Since my Sainik School days, I have been fascinated by Heritage tourism. History has been a dominant driver of tourist activity for the longest time. For me heritage tourism is traveling to understand the cultures and places of the past—including those of our ancestors. One of the best ways to understand history—including our family history—is to go to a place where we can relive it. This kind of travel is called heritage tourism, or traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. It includes visitation to cultural, historic, and natural resources.
The Northeast’s rich legacy of being one of the main battlegrounds of the World War-II has many few takers. War stories from this region are full of valiant adventures of the British-Indian soldiers who fought against the Japanese army during the war.
The countless soldiers who fell fighting for the country would have been forgotten, had the War Memorials that stand in faraway places like Kohima, Imphal, Guwahati and Digboi not been there. The sites, where the battle actually took place has now turned to lush, azure hills, and the epitaph reads: “When you go home, Tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today”. This inscription is one of the most popular inscriptions in the world. For me these words evokes thoughts about life in the past years and the fleeting nature of life.
The concept of war memorial tourism is fast catching up in the region where tour operators are offering special packages for foreign and local tourists. Cemetery visits and battlefield tours are being presented as major attractions for tourists, especially those who have lost their near and dear in this portion of the earth.
I count myself lucky and fortunate enough to have visited Kohima & Imphal war memorials during my college days.
Kohima War Memorial
The somewhat crowded streets of Kohima town was busy with its daily routine. As usual here, the people were preparing to open their shops, the taxis were waiting for their new passengers and the children were leaving for their schools. I walked past the busy streets to confront the gates of the Kohima War Cemetery. There was an eerie silence in the air, a gentle whisper of this place, about the heroes who chose to fight against all odds and became eternal.
In the heart of Kohima town in Nagaland “Kohima War Cemetery” is one of the most touching tributes to the Second World War heroes and one of the few where soldiers are buried on the very spot where they had died. The Kohima war memorial actually is built in memory of the Indian and British soldiers who laid down their lives fighting the Japanese invasion of British India. The battle was so fierce that it claimed over 4000 Indian and British lives and 5000 Japanese lives; second only to the Stalingrad battle, where the Soviets lost 1 million men while repulsing an attack from the combined forces of German, Romanian, Croatian and Italian forces, who lost 800,000 men. This is why, it is also known as the “Stalingrad of the East.”
The local guide explained to us that “ The cemetery is built on the actual battleground. Much before the cemetery, this place used to be the Chief Commissioner’s Residence”. The cemetery is built on the Garrison Hill, which was the site of the battleground. The cemetery is now home to 1420 graves. At the top of the cemetery, is a memorial dome, which commemorates 917 Hindu and Sikh soldiers, who were cremated according to their faiths.
Since the end of the war the War Cemetery has received visitors from all over the world, war veterans, relatives of soldiers and many others keen on having a glimpse of the battle saga. Emotions are equally strong over the other side. Every year you will find as many Japanese visitors as others.
This year, 2020 would mark the 75th anniversary of World War-II culmination and there would be a grand memorial service arranged there by Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which maintains Second World War graves across the globe.
Timing – 9am to 4pm
Imphal War Memorial
Imphal, the capital of Manipur State, is in Northeast India and borders on upper Burma (Myanmar). The cemetery lies 10 km from the airport on the Imphal-Dimapur road (National Highway 39) in Dewlahland, Kabo Leikai. The small road leading to the cemetery is 1 km along this highway on the right side, opposite the D M College.
Imphal War Cemetery is open every day between 09:00-16:30 (March-September) and 09:00-16:00 (October-February).
Today this place looks so tranquil, beautiful and serene but one has to go back to World War II when one of the fiercest Battles of the War was fought in the vicinity with thousands of people died in the war. The Imphal War Cemetery has 1,600 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The battle of Imphal fought between March and July 1944 was very complicated & spread over to a wide range of locations across the state, many clusters of battlefields seemingly disconnected and isolated from each other. Some of the most bitter battles were fought along the Tiddim Road which leads to the Chin Hills of Burma. The nearest the Japanese got to Imphal on that road was when they established themselves on Red Hill, where the Japanese have now built the India Peace Memorial.
The distinction of India’s WWII battlefields is that they are old enough to be accessible, yet recent enough to be intact. To have Manipur’s overall War experience, don’t forget to visit a Second World War-era airfield in Koirengei, War cemeteries and battlefields in Nungshigum. The Tiddim Road tour, where the Japanese 33rd Division (the ‘White Tigers’) faced off with the 17th Indian Division (the ‘Black Cats’), the main British force in the area, during the Battle of Imphal.
The Tiddim Road Tour gives you a chance to discover this intriguing story where men of the Indian National Army (INA) planted the Indian tricolour, which featured a springing tiger, for the first time on the mainland. Heading out of Imphal on the Tiddim Road, you can visit the only Japanese War Memorial in India; battlefields along the way, including the town of Ningthoukhong where two Victoria Crosses were awarded in June 1944; the only INA Memorial Complex in the world at Moirang; Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater lake in northeast India; and, Keibul Lamjao National Park, the only floating national park in the world.
Take this tour to find out just why the UK’s National Army Museum named Imphal/Kohima as Britain’s Greatest Battle in April 2013 and to hear, for once, Manipur’s side of the story.
For those of us who have never witnessed battle, it is just an imagination, unexplained and often misunderstood. But for those who live through the tempest, their life is never the same again. It requires raw courage for sacrifice, a price not all dare to pay. In my version of this kind of trip for anyone, cemeteries should be the last stop. The first visit should be to the battlefields, bunkers and airstrips, and having the war alive and then end it at the graves.
India’s contribution to the Allied war effort is nowhere more evident than in Britain’s greatest battle, fought in Imphal and Kohima. Even after Seventy Five years, Indians do not seem to remember much of it. When thinking about military history, Indians tend to jump from the First War of Independence in 1857 directly to India’s first war with Pakistan in 1948. Through this blog, I sincerely hope that it arouses the interest in people and will put Imphal & Kohima more firmly on the map of India by attracting tourists to visit the battlefields where the soldiers of both sides fought with what was a unique gallantry, & many of those soldiers were Indians.