in 1611. The home was turned into a museum in 1967, and the trust running it is putting together the two-phase project that includes an exhibition and recreating the Manipur royal family’s attire.

Alford Manor House (Courtesy alfordmanorhouse.co.uk)

Sarah Teesdale, trustee of Alford Manor House Museum, told Hindustan Times that both sides of Higgins’ role in Manipur will be set out in the exhibition that will run through most of 2017, and will include archives and his personal diaries.

“It has been an important element for me from the beginning to depict both sides of the conflict. JC Higgins’ involvement in the suppression of the Kuki Uprising and recruitment for the Labour Corps provides a completely different focus for our exhibition,” she said.

The Kuki Uprising and Higgins’ role

The Kuki Uprising had its roots in British efforts to gather men, materials and munitions from colonies at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Manipur’s Maharaja Churachand Singh was prepared to extend such support.

Manipur’s contribution included a double company of infantry, a company of 120 sappers and miners, 500 Naga labourers, four ambulances to the St John’s Red Cross Fund, and a sum of Rs 281,860.

The Maharaja sought to raise two additional labour corps for France. As the war progressed and men were desperately needed, Higgins was directly involved in recruiting tribal men from the hills in the Manipur Labour Corps.

The pressure for more men led to the Kuki Uprising and Higgins became involved in suppressing what the British described as a rebellion from 1917 to 1919.

“Our ‘View From the Other Side’ will include the perspective of the Kuki tribesmen, who refused to be recruited and stood up to British rule, along with the story of those villages (which were) caught between the two sides and suffered great losses,” Teesdale said.

“We will also look at the experiences of the men who did answer the call of the British and served in France as members of the Labour Corps.”

Maharaja Churachand Singh and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi of Manipur in 1905. The photograph was taken on the occasion of their wedding. The royal couple’s attire seen in the photo is being recreated for the project launched by the Alford Manor House Museum. (Courtesy Imasi: The Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi Foundation)

Higgins’ relationship with the Maharaja of Manipur

Higgins and Churachand Singh worked closely together for more than 20 years, travelling and attending official engagements. Higgins’ letters home in the late 1920s mention polo matches played together and visits to the Residency by Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi. Their children played at the British residence in Imphal as friends.

The second aspect of the project involves Indian textiles experts and local artisans recreating the clothes of Churachand Singh and Dhanamanjuri Devi. Teesdale said the organisers were delighted to receive cooperation and support from Manipur and elsewhere in India for the project.

Members of the erstwhile royal family have been consulted to recreate the ‘phanek’ dress as closely as possible to the one worn by Dhanamanjuri Devi.

“The museum is currently in the third year of our ‘Alford Remembers WWI Exhibition’. As the exhibition has evolved, we have worked hard to include alternative views and a wide variety of experiences related to the war, all of which have Alford connections,” Teesdale said.

Extract from JC Higgins’ diary on Zu (local rice beer), April 1914:

“There are many kinds of Zu, but they may be roughly subdivided into two kinds. The first is a kind of beer or fermented liquor, prepared with some fermenting medium from rice, millet, maize, Job’s tears etc. I have even tasted it in times of scarcity made out of bamboo seeds. It varies of course in sweetness, flavour and consistency, but the best Kuki Zu, made from rice, is an excellent drink, tasting slightly like sour cider.

“The other kind is a spirit, distilled from the former kind, and is the most disgusting stuff it is possible to imagine. It is greatly appreciated by the hillmen, owing to it having ‘more power to its elbow’ and one often experiences the bitter disappointment, having climbed a seemingly interminable hill with a hospitable bottle waved at the top and having a good pull at the contents, of finding the bottle is full of this poisonous stuff.”