There is something about mountains – it has majesty, it has tranquility but most important of all, it seems to have an inscrutable power that facilitates a brush with divinity, again and again. For here in these towering mountains, men have not only talked to the Universe, but the Universe has talked back to them. To understand this, one has to listen to the solemn sounds of the somber heights.
For example, the whistling winds will give you an answer if you listen quietly to their whisperings, followed by riveting revelations - of people who can walk between this world and another, of people like our immortal rishis who glow with the white radiance of the Himalayas, of Moses who saw God on Mount Horeb, of Muhammed who obtained the Koran on the mountain Jabal al-Nour, and of Jesus who obtained enlightenment on a high mountain in the Holy land.
It seems that the mighty mountains ease the passage for mankind to commune with a higher power whose divine wisdom courses through its pristine air.
The freezing heights of Nathu La or the icy behemoths of frozen Siachen are no exception. The twilight zone seems to stalk the surreal heights of the tallest peaks of the world. From such twilight zones between this world and the other are born the stuff of legends and lore. And here are four such legends, of men who can walk in both worlds proving the old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction.”
Legend of Baba Jaswant Singh
It happened long ago, in the year 1962, when India sent its dauntless soldiers, with little ammunition and little clothing to fight an avalanche of well-armed Chinese. Sent by the dumb acolytes of Nehru, they courageously served their country, as the poet Tennyson would eulogize, “Boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell,” and into the valley of death.
Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, of the 4th battalion of the Garhwal was one such soldier. He was manning his post about 21km from the treacherous Sela pass at about a height of 10000 feet. On November 17, he and his two companions, were at the receiving end of the fire from a Chinese medium machine gun (MMG). Risking his life, he crossed over to the MMG and lobbying grenades on the way to keep the enemy at bay, retrieved the MMG, and fought valiantly for 3 days before he was captured by the Chinese and hanged. This dare devil action not only resulted in the killing of 300 Chinese soldiers but also altered the course of the war. A memorial stands today at Jaswantgarh, Tawang, the place where he fought fiercely and spilled his blood for a land that forgot him.
There is another popular version of the events. Orders were given to retreat from the post, but he refused and valiantly defended the pass against all odds for 72 hours at a stretch. He was assisted by two local girls Nura and Sela who helped with the loading and unloading of rifles and other logistic chores. Variations of the popular version have created lore and romance around the dashing soldier.
But the truth remains that his death defying defiance has found resonance not only among the soldiers but among the cascading ring of mountains who consider him as their own. For it is widely believed that his spirit still lives and guards the menacing frontier.
According to soldiers posted near Jaswantgarh, Rawat’s spirit wanders throughout the area. He comes to their dreams and solves their miseries and woes. During blizzards, convoys have seen Jaswant directing the vehicles through treacherous bends. The lore around the “roaming warrior spirit” is so strong that the battle site now hosts a Hindu temple and the troops call him a saint with the honorific title “Baba.”
In his article, “1962 war brave heart is Tawang deity,” Pradeep Thakur opines in April 2008 of TNN, “Baba Jaswant Singh has attained the status of a deity on the Sino-Indian frontier. A temple has been erected in his memory and the Army has posted five soldiers for the upkeep of his memorial.”
Surrounded by volatile gusts of nature and a hostile army barely a couple of miles away, for these soldiers faced with death staring at their face every day, the “Baba,” is their divine shield. They cook his food, make his bed, iron his clothes, polish his shoes, deliver the mail sent by his admirers and clear them when they think he’s through. He is served tea at 4:30 am, breakfast at 9 am and dinner at 7 pm. Guards patrol his shrine around the clock and even burly Sikh soldiers offer thalis of piping hot food from the langar.
Lance Naik Rajesh Kumar of 5 Sikh Regiment, who patrols the shrine claims: “Baba is very much there and eats the food served to him. He even goes out at night as you can make out from his soiled shoes, which are polished every day.” Supporting the morale of the battling troops, the army generously promotes him, as if he was still alive thus rewarding him for his audacious bravery. He is now a captain after eight promotions.
Nobody, not even a general in the army, crosses the shrine without paying respects to the mystic “Baba.” According to foot soldier Ram Narayan Singh, “A major general once refused to pray at his shrine while crossing the area, saying this was just a superstition, but he met with a mysterious road accident a few kilometers away from here and died.” A Garhwal rifles soldier posted at the shrine claimed, “For us he is immortal and continues to protect and bless us in this treacherous mountain terrain.”
Even the Chinese, applauding his astounding courage, returned his beheaded head along with a brass bust of the valiant soldier, after the ceasefire. It is now installed at the site of the battle.
Legend of O P Baba
A towering legend from the intolerably cold Siachen of the 1980s, is O P Baba. Soldiers lower their heads and voices in reverence to the soldier saint of Siachen who roams the icy heights and presides as their guardian deity. His story is obscure and his origins and life is even more mysterious. Connecting the dots of his life has been a challenge. One fact stands out - that there was a soldier named Om Prakash and he single handedly beat back a Pakistani attack on the post. According to one legend, he was deployed in the Malaun Post of Bila Complex in the northern area of the glacier in the 1980s. During one of the skirmishes, an order for retreat was given, but he defied the order and remained at his post fighting.
When the rest of the crew returned, the post was left intact but there was no sign of the soldier or even the name Om Prakash in army records. After the heroic battle, he went missing. Nobody has found his body or heard of him since that time. Nobody, yet knows how he could beat a complete company (about 80 to 100) of intruders. He seemed to come from nowhere and disappear into the vast unknown, as if he never existed.
His story could be dismissed as a figment of delirium, were it not for the fact that some hand stopped a whole company of Pakistanis thus preserving the frontiers of India. Surreal and eerie, it could be a subject for “Ripley’s believe it or not,” episode.
Miracles it has been said, is not the suspension of natural law, but the operation of a higher law. Soldiers, however, are not worried about that. Faced with like ice-crevasses where the mercury registers minus 200 degrees, in the frigid and inhospitable heights, soldiers are just glad to be sheltered by a guardian deity who wanders the peaks and the glaciers of the forbidding glacier. He comes regularly in their dreams and warns them against the impending dangers from the enemy as well as the depredations of whimsical nature.
Shrines in his name have come up at every post in Siachen. His presence in the lonely heights is so pervasive that troops pledge to give up alcohol and tobacco during their stay on the glacier. Soldiers give a formal report about their missions before and after. He even has an official rank, authorized rations and permission to leave. The officer in charge reports to him as a senior officer and seeks his blessings while the soldiers shout “O P Baba ki jai.” The unwavering faith in the mystique of the warrior saint as a “guardian deity” gives them the strength to brave all odds. As a soldier put it reverentially, “We have faith in OP Baba that he will guard us against all odds whether it is the extreme weather or the enemy.” There is something after all to the timeless saying, “faith can move mountains.”
The shrine at the base camp is located at the Siachen Battle School, the world’s highest elevation military training academy. Here training is provided in ice-craft and survival techniques in the biggest glacier outside Antartica. About 500-600 soldiers train every day.
The shrine has been upgraded to a multi-faith temple and is located just a few meters from the snout of the Siachen glacier where it meets the Nubra river, the lifeline of Pakistan. Bold lettering of “OP Baba ki Jai” stare at the visitor from the walls of the shrine draped in red cloth. Prayers are offered to all the deities after formal benediction is sought from OP Baba.
As per the motto of secularism followed by India’s professional army it is called “sarva dharma sthal.” Holy books from the world’s leading religions – Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Sikhism are found in its premises, and visitors are generally expected to pay homage to all of them. His mantra of Nishkaam Seva or selfless service is an echo of the powerful voice of the Gita.
The legend of Harbhajan Singh
Nathu la pass on the dizzying heights of the Sino-Indian border holds a powerful legend that has endured both on the Indian and Chinese side of the contentious border. It sprung from the death of a sepoy, Harbhajan Singh of 23rd Punjab battalion. On Oct. 4, 1968, while escorting a mule caravan from his battalion headquarters to a supply post, he fell into a fast flowing stream and was washed away. He was only 22. Soldiers searched for his body for a couple of days before giving it up due to inclement weather.
Then a strange thing happened. He came in a soldier’s dream who was part of his unit, and revealed the location of his body. The soldier woke up, all shook up but didn’t think much of it, until another soldier also had exactly the same dream. In the dream he instructed the soldiers to build a Samadhi at the spot where his body would be found and said that he would always remain a soldier and keep a vigil at the border.
After his body was found, he was cremated with full military honors. True to his word, he galloped on a horse in a soldier’s uniform and patrolled the contentious border. Soldiers speak of the tale of the night rider warily watching over them and feel comforted. Chinese forces also claim that they saw the ghost rider dressed in white mounted on a white horse. Thus Harbhajan Singh became the immortal ghost rider of Nathu la.
In his new incarnation, he wakes sleeping sentries and keeps soldiers warm. He comes in their dreams where he talks about loopholes and vulnerable areas from where the Chinese would attack. The accuracy of his instructions contributed to his growing mystique, legend and lore. Soldiers facing a hard slog with torrents of snow and the Chinese barely 50 yards away, find their precariously perched life relieved by having a faith in the immortal champion who has their back.
The Indian army honored his contribution by promoting him to Honorary Captain. A paycheck reached his home in Kapurthala every month, and he would go home on annual leave on September 14 every year. Soldiers packed his trunk and two of them would accompany him all the way to Kapurthala by train and bring him back. This tradition continued until he retired.
The shrine built by the army at Nathu La, consisting of a three room complex with a bed, has become wildly popular. People thronged to the site to get their problems solved or cure their infirmities. They bring bottles of water to replace those they carry away in the firm belief that the water that stays at the Samadhi for some time becomes holy and can cure ailments. There is also a strong belief that wearing slippers kept at the Samadhi cures problems in the lower extremities.
“Without Baba’s blessings, it is impossible to live up there,” says 24 year old Jitendra Singh Sherawat of the Indian army, posted at the Heights of Nathu La. Recently, lightning struck his bunker and landed very close to his feet. However, he and his comrades remained unharmed and he is convinced it is because of the protection of Baba Harbhajan Singh. In 2013, he had another close call when a landslide swept down a hill toward him when he was in a convoy of army trucks hauling artillery along a winding mountain road. The cascading landslide narrowly missed the vehicles. “Baba ji is our support,” Mr. Sehrawat says. “He is protecting us.”
According to Captain Ashwani Chandel, 25, a troop truck skidded off a road during heavy snowfall, plunged into a ravine and crumpled, yet no one was hurt.” “How can someone escape without a scratch from such an accident” he asks. And added, “This was because of Baba ji.” The legend of Baba Harbhajan Singh is so huge that even the Chinese are spooked by it. They have reserved a seat for him at all the flag meetings.
Legend of Plateau Baba
People thought him senile. He spent more time amongst animals and plants and his home was a broken-down hut in a plateau surrounded by mountains in the Kargil valley. The hermit of Kargil was an old man who had no use for people but lived life in harmony with serene mountains. Everything was fine till the war between India and Pakistan started in 1971.
His hut was in a direct line of fire but he refused to move. It was pounded with shells, but to everyone’s astonishment, it would not explode upon impact, not a single one of them. There seemed to be a wild power in the universe that was protecting the old hermit. The plateau around him was littered with unexploded bombs but he seemed to not care one bit.
One day he set about cleaning his surroundings. The people warned him to leave the unexploded shells alone, but he wouldn’t listen and collected the shells and threw them in the nullah. The shells that did not explode in his hand or near his hut suddenly exploded in the nullah. The local people who saw this stood rooted to the ground with sheer awe as it slowly dawned on them that this was no crazy man, but an offspring of eternity.
Soon the word spread and another legend was born. People came from all over the country to get a glimpse of the holy man and to get his blessings. He advised them and instructed them to pray to Lord Shiva and give up eating meat on Mondays. The plateau would then be safe from all harm he said.
One fine day, the baba mysteriously disappeared without a trace. But his disciples followed his instructions and in 1996 built a temple at the site of the old hermit’s hut. The Shiva temple maintained by the army still stands in spite of the Kargil War of 1999.
These surreal tales may not be the talking point of rationalists. But in inhospitable life conditions as in Siachen or in conflict zones, hope and faith remain the last resort of a soldier poised on the precipice of life and death.
They also remind a forgetful nation that our frontiers still stand because of these legends from which soldiers get the fire in their bellies to march, endure and emerge victorious.
And in their own way they seem to corroborate the soldier’s stance, as depicted in the riveting message of a signboard rising from the shrine of Jaswant Baba:
“When you go home, tell them of us and say.
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”