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Visit to Darjeeling

The Flag Raising day of 4/3 Gorkha Rifles, 2007

All preparations were complete. People had gathered under a big shamiana and the podium was ready for the Chief Guest to arrive. The bugle with the band struck a note as Brigadier Sarkar alighted from his car and walked towards the dais. Suddenly in the background we could hear sound of machine gun fire, sounding almost like Diwali crackers to civilian ears. We looked around, scared, and saw all the Gorkhas standing to attention and officers relaxed. Looking through corner of my eye, I could see that a hole had been dug up at the far corner of the maidan, and a Gorkha soldier was firing his machine gun into that hole. This was the Gorkha welcome for the Brigadier and a sign to start the celebrations. What a lovely army way of welcoming guests!

Everybody was in happy mood and there was much interaction and camaraderie. The battalions have different companies, A, B, C & D and each of these were competing against each other in dances, music and fancy dress – typical Gorkha competitions. Various games were being played to entertain young children. I could recall my school days watching them play. But the currents here were different as the players were, of course, children of soldiers. These soldiers had shared life and death experiences and had stayed away from their families for quite sometime. Hence celebrations were vigorous. Different stalls were put up and, everyone, including senior officers, went around different stalls tasting food and beer, there was no escape, one had to gulp it down, however it tasted. The other common factor at each of these tents was dancing. The minute you reach tent of the ‘A’ company for example, the drums would start beating and those johnnies, officers et al would go into a merry dance. You could hold hands with any Gorkha soldier, solid and hard hands used to holding machine guns, and now dancing with gay abandon. It was so infectious that you just could not help drinking more beer, eating more chicken, more momos and dancing more and more.

These were the celebrations of the Flag Raising Day of the 4/3 Gorkha Rifles. After a long stint in Kashmir they had been now posted to the Labong Cantonment, a little below Darjeeling. This was their Foundation Day. The battalions which were founded in later years called the day of their founding as ‘Foundation Day’ of the battalion. The 4/3rd GR was formed in 1960s and when the need for forces reduced, they were disbanded. But they were raised again on 20th February 1963. Hence their celebration of this annual event is called the ‘Flag Raising Day’ which falls on 20th February every year.

We had traveled from Mumbai and no sooner we landed at New Jalpaiguri Railway Station, than we were met by jawans, waiting for us in uniform with name placards. We were escorted to a first floor waiting room where hot tea and samosas were served, a typical army welcome, something you just cannot refuse. We drove leisurely by vehicles to Darjeeling and reached the cantonment by lunch time. Soon Maj. Jai Chanda, Maj. Abhay Sinh and many old friends welcomed us, and after some initial banter we settled down in our room, with a sahayak (orderly) for each room to look after our comforts. One could feel it in the air; these were going to be three memorable days full of chats, fun and gaiety.

The Flag Raising Day is also the annual event for stock taking for the battalion. There are events like ‘Darbar’ where all the jawans gather to listen to their seniors and commanding officers where they narrate the events of the year, what the battalion has achieved and what are its failings. This is the kind of stock taking where the battalion goes through its own records wherein those who have done brave work are awarded and sadly those who have lost lives are remembered and their wives are given compensation and medals. As the lady invariably breaks down, even the Generals have a certain dampness in their eyes. The relation between the soldier and officer is so deep (it would be if you have shared trenches and fired bullets together), that officers treat jawans like their own kin. This respect for subordinates is perhaps something we civilians can learn. Another event was Mandir. One morning we all went to the battalion Mandir and as we sat the priest offered simple prayers while the jawans sang bhajans with gusto. It was all very simple, but again the faith and the josh that they displayed was infectious.

Back at the main ground, games were in progress, the most vigorous being a competition to climb a 100 ft vertical wooden pole, which is covered with grease! After the games, the victors were awarded a memento and small gifts. The first group were children who had taken part in a fancy dress competition. The son of a soldier, brought up in this atmosphere, dressed as a Gorkha soldier not surprisingly, won the first prize. As I handed him his memento he clicked his heels and smartly saluted which drew a thundering ovation. Here was the making of a great soldier. Later as we walked around different stalls, I found him standing at the stall of his father’s company. One of the officers standing next to me said, ”Ok now salute him”. He looked at me very intensely and then replied, “He is not an officer” !

As we were staying at the cantonment, every morning we saw the Gorkhas practicing the khukri dance, that inseparable weapon of the Gorkhas. To the beating of a drum, they perform different motions with a naked khukri drawn in their hands. The khukri is moved up and down in a rhythm and sometimes even passes too near their neck, front and back. Anyone little careless would certainly be injured, but not the Gorkhas, as the khukri is their lifeline, they play with it as if one is playing with a writing pen by a civilian. As the rhythm increases you could see the vigour and the excitement. This dance was finally presented at a large party in the Officer’s Mess. We were called out to the gallery and down below, we saw them dancing under bright light. As the khukris went up, they flashed in the overhead light. It was literally what had been written about when talking of Gorkha soldiers – the flash of the khukris ! Here they moved around in benign dance but in war when these khukris flashed, the best of the enemy would start shivering.

One evening was reserved for a visit to the JCO’s mess. These junior commissioned officers are the backbone of any battalion. They control men, allot work and lead from front. Each one has invaluable experience of more than 20 years in field. Officers also talk to them and about them with respect, adding ‘Sab’ to their names. They are battle hardened veterans of any battalion. In the JCO’s mess much food and drink was served and now with the insistence of Gorkha hospitality. Soon thereafter the band began to play and everybody started dancing. We, of course, had to join. Officers, however senior, and their wives, were in the dance mode. We guests were cajoled and dragged into the dancing circle. However much one protested, the dancing went on and there was no choice but to enjoy and savour the moment. How could one not; for very rarely would there be a chance to dance with these battle hardened officers and jawans.

In the Officer’s Mess many senior officers had gathered and there were drinks, food, talking, and lots of laughter. After the seniors departed, the party took off as everybody relaxed, families and officers became more vocal and the laughter increased to a high crescendo. I was requested to project some pictures of my mountaineering career and this being an army function I decided to show them my visits to the Siachen Glacier. There were several probing questions and discussions. But it was not over yet as “show us some more” was the constant refrain. Over the next three to four hours I continued showing them pictures of different mountain areas. They were intense, they were young and they had the energy to absorb anything, I was completely worn out at the end of it !

On the second morning we were invited to visit the B Company to which Lt. Nawang belonged. Maj. Abhay Sinh was in charge of this company at present. As we approached the quarters the entire company had gathered smartly dressed but in a sombre mood as they met us, the family of their martyred officer. We chatted and offered them some gifts and in return they also gave us gifts for which each and every soldier of the B Company had contributed. Between food and much discussion, we saw the lines where these soldiers lived. Everything was neat and placed in proper order. Their office also had a small picture of Lt. Nawang. We met the people who were with Nawang during his last fight and again we heard the stories. As we left B Company, the thought occurred to me that these were Nawang’s real friends for whatever brief moment that he had enjoyed their company. Many officers on retiring after decades of service always say that of all the things in army life that they miss, most of all is the devotion and company of these men, who have served him with great affection and loyalty, sometimes at the cost of their own life. That is why whenever an officer is commissioned in to the force, the oath he takes says:

“The safety honour and welfare of your country
come first always and every time.
The honour welfare and comfort of the men
you command come next.
Your own ease comfort and safety
come last always and every time “

The best event was reserved for the last – Beating the Retreat by the Gorkha Band. This is a sight which every civilian must once see in his life. As we sat in the shamiana, the Gorkha Band came marching down, a sight which would make one feel very proud. Stout, stocky, solid and playing bagpipes which many even sitting would find difficult to blow, here they played and marched in rhythm. The rhythm kept increasing as various tunes were played by the band. Suddenly without warning, the band took a turn and stopped. The main drummer with his huge drum separated from the band and started dancing in a manner that would put many Bollywood actresses to shame. It was full of grace and constant movement, (remember the band was still playing so he had to be in perfect rhythm because he was the centre of it). He would unhook his drum from its chain, put it down and jump around all the time keeping rhythm. He would land right or left of the drum to strike in time as the bagpipes were dependant on this beat. After 10 minutes of such delicate moments, other drums picked up and lightened the whole atmosphere. After a while they returned to their original formation and marched of into the sunset. Though it was a memorable experience I was still not satisfied. Taking hold of Maj. Jai we went to the band and requested them to play ‘Sare Jahan Se Achha’. Without a smile and with a stern expression that they always have, as if not recognising us or our request, the leader just murmured ‘Sare Jahan Se’ and the bagpipes started to play the tune at a high pitch and with a fast rhythm. I just stood there listening to my favourite tune, thumping my leg to the beat, my chest swollen with pride.

This was my second visit on the Flag Raising Day of Nawang’s 4/3 GR. Due to our association, the battalion treated us as if Nawang was somewhere around. His painting adorns the walls of the Officer’s Mess along with two other officers Maj. Navneet Vats and Lt. Kashinath, of the battalion, who had also been killed in action. The pride that these men feel for their officers who have been martyred is something to be seen. No one talks about these things but you can see it in their eyes. We as a parent of Lt. Nawang are something special to the battalion and they treat you as one.

Another festival that the Gorkha battalions celebrate is Dusshera where a bull is sacrificed by one flash of a khukri. Held tight by its tail and head, one single stroke at a correct angle is enough to sever the head. With shouts of joy, it is offered to Kali. Once we were invited to the Gorkha Sammelan in Varanasi. This gathering of all the Gorkha battalions in 3rd and 9th Gorkhas, is held every four or five years. It is a huge gathering where all retired officers and jawans are invited from far away. In fact some officers had travelled from UK to participate in the event. The highlight of the celebrations was the ‘Bada khana’ (literally meaning ‘The Big Meal’) – the feast, where food is in abundance and of course drinks flow. Plenty of food, particularly non-vegetarian is prepared, for the Gorkhas cannot live without chicken or meat in their meal, even a single day. The khana is held in a vast open ground to accommodate all the soldiers and some shows are put up by different companies. Whichever company gets the award, of course gets an extra quota of rum which they relish very much.

At the same time there are entertainment programmes which different battalions present and there is a competition. The prize, no need to guess, – a bottle of rum ! Every battalion also puts up small enclosures where you can interact with men, officers or its past officers. The conversations are normally about the times they shared in the field where life and death were measured in moments between firing bullets. Once again I saw that the most raw recruit was treated as an equal in this gathering and everyone treated each other and subordinates with respect. They know that in war, there are no ranks and it maybe that this simple folk from the hills of Nepal who may save one’s life. Therefore, officers and men have a tremendous bonding.

Well after a few days, celebrations of the flag raising ceremony had to end. As we prepared to depart early morning, there was a magnificent view of Kangchenjunga rising above cantonment’s red roof buildings. It was a cold morning, even cold for Darjeeling. But our hearts were full of warmth and as we left, we could almost feel ourselves shouting the war cry of ‘Aayo Gorkhali’ or, the cry by which they are ready to sacrifice their life, the way Nawang did – Kayar Hunu Bhanda Marno Ramro – “It is better to die in valour than be a coward.”

As we drove away from the Labong cantonment and began climbing towards Darjeeling, in my mind, I could almost hear those machine guns shooting a farewell. The festivities were over and very soon those brave Gorkhas would be dancing on borders with machine guns in their hands – dancing a dance of life and death.