Friday, April 10, 2015

Baba Mandir, Sikkim - the story of a Soldier-Saint

A young soldier, carrying supplies to a remote outpost, is lost. It is wartime, and with the bad weather and difficult terrain, it is clear he is no more, but his body isn’t found. This, while a sad occurrence, is not really news.




A few days later, a colleague has a dream, directing him to where the body lies. The body is indeed found at the exact spot mentioned in the dream, and the story now becomes news! The soldier’s body is cremated with full honours, but the story doesn’t end there. A few weeks later, as the war continues, another soldier has a dream, in which his dead colleague warns him of an impending attack by the enemy. The platoon sets out with its doubts, just in case, and the enemy is taken by surprise. The doubts vanish, and the young soldier is now a hero. His warnings continue, and ring true; and even the enemy begins to see his shadow on the borders, and he now makes the transition from hero to saint. His colleagues build a shrine for him, and thousands of people make the difficult journey to gain the blessing of the young patriot. Thus do heroes become divine, and legends are made.



This is the story of young Major Harbhajan Singh, a soldier with the Indian Army, who met his end at the age of 26, while posted at the Nathu-La pass in Sikkim in 1967. The shrine dedicated to him is located about 60 Km from Gangtok, near the site where his body was found. For the convenience of visitors, another shrine has been built at a lower altitude, so that people don’t have to travel this far.



The old temple, as the original shrine is called, is a replica of the bunker the young soldier lived in, along with his colleagues. This shrine is like a museum to his memory, preserving most of his personal belongings, such as his clothes, his photographs, beddings, etc. Thousands of devout make the long journey to ask for his blessings and pray for their wishes to come true. It is believed that water kept in the shrine overnight and drunk the next day, has the capacity to cure all illness.



I was most fascinated by the story, as it illustrates the power of faith and belief, and the ease with which we accept miracles and legends. The bulk of the visitors at the shrine are army men, from regiments across India. Their faith in their colleague is complete, and there is no room for doubt in their minds. Each regiment on duty takes its turn to maintain the shrine, and duties are assigned accordingly. The army itself helps take the story ahead, by keeping his memory alive, by treating him as an active soldier, paying his family his salary, and even booking tickets for his return home each year! A few of his colleagues make the journey home every year, ensuring that the seat reserved for him goes empty, and is not allotted to anyone else!

Soldiers pay homage to their departed colleague at the site where his body was found


Even more interesting is the fact that even the Chinese Army accepts his presence. Chinese soldiers are said to talk of a lone soldier patrolling the border, of whom only a shadow is seen! A chair is set aside for him during the weekly flag meetings at Nathu La, even after all these years!

Bells line the path leading to the Old Baba Mandir


The temple site is picturesque, surrounded by the snow clad mountains and the Kanchenjunga in the distance. The long road journey is however tiring, and both, Samhith and I were tired and sick. While Samhith chose to rest in the car, I trudged up the stairs, curious about the soldier – saint. As someone who loves stories, especially myths and legends, the story couldn’t have been more interesting. The transition from human to hero to saint, and eventually God – we see that all the time in our myths and stories. Here was an example of just how it happens, in the present day, and the idea was fascinating.


The shrine was packed to the brim with people, all eagerly writing down their wishes on a piece of paper, or prostrating before his photograph, wishing for their problems to be solved. I can appreciate the story of a man whose soul refuses to rest, and continues the duty he wished to perform alive. However, I cannot understand the idea of always looking for a short cut, or looking for saints and Gods to solve our problems. We can look to them for inspiration, but the solution has to be our own. They can show us the way, we have to live our life ourselves. The young soldier finds a way to do his duty, even after death. Can’t we find our own way, while we are still alive?


Information:
  • Location: The Old Baba Mandir is about 60 Km, on the route to Nathu-La. The new temple is near the Menmecho lake, about 40 Km from Gangtok.

  • How to Reach: You can combine a visit to the temple along with a trip to Nathu-La and Tsomgo Lake.

  • Permits: The route to Nathu La requires an inner line permit. There are no additinal permits required for the new temple. For the old temple, you have to take permission from the Army Check post on the way.






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