Battle of the tennis court: in which gates are opened for us

24 10 2015

battle of the tennis court

Having seen two different morungs in the villages we headed off to the Hornbill Festival site, which also functions as a folk museum, with a very traditional morung for each tribe. It’s a big site, to house a pretty large number of attendees at the annual, 5-day festival and it had an oddly forlorn air with just a handful of tourists rattling around. The tribal pavilions felt – though they are clearly not – artificial and lifeless.

Bird and man

drumming

Lunch was Paradise Restaurant, a local diner, where the food was absolutely delicious, except for the bland, gloopy soup served as a starter. We were given bland, gloopy soup for pretty much every meal except breakfast and were already sick of it by this stage. The other dishes were really tasty, the egg curry and the mushroom curry – with very similar gravies – made a big impact. I read about Naga food before we went and was expecting tasty things full of fiery chillies, but I seem to have misunderstood. What we experienced, what #1 guide told us, and what I’ve read since we got back, is that traditional Naga food is rather bland with lots of plain, boiled veg, with the option to eat fiery chillies alongside it. We did eat some not-at-all fiery chillies when they were offered. It’s possible the food would have been tastier had we not all been vegetarian (or choosing to be so for the duration).

Entry to Paradise

On the way back to the hotel we stopped to view an American tank which had slid down the hillside during battle. The occupants jammed the machine gun triggers, set the turret to rotate, and escaped. The tank has been left where it stood. The incident happened during the Battle of Kohima (which happened in several stages April to May 1944), in which the Japanese tried to capture Kohima Ridge and block the Kohima-Imphal road which was critical for the supply of British and Indian troops.

The tank now is both memorial and climbing-frame.

Climb and remember

One of our group had wanted to do some military history tourism. Only after booking the trip and then the death of a family member had she learned that her step-father had been present during the battle of Kohima, and she was eager to learn as much as possible while she was there. Sadly, the WW2 museum at the Hornbill Festival site was closed for Easter, and when we got back to the hotel we were told that the war cemetery was also closed. We’d only been back in our rooms a few minutes, however, when #2 guide came to tell us that special arrangements had been made (palms greased, we assume) for a private visit to the cemetery. We walked the few hundred metres from the hotel, slipped in through the back gates, leaving a local to stand guard, and walked up Garrison Hill to the site of the Battle of the Tennis Court.

Marking the spot

To be honest, visiting war graves, visiting any graves, is not an activity that makes great sense to us, either logically or emotionally. The necropolis in Glasgow is spectacular and I enjoy spectacle, and the camp edifices at Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg were certainly worth the visit. Last year, in Thailand though, after the moving experience of walking through Hell Fire Pass, we visited Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where victims of the Burma railway construction are buried and found it a soulless place, swarmed by tourists local and international. The cemetery on Garrison Hill was not like that at all. Maybe it was just because we were the only people there, maybe because the setting is spectacular, maybe because I had no expectations, but I found the place beautiful and moving.

Sadly many layers

It is laid out around what was once the tennis court in the grounds of the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow, and the site of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting of the Battle of Kohima, itself some of the bitterest fighting of the Burma campaign. The tennis court is permanently marked out with metal lines, but the cemetery and its monument are not aligned with the tennis court, so that it looks, as it is, like the echo of a different time and purpose. The graves are arranged on terraces up and down the steep hillside. Everything is neatly maintained, but not fiercely so.

Tennis court lines

cemetery with a view

It’s impossible to look at the cemetery without also looking beyond at the city. Somehow, in a way I don’t at all understand, that context makes it seem more real and more sad.

We walked around the graves for quite a while, reading names, reading regiments, reading ages. The dead were British and Indian, the youngest we saw was only 17, the only woman we noticed was Ethel Carter of the nursing services.

To be remembered

In memorial: Mir Khan


— words by Elizabeth & Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth
— more pictures in Assam & Nagaland album and Kohima album.

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