Maha Bandula

Maha Bandula
Maha Bandula
Maha Bandula.jpg
Statue of Maha Bandula in Yangon
Born 1781
Dabayin, Kingdom of Burma
Died 1 April 1825
Danubyu, Kingdom of Burma
Allegiance Konbaung Dynasty
Service/branch Royal Burmese Army
Years of service 180? – 1825
Rank Commander-in-chief (1821–1825)[1][2]
Battles/wars Burmese–Manipuri War (1819)
Burmese–Assamese War (1821–1822)
First Anglo-Burmese War
Awards Agga Maha Thenapati
Thado Maha Bandula
Ne Myo Thura Yegaung

General Maha Bandula (Burmese: မဟာဗန္ဓုလ; pronounced [məhà bàɴdṵla̰] c. 1781–1825) was commander-in-chief of the Burmese military forces from 1821 until his death in 1825 in the First Anglo-Burmese War. Bandula was a key figure in the Konbaung dynasty's policy of expansionism in Manipur and Assam that ultimately resulted in the war and the beginning of the downfall of the dynasty. Nonetheless, the general, who died in action, is celebrated as a national hero by the Burmese for his resistance to the British. Today, some of the most prominent places in the country are named after him.


Early life

Maha Bandula was born Maung Yit (မောင်ရစ်, [màuɴ jɪʔ]) in 1781 in Dabayin, the firstborn son of a minor gentry family of Pauk Taw and his wife, Nyein.[3][4] As customary with Burmese boys of the era, Maung Yit received education at the local Buddhist monastery. He had to take on early responsibilities in his youth after the death of his father. He worked the fields with his mother and looked after his two younger brothers, Maung Aye and Maung Mya, and younger sister Ma Doke.[3]


Later in his youth, Maung Yit moved to Amarapura, then the kingdom's capital, to serve as the lowest grade retainer in the royal service of Crown Prince Thado Minsaw, who had his hometown Dababyin in fief.[3] Maung Yit quickly rose through the ranks, first under Thado Minsaw and later his son Prince of Sagaing, who succeeded as crown prince in 1808. He became first the governor of Dabayin, and the governor of Ahlone-Monywa three years later.[4]

Manipur (1819)

Maha Bandula became a senior commander of the Burmese military forces after his lord the Prince of Sagaing ascended to the Burmese throne as King Bagyidaw in June 1819. Maha Bandula's first major military action as senior commander came soon after in Manipur. The small kingdom in the west was a rebellion-prone protectorate between 1758 and 1782, and had been retaken by King Bodawpaya since 1813.[5] When the raja of Manipur, Marjit Singh, who was placed on the throne by the Burmese only six years earlier, did not attend the new king's coronation ceremony or send an embassy bearing tribute, as all vassal kings had an obligation to do, Bagyidaw sent an expeditionary force to reclaim Manipur.[1][6]

In October 1819, the Burmese forces invaded Manipur, under the overall command of Thado Minye Kyawhtin, the king's brother. Maha Bandula was one of two deputy commander-in-chiefs (Sitke).[2] He commanded an infantry force of 5000 men and 500 cavalry, followed by Gen. Ne Myo Thura Minhla Nawrahta's 20,000 infantrymen and 2500 cavalry. The Manipuris made their stand near their capital. The fort, surrounded by high hills on two sides and heavily fortified by stout timber gates on the remaining side, was said to be nearly impregnable. Bandula sent in commandos who scaled the hills at night and broke open the stout gates, allowing the Burmese to take the fort and the capital.[3] Raja Marjit Singh fled to the neighboring state of Cachar, which was ruled by his brother Chourjit Singh. The daring operation made him famous.[6] The king granted him the title Ne Myo Thura Yegaung.

After the conquest, the Burmese left a garrison in Manipur, backed by a long supply line up the Chindwin river.[5]

Assam (1821–1822)

Like Manipur, Assam was one of Bodawpaya's acquisitions late in his rule. The Burmese first invaded the Ahom kingdom in March 1817, and installed a puppet king Chandra Kanta Singh. The puppet king was dethroned soon after the Burmese troops left the country, necessitating their return in early 1819 in the final days of the reign of King Bodawpaya.[1] Nevertheless, in 1821, the puppet king switched allegiance to the British and turned against the Burmese. King Bagyidaw again turned to Bandula to reclaim Assam.

In February 1821, a Burmese army of 20,000 (including 10,000 Hkamti Shan and Kachin levies) crossed the snow-clad mountains to Assam from their northernmost forts along the Hukawng valley. After nearly a year and a half of hard fought battles in some of the most difficult terrains in the world, the Burmese forces finally defeated Chandra Kanta Singh and the Assamese army in July 1822, and made Assam a Burmese province under a military governor-general, extinguishing the 600-year-old Ahom court once and for all.[4][5] The defeated Assamese king fled to British territory of Bengal. The British ignored Bandula's demands to surrender the fugitive king, and instead sent reinforcement units to frontier forts.[7] Maha Bandula left a military garrison of 2000 men commanded by Gen. Maha Thilawa, and returned to Ava.[6] It was after the conquest of Assam that the former Maung Yit received the title Thado Maha Bandula (or simply Maha Bandula), as he would be known from then on.

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826)

By 1822, the conquests of Manipur and Assam had brought a long border between British India and the kingdom of Ava. The British, based in Calcutta, had their own designs on the region, and actively supported rebellions in Manipur, Assam and Arakan. Calcutta unilaterally declared Cachar and Jaintia British protectorates, and sent in troops.[8] Cross border raids into these newly acquired territories from British territories and spheres of influence vexed the Burmese. Convinced that war was inevitable, Bandula became a main proponent of offensive policy against the British. Bandula was part of the war party at Bagyidaw's court, which also included Queen Me Nu and her brother, the lord of Salin.[4] Bandula believed that a decisive victory could allow Ava to consolidate its gains in its new western empire in Arakan, Manipur, Assam, Cachar and Jaintia, as well as take over eastern Bengal.[8]

In January 1824, Bandula sent in one of his top lieutenants Thado Thiri Maha Uzana into Cachar and Jaintia to chase away the rebels. The British sent in their own force to meet the Burmese in Cachar, resulting in the first clashes between the two. The war formally broke out on 5 March 1824, following border clashes in Arakan.

Western theater

As the commander in chief of the Burmese army, Maha Bandula was supported by twelve of the country's best battalions, including one under his personal command, all totaling ten thousand men and five hundred horses. His general staff included some of the country's most decorated soldiers, men like the lord of Salay and the governors of Danyawaddy, Wuntho and Taungoo. Bandula's plan was to attack the British on two fronts: Chittagong from Arakan in the southeast, and Sylhet from Cachar and Jaintia in the north.[8] Bandula personally commanded the Arakan theater while Uzana commanded Cachar and Jaintia theater.[4]

Early in the war, battle hardened Burmese forces were able to push back the British forces because the Burmese, who had been fighting in the jungles of Manipur and Assam for nearly a decade, were more familiar with the terrain which represented "a formidable obstacle to the march of a European force".[9] Uzana had already defeated the British units in Cachar and Jaintia in January 1824. In May, Burmese forces led by Lord Myawaddy defeated units of British India Army in the Battle of Ramu, inside British territory, causing a great panic in Calcutta. But Bandula, not wanting to overstretch, stopped Myawaddy from proceeding ahead to Chittagong. Had Bandula marched on to Chittagong, which unbeknown to him was lightly held, he could have taken it and the way to Calcutta would have been open.(The Burmese, because of the disparity in arms, could not have won the war in any case. But had they been able to threaten Calcutta, the Burmese could have obtained more favorable terms in the peace negotiations later on.)[1]

Battle of Yangon (May–December 1824)

Battle in Kyimyindaing

Instead of fighting in hard terrain, the British took the fight to the Burmese mainland. On 11 May 1824, a British naval force of over 10,000 men (5000 British soldiers and over 5000 Indian sepoys) entered the harbor of Yangon, taking the Burmese by surprise.[1][9] The Burmese pursuing a scotched earth policy, left an empty city, and instead chose to fortify positions along an east-west 10-mile arc outside the city. The British forces led by General Archibald Campbell took position inside a fortified Shwedagon Pagoda compound. The British launched attacks on Burmese lines, and by July 1824, had successfully pushed the Burmese towards Kamayut, five miles from Shwedagon. Burmese efforts to retake Shwedagon in September failed.[10]

King Bagyidaw ordered a near complete withdrawal from the western front—Bandula from Arakan and Bengal, and Uzana from Assam, Cachar and Jaintia—and meet the enemy in Yangon. In August, in the midst of monsoon season, Bandula and his army crossed the Arakan Yoma.[11] Even in good weather, moving tens of thousands of men over the 3000-foot-high Arakan hills or 10,000-foot-high Assamese ranges, heavily forested and with only narrow footpaths, open to attack by tigers and leopards, would be difficult. To do this at the height of the drenching monsoon season was no easy task. Yet Bandula (from Arakan) and Uzana (from Assam) in a testament to their generalship and logistical skill, managed to do just that. The king granted both Bandula and Uzana the title Agga Maha Thenapati, the highest possible military rank. Bandula was also made the governor of Sittaung.[10]

By November, Bandula commanded a force of 30,000 massed outside Yangon. Bandula believed that he could take on a well-armed British force of 10,000 head-on. Although the Burmese were numerically superior, only 15,000 of the 30,000 had muskets. The Burmese cannons fired only balls whereas the British cannons fired exploding shells.[1] Unbeknown to him, the British had just received the first shipment of the newest weapon in war that the Burmese had never seen–Congreve rockets.[11][12]

On 30 November, in what turned out be the biggest mistake of his career, Bandula ordered a frontal attack on British positions. The British with far superior weaponry, withstood several Burmese gallant charges at the Shwedagon fort, cutting down men by thousands. By 7 December, the British troops, supported by rocket fire, had begun to gain the upper hand. On 15 December, the Burmese were driven out of their last remaining stronghold at Kokine.[12] In the end, only 7000 of the 30000 Burmese soldiers returned.[1]

Battle of Danubyu (March–April 1825)

Bandula fell back to his rear base at Danubyu, a small town not far from Yangon, in the Irrawaddy delta. Having lost experienced men in Yangon, the Burmese forces now numbered about 10,000, of mixed quality, including some of the king's best soldiers but also many untrained and barely armed conscripts. The stockade itself stretched a mile along the riverbank, and was made up of solid teak beams no less than 15 feet high.[12]

In March 1825, a four thousand strong British force supported by a flotilla of gun boats attacked Danubyu. The first British attack failed, and Bandula attempted a counter charge, with foot soldiers, cavalry and 17 fighting elephants. But the elephants were stopped by rocket fire and the cavalry found it impossible to move against the sustained British artillery fire.[12]

On 1 April, the British launched a major attack, pounding down on the town with their heavy guns and raining their rockets on every part of the Burmese line. Bandula was killed by a mortar shell. Bandula had walked around the fort to boost the morale of his men, in his full insignia under a glittering golden umbrella, discarding the warnings of his generals that he would prove an easy target for the enemy's guns. After Bandula's death, the Burmese evacuated Danubyu.[12]

Treaty of Yandabo

The war would go on for another 10 months, with the British forces gradually advancing, eventually to Yandabo about four days' march from Ava. In February 1826, the Burmese accepted defeat. Under the Treaty of Yandabo, the Court of Ava agreed to (1) cede to the British Arakan (Rakhine), Tenasserim (Tanintharyi), Manipur and Assam, (2) recognize Cachar and Jaintia as British territories, and (3) pay an indemnity of one million pound sterling in four installments.[1]

The First Anglo-Burmese War was the longest and most expensive war in British Indian history. Fifteen thousand European and Indian soldiers died, together with a higher (almost certainly much higher) number of Burmese soldiers. The campaign cost the British anywhere from five million pounds sterling to 13 million pounds sterling (roughly 18.5 billion to 48 billion in 2006 US dollars, measured as a percentage of the country's economy)[4] that led to a severe economic crisis in British India in 1833.[13]

But for the Burmese, it was to be the very beginning of the end of their independence. The Third Burmese Empire, for a brief moment the terror of British India, was effectively undone, crippled and no longer a threat to the eastern frontier of British India.[14] The Burmese would be crushed for years to come by repaying the large indemnity of one million pounds (then US$5 million), a large sum even in Europe of that time.[1] The British would make two more wars against the much weaker Burmese, and swallow up the entire country by 1885.


Maha Bandula looms large in Burmese history for his courage to take on the British. Due in large measure to Bandula's leadership, the First Anglo-Burmese War was the only of the three Anglo-Burmese wars that the Burmese were able to put up a fight.

The Burmese remember Bandula's last words in this way:

We may lose the battle. This is our destiny. We fight our best and we pay our lives. However, I cannot suffer indignity and disgrace for losing the battle for the lack of courage and fighting prowess. Let them realize that the Burmese lost the battle because of the loss of their Supreme Commander. This will prove to be an everlasting example of the Burmese fighting spirit and enhance the honor and glory of our nation and the people amongst the neighboring states.[12]

Ironically, this very courage to take on the enemy head on and use the daring tactics that led to the improbable victories in Manipur and Assam would prove to be his undoing against the much better armed and world conquering British, who had defeated Napoleon's armies only a decade earlier. For all of his fame, Bandula failed to change tactics in face of far superior British weaponry. He failed to imagine the use of guerrilla tactics or any innovative strategy.[12] Had he pursued guerrilla style tactics, the ultimate outcome of the war might not still have changed but the terms might have been less severe.

Popularity and fame

Bandula remains extremely popular in Burmese imagination, and is often the only general ranked along side famous Burmese kings. His popularity is perhaps not just due to his skills as a military commander. After all, Bandula's victories came with able, experienced lieutenants like Gen. Ne Myo Thura Min Hla Nawrahta in Manipur and Gen. Maha Thilawa in Assam. Besides, the country has known more successful generals like Gen. Maha Thiha Thura who defeated the Qing dynasty's invasions in 1766, 1767 and 1769, Gen. Maha Nawrahta and Gen. Ne Myo Thihapate, who dismembered Siam in 1767, or King Bayinnaung, the soldier king, who captured much of western mainland South East Asia in the 16th century. Then again, they never fought against the British, the world superpower of the day.

Rather, Bandula's continued popularity is because of his courage to fight on against an overwhelmingly superior enemy. Perhaps, it is also because the Burmese view Bandula as the proxy for the last glory days of the Third Burmese Empire. The Burmese remember that Bandula's death was followed by a series of one ignominious setback after another that eventually led to the loss of sovereignty in 1885. Indeed, some would say the ignominious setbacks continue up to this day. For whatever reason, Maha Bandula remains the most famous general in Burmese history.


Maha Bandula Bridge in Downtown Yangon

Team Bandula is one of five student teams into which all students in every Burmese primary and secondary school are organized. The other four teams are named after the greatest kings of Burmese history: Team Anawrahta, Team Kyansittha, Team Bayinnaung and Team Alaungpaya.

Some of the most prominent places in Myanmar are named after the fallen general.

See also

  • First Anglo-Burmese War


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Htin Aung, pp. 212–214
  2. ^ a b Ba Than, p. 365
  3. ^ a b c d Aung Than Tun, NLM
  4. ^ a b c d e f Myint-U, River of Lost Footsteps, p. 112
  5. ^ a b c Myint-U, Making of Modern Burma, pp. 15–16
  6. ^ a b c Phayre, pp. 233–234
  7. ^ Shakespear, pp. 62–63
  8. ^ a b c Myint-U, Making of Modern Burma, pp. 18–19
  9. ^ a b Phayre, pp. 236–237
  10. ^ a b Myint-U, River of Lost Footsteps, pp. 114-117
  11. ^ a b Perrett, pp. 176–177
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Myint-U, River of Lost Footsteps, pp. 118-122
  13. ^ Webster, pp. 142–145
  14. ^ Myint-U, River of Lost Footsteps, p. 125


  • Aung Than Tun (Monywa) (2003-03-26). "Maha Bandula, Immortal Myanmar Supreme Commander". The New Light of Myanmar. 
  • Ba Than (1951) (in Burmese). History of Burma. Yangon: Sarpay Beikman. 
  • Harvey, G. E. (1925). History of Burma: From the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824. London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd. 
  • Htin Aung, Maung (1967). A History of Burma. New York and London: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Myint-U, Thant (2001). The Making of Modern Burma. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521799147, 9780521799140. 
  • Myint-U, Thant (2006). The River of Lost Footsteps--Histories of Burma. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-16342-6, 0-374-16342-1. 
  • Perrett, Bryan (2007). British Military History for Dummies. pp. 176–177. ISBN 0470032138, 9780470032138. 
  • Phayre, Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur P. (1967). History of Burma (2 ed.). London: Susil Gupta. 
  • Shakespear, Leslie Waterfield (1914). History of Upper Assam, Upper Burmah and northeastern frontier. Macmillan. 
  • Webster, Anthony (1998). Gentlemen Capitalists: British Imperialism in South East Asia, 1770-1890. I.B.Tauris. pp. 142–145. ISBN 1860641717, 9781860641718. 

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