Appeared in the August 2014 issue as “The Men Under The Ground”. This story has been updated in January 2016.
At Kanglatongbi, off the highway from Kohima to Imphal, soldiers of the Indian Army drill before the dead. Every year, the Ordnance Corps performs a brief service to commemorate the battle of Lion Box, fought here in 1944. This year extra effort has been made.
Wreaths lie by the wall, the plain green leaves of an Ashoka tree bundled up with wire. There are guests: the Corps commandant and his aides from Delhi, and a solemn group of English men and women wearing Kuki tribal hats, pom-pommed and bright red, burning like flares in the morning sun.
As the sun climbs over Kanglatongbi, the pink climbs into the cheeks of the Englishmen. They have put their workaday lives on hold in London, Somerset, and Norfolk, to come to Imphal for the 70th anniversary of the battle. Like everything else that morning, the spring heat takes their thoughts back to a morning 70 years before, which must have been hot too. Their minds are with the men of the Lion Box: some their fathers, some strange heroes, most no more than the heaped dead.
The battle of Lion Box was an ordeal of defence and evacuation, faced by the troops of 221 Advanced Ordnance Depot when they came under Japanese attack on 7 April 1944. It was a single flashpoint in an inferno that swept over Manipur when it was invaded by Imperial Japan that year, at the climax of the Second World War in Asia.
The guests face the memorial, an obelisk engraved with the names of the dead, and approach, one by one, to lay wreaths at its base. Two high-stepping, white-gloved Dogra sepoys parade up and down beside them. The foliage piles up until it seems a buffet set out for passing cattle.
Afterwards, their guides take them to visit the actual site of the fighting, now a stretch of lumpy farmland above a shadowed gully. In a peasant family’s yard is a shaggy pit in the ground, full of leaves and flecked with plastic trash. Its ignoble appearance does not dismay the guests, who recognise it as a two-man slit trench, dug in ’44. Guides and guests exclaim to each other in wonder.
Nearby, the earth had yielded up other relics of its own accord—like a bayonet, chocolate brown with age, turned up by a plough. As we tramp on, we find ourselves in the very footsteps of the old soldiers, and the crumbling, dry field briefly becomes a clairvoyant place. These families have come a long way to hear a story that almost no one remembers, and they find the earth here still telling it. Another trench is located in the undergrowth; we plunge in as if there might still be Japanese inside.
I am in Manipur to meet the men under the ground. To be clear, I mean the soldiers of one of history’s most terrible wars, buried here in hushed rows under chalky headstones. I’m not here to meet the men of the underground—not if I can help it—though in Manipur so much of the land is still shared by the dead fighters and the living.
Under one headstone in Imphal’s war cemetery lies someone from my own family: my grand-uncle Bobby, one of the tens of thousands of men brought here to defend India in March of ’44. A barrier of massed and trackless hills protected eastern India, but locked in amidst them was the flat, oval Imphal plain: a single foothold available to Japan’s invading army, when it dragged itself over the ranges from Burma.
Bobby was a sapper, an army engineer, part of a division airlifted in to defend Imphal and Kohima, the lynchpins of India’s eastern front. The largest land-empires in the world clashed over the two towns: British colonial troops from as far as Uganda and Rajputana held off the Japanese and Subhas Bose’s nationalist renegades, the Indian National Army (INA). All summer long, the isolated peaks and valleys boiled with industrial warfare. Most of the men who fought were Indian, and thousands, like Bobby, never made it back. Yet India has never recognised the battle of Imphal as “our” battle; not in our education, or our imagination, or quite yet in our travel plans.
The battlefield of Kanglatongbi may be humble, but it is only a single acre of a state that was almost entirely a battlefield in ’44—and never really ceased to be one after. When the war ended and Britain left, tribal rebellion flared up along India’s northeastern rim. Separatist “underground groups” picked up the battle against India’s Army and each other. For decades, Manipur stayed locked in the darkened basement where India performed its most severe nation-building. In recent years, though, the cycle of rebellion and reprisal has slowed. The door to Manipur has swung ajar, revealing a landscape of grand scale and rugged beauty—and of course, an epic legacy from a terrible war.
Last year, the battles of Imphal and Kohima enjoyed a sudden, startling celebrity after a scholarly vote declared them the greatest battles in British history. The 70th anniversary, this year, was a chance to lift them further out of the shadow. Besides the commemorations in the summer, private ventures have begun leading tours to the old battlefields: Something never attempted in India before.
The morning after Kanglatongbi, I join another group: Nicholas Perry and Linda Schooley, brother and sister, here with their respective partners. Perry is a history buff who has visited battlefields around the world. He has never been to Imphal before, even though their father, an army chaplain, was here in ’44; as was Linda’s father-in-law, a captain of the Gurkha Rifles. We’re met by Hemant Singh Katoch, manager and guide of the Battle of Imphal Tours, a young pioneer of WWII tourism in Manipur. He is taking us to his favourite site: the Shenam Saddle, in the hills at the southwest border with Burma.
Out on the road, within twenty minutes, the hills push out of the haze, reaching bulging arms towards us across the plain. It is the hills that are haven in the Manipur summer, but before we reach them, our vans pull over and we all tumble out. Standing at the road side, where it slips into a tangle of onion stalks, the group scans the horizon. Hemant holds an iPad and an A4-sized photo print up against the live panorama. In the photo, Archibald Wavell, then Viceroy of India, shakes hands with a Gurkha soldier, while behind them Captain Schooley looks on, and behind him, a silhouette of hills lifts like smoke across the sky.
We’re trying to arrive at the location of that photo by searching for that precise silhouette—“an ID-parade of hills”, Perry calls it. “I imagine Wavell and his cavalcade would not have gone too far off the road,” he suggests, while the others point out matching salients: “Look there—beyond the treeline… There, between the shed and the electric pole…”
“It’s not exactly the same angle,” Hemant concludes. “But the panorama is definitely the right one.” We hum and nod. There are more photos, and better matches made, but our forensics are a small diversion from the main quest.
Beyond Palel, the airfield where the INA launched its bravest attack, we start to climb. Fir cones sprout in the canopy and the scent of cloud tickles our noses. Soon the view clears of everything but rugged nature and army jawans: dark-skinned and moustached, plainly not from here. They slouch in groups on bedrolls, or stroll alone down empty miles of road, like heavily armed pilgrims. A few times we are waved to a halt, and our drivers hold long parleys before we can drive on. “One of my visitors called this the Khyber Pass of eastern India,” Hemant says. “That’s where we’re headed.”
The road itself is critical to the story, Hemant explains as we wind along it. All of Manipur’s highways were built by Army engineers, in ’42 and ’43, and it was on them in ’44 that the war rushed in. At the Shenam Saddle, a ridge as steep as knees under a bedsheet, British and Indian troops spent four months holding back an enemy column pushing up this road from the southeast.
The ridge is clad only in yellow grass, sparse woods, and the broad blue sky. The only sounds are the wind blowing into our ears, and Hemant’s voice narrating. Gesturing over the slopes and cones, he describes how each was held or lost, and we follow his hand as it carries forward the Japanese assault. Grim slaughter unfolds above our heads. Now the blowing grass reveals a platoon of Gurkhas, belly-crawling up to where a banner of the Rising Sun is tilted over a blackened hilltop. Drifting cloud-shadow becomes the shadows of RAF bombers, and lower down in the valley, imagined mortars burst among the real, lavender bursts of the magnolia trees.
Today, the Assam Rifles have a camp on the furthest rise, but the rest of the ridge, as Hemant said, “seems frozen in time. The road alignment beneath them is the same, the trenches still survive… Even the vegetation doesn’t seem to have markedly changed.” He seasons his account with maps and old photos, and reads out stories of the derring-do of British officers, pouring cups of tea and anticipating Japanese attacks “as calmly as if they were expecting the No. 14 bus”.
We clamber up on to a lower feature, where the hillside is still cut with narrow, curving trenches. Before us, immeasurable blue ranges duck and rear all the way to Burma. A place like this, so open and untamed, has a very different effect from the hallowed battlegrounds of Western Europe, Perry says. “That can be quite sentimental and mawkish; you know, people reading epic poems to the great-grand-uncle they never knew.” This was “so much better, so much more personal. And it’s certainly one of the most spectacular battlefields I’ve ever seen.”
We pick our way back down the windy slope.
“You look the same like British soldier, ah,” Hemant’s assistant calls out, from down by the van. “Only guns are missing!”
“And the cup of tea,” says Linda.
Heading back to Imphal and tea, we stop at the checkpoints again. The jawans are ready to banter now, and bright grins break out in the shade of their green-webbed helmets. Yes, they know that there was fighting with the Japanese here. Their foot-patrols find relics of those old battles. But their own battle is different, and for now, it is still entrenched in these hills. Their fingers rest on triggers as they wave us on.
Elsewhere in the world, battle-field tourism is a booming but honourable business: It mines the ore of dead heroes in the ground, while also performing a duty to reflect on sacrifice and the costs of war. India’s borderlands, from one end to the other, are a running scar of modern battle—most of it too modern, though, and too hot for tourism to touch.
The distinction of India’s WWII battlefields is that they are old enough to be accessible, yet recent enough to be intact. The relentless militancy of the underground groups, combined with the isolation of this extreme border, have left these hills nearly untouched. New battles kept old battlefields intact, like wax poured on to specimens.
This is a little less true of our next tour, down NH150: A rare, modern highway jetting out of Imphal, straight and due south until it runs into the hills. From there it labours toward the border and the Burmese town of Tiddim. In ’44, this was another corridor of the invasion; one of special, sentimental interest to me. Here the Japanese overwhelmed the defensive line in the hills, and the two armies crashed back on to the Imphal plain. Throughout, this road was the spine of the fighting. Bobby arrived here, after the relief of Kohima, to rebuild the road beneath his army’s feet, and help drive the invaders back the way they came—across the border, into the dizzying ranges—as far as the nameless hillside where he went down to join the men under the ground.
We begin at Lokpaching, the furthest extent of the Japanese advance from the south. The ground boils up into two red hillocks astride the road. At their base is a corridor of stark white walls, leading to three rough-hewn blocks of red sandstone, representing the three doomed Japanese divisions that entered India. This is the only war memorial built in India by the state of Japan, but it isn’t the only memorial around here. We’ve just passed a more humble, roadside altar of cement and tile. It marks the spot where, in 2000, the Assam Rifles killed ten civilians at a bus stop, motivating the world’s longest hunger strike by Irom Sharmila.
On we go, focused on the past, reeling in the thread of the southern offensive. Under Hemant’s guidance, the Tiddim Road becomes a linear, 60-kilometre gallery of war. Stepped hills on the horizon mount to the peak of Laimaton, where the rock faces are still carved with samurai swords and Japanese letters. When the modern conflict intrudes—when jeeps hurtle by, packed with black-masked commandos, forcing us to flinch to the kerb—I turn them into picturesque props on the stage of the imagined past.
At Potsangbam, we stroll on to a green bund between paddy pits. Further off are stands of bamboo, encircling small copses of trees. Here, Hemant says, the terrain of the plains-fighting is still “vividly visible”: At our feet the fields are dry, sprouting only grey bristle, but he conjures the monsoon of ’44, the struggle to encircle and ambush, gory combat with no quarter given, men slithering through muck, the foot rot, the malaria, the septic wounds from bamboo splinters blown out by artillery, the spear-pits hidden in the ground and caked with excrement to poison enemy soldiers like animals. It’s bleak, but it’s what I came for, a glimpse of the last days in a long-lost life.
The tour leads on to Ningthoukong and Torbung, and there it usually turns back, to visit a shabby INA museum in Moirang. At my insistence we drive on, back into the hills, pursuing the forgotten soldiers who pursued the Japanese out of India.
Now the tarmac vanishes from the road, and our tyres grind gravel as we climb. We judder up to the tailgate of a lorry, which has another lorry before it, and many more ahead. A column of thirty trucks, crashing gears and belching exhaust, are carrying army rations to the border. It’s something to appreciate: How many battlefield tours get you stuck in an army supply convoy, role-playing the convoys that struggled up the same route in WWII? But Hemant demurs, frowning. “This is just the kind of target the underground groups still go for,” he says. “This is not where we want to be.”
Trapped in the axles of the present conflict, squinting ahead for a view of the past, I had to wonder. Is it where we want to be? There might be something perverse about coming here, making such efforts to see a historic battle while ignoring the modern battle not yet silenced in these hills. The Army and the underground groups are still oppressive presences in Manipur. This is still a theatre of conflict, even if our heads are turned to another kind of theatre: a pantomime of the past, with a cast of serving soldiers, tourists and ghosts.
Yet if peace ever does come to Manipur, memory will come with it—and it looks like both are on the way. Today Imphal bristles visibly with impatience: Its stooped silhouette is thick with the tips of bamboo scaffolding and iron rebar, marking constructions that still intend to grow. If a forgotten war is being remembered in these remote and shining hills, it is only possible because of the ceasefires, the surrenders and the profound, public prayer for peace. As the men of the underground set down their arms, the men under the ground shoulder theirs, and the ghosts of dead soldiers walk with the living out of Manipur’s past and into its future.
Appeared in the August 2014 issue as “The Men Under The Ground”. This story has been updated in January 2016.
The city of Imphal is the capital of Manipur. It is located in the central part of the state.
Imphal is connected to Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Guwahati via non-stop flights.
The Classic Hotel is an admired establishment, the only three-star hotel in the state. When it opened a few years ago, it signalled a new era by serving cappucino at its coffee shop. The rooms have good Wi-Fi; some of the cheaper rooms do not have windows (North A.O.C.; 0385-2443967/2445162; www.theclassichotel.in; doubles from ₹2,410). Not far away is Hotel Imphal, formerly a government-run hotel now in the hands of The Classic’s management team (North A.O.C; 0385-2421373; email@example.com; doubles from ₹2,220). Outside Imphal, none of the towns offer more than basic accommodation.
Yaiphaba Kangjam now conducts the Battle of Imphal tours, which the writer attended. Call Kangjam at least a few weeks in advance to arrange an excursion (97743 86858, www.battleofimphal.com, firstname.lastname@example.org). Bobby Angamba also conducts tours under WW2 Imphal Campaign (98564 34345, 98561 99138). For a tour of WWII sites in Kohima, contact Battle of Imphal, or Khonoma Tours & Travels (96123 14331; email@example.com). To see some remote WWII sites, like Silchar Track and the peak of Laimaton, contact Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association’s director, Leishangthem Dr. L. Surjit (97740 45166; firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Inner Line Permit requirement has been lifted, making it easy to visit Manipur. Most foreign passport-holders will be required to make a security registration on arrival at Imphal airport. Citizens of some South Asian countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and Myanmar, may require permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Travelling in Manipur is safe, but err on the side of caution. All towns including Imphal go into an informal curfew at sundown—which comes early in the day, due to the state’s eastern location. Travellers are advised not to walk about after dark. Taxi drivers bringing you back to Imphal from Kohima, or from a day trip out of town, will insist on getting out of the hills before sundown.
Strikes and road blockades by tribal militant groups cannot be ruled out, but will usually occur with advance notice.
Do not plan to fly in or out on Republic Day (January 26) or Independence Day (August 15) for safety reasons.
Raghu Karnad is a journalist, the former editor of Time Out Delhi and the author of "Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War".
Clay Rodery who lives in Texas, U.S.A. illustrates with a neo-noir bent and has a profound taste for the beautifully bizarre. His work has appeared in New York Magazine, the New York Times, and Playboy.