Many might question if the royal palace or, more popularly the Sana Konung, still serves its objective in this age, vested as it is with no powers in the affairs of the state with the exit of Maharaja Bodhachandra, the last ruler of the kingdom of Manipur who ruled between 1941 and 1949. But certainly one has missed the point if one ventures to ask such a question because the palace still retains its aura as a living heritage that was given to it around the turn of the last century.
It was in 1908, about 17 years after the British occupied the Kangla fort at the end of the 1891 Anglo-Manipur war that the new palace was readied for Maharaja Churachand and he shifted in there. Churachand was merely a 5-year-old boy when he was placed on the throne on September 22, 1891 at the end of the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891, when a lot of hearts were broken and a new age set in commandeered by the British hierarchy in Manipur.
Churachand was formally declared a king in 1907 after he had completed his education at the Mayo College in the present day Rajasthan. As he and his family moved into the Sana Konung residency, he moved several notches higher, receiving the title of Maharaja in 1918, and being knighted as Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India in the 1934 New Year Honours, becoming Sir Churachandra Singh.
The legacy lives on and even in the present age when we wouldn’t be aware of such facts, his great grandchild who has taken on the mantle, Maharaja Leishemba Sanajaoba, is addressed a ‘Iningthou’ or His Majesty by his ardent followers. According to the Manipur administrative report, 1904-05, and Cheitharol Kumbaba, the total cost of building materials of the Sana Konung at the time was Rs. 12,853 and the area the structure occupied was 56 m X 31.3 m. The new palace was designed in a mixed pattern of Mongol, Hindu and English architecture and was completed on December 7, 1908.
Between Maharaja Churachand and his great grandson now was a turbulent phase of Manipur’s modern day history when Churachand’s successor Maharaja Bodhachandra was forced to sign the Merger Agreement under which Manipur altered its status as a sovereign kingdom to a democratic state under the Indian Constitution. What followed is all too well known, but what is of great interest is life at the Sana Konung that went on at its own slow pace, isolated from the mainstream life, yet now and then figuring in the cast of common day to day life of the people, inspiring it’s festivities, ceremonies and other occasions so that people in Manipur were always aware all the time that the benevolence of the past rulers was not altogether absent even with life travelling at a new and different pace.
Once in a while people did find that, yes, they were part of an age-old community with its link to so many traditions, customs and relationships which only life from the Sana Konung, also known colloquially as Chonga Bon, could depict or relay on to further generations.
However, all the goodness that reflects on everyday lives of the people in general because of the presence of such an honourable institution in their midst was not without its ups and downs. The state government even came on the verge of quite recklessly evicting Maharaja Leishemba Sanajaoba from the royal palace, next to the Govindaji temple, as it wanted to renovate and make it into a tourist attraction and heritage site, without recognising the fact that the Sana Konung, and quite naturally also its residents, remain a showpiece for the entire land, and outside too, not just because of the spectacular run of events in the erstwhile kingdom, but also because of the way this nearness and emotional connect has been preserved – symbolically, as mentioned nowadays time and again, and in customary details like, for instance, the hill-valley relation which has been kept alive in the same way as it was in earlier times.
To mention an instance, during the time the eviction orders had come out in 2013, Tangkhul village chiefs from Ukhrul district numbering 227, voiced their protest against the cabinet decision, proving again that below the surface currents of communal differences, most people in Manipur accepted the king as a symbolic head of the state and wouldn’t let him be harmed by such decisions, whoever it may come from.
Manipur has a rich history dating back to 33 AD when, according to the Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Manipur, the earlier residence in the royal tradition, the Kangla, housed all the kings since the king Nongda Lairen Pakhangba. Even in the pre-Pakhangba period, a ruling clan named Khaba ruled from the Kangla, according to the late scholar, N Khelchandra Singh, an authority on the Kangla history.
After the Anglo-Manipur war in 1891 the British cantonment was housed in the Kangla. And after the British left, the Assam Rifles occupied the premises in 1947. The Kangla fort was handed over to the state government in 2004 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after a 113-year occupation, unshackling the 2000-year-old history of the former kingdom from its stormy present. The Sana Konung, a latter day manifestation of the life of the royal family at the Kangla, shows how even in the British era and post-colonial era, it maintained its dignity and preserved the ages old tradition, culture and history of Manipur so that the future knows it as such.
One of the paradoxes of the palace today is that the Merger Agreement signed at Shillong in 1949 allowed the Maharaja and his family personal rights, privileges, dignities, titles, authority over religious observances, customs, usages, rites and ceremonies and institutions, which he would have enjoyed had the agreement not been made altogether. Over and above this, the Maharaja, as with all other Princely States of India, was previously entitled to an annual privy purse of Rs. 3 lakh.
The Privy Purse was however abolished all over India in 1971 under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi the royal family has had to meet their expenses from their own resources. The Govindaji temple too, which was consecrated at the present site along with the moving of Maharaja Churachand to the new premises at Sana Konung, now has a separate temple board now, and the fanfares do not match the earlier grand worship.
All the same, the Sana Konung still remains a living institution and the king has his customary and heredity-delegated importance. The institution of monarchy, which the common man still looks up to, continues to survive in Manipur, unusual and timeless. It is this history which is throwing up the current controversy over Leishemba Sanajaoba’s nomination as the BJP candidate for Manipur’s lone Rajya Sabha seat.