Garhwal Rifles Centenary: Of busy bee, chivalry, and camaraderie

This is Dev Bhoomi-Veer Bhumi & Kala Bhumi. Bhagirathi & Ganga start from here. There directly across, as the mountain eagle flies, is Lord Badri Vishal-our Presiding Deity.

By Dr. Mohan Bhandari  Published on  22 March 2021 6:57 AM GMT
Garhwal Rifles Centenary: Of busy bee, chivalry, and camaraderie
Fig.1 -

Lobby of Garhwali Mess, Lansdowne 

As we walked up the steep climb from the Commandant's bungalow after a sumptuous lunch towards the Garhwali Mess, Behram & his wife Farzana kept on asking me about the Regiment, Lansdowne & Garhwal. In between, he stopped a couple of times to scribble a few notes in neatly folded sheets of white paper that he invariably kept in his jean's pocket. He made short notes throughout our long sittings.

I took them all over our Regimental Centre. Brigadier VS Grover of Ritz Hotel Mumbai had been instrumental in Behram's visit to Lansdowne to cover in print the preparations of Centenary Celebrations.

Busy bee was a lean and thin man with a crop of 'khichri' white hair- who wore thick spectacles. Always smiling, he had a leisurely pace but was extremely sharp and observant. I vividly recall his sharp intellect and uncanny ability to grasp facts and figures. He had a memory of an elephant. He spoke little and reminded me of one of my university professors. He always saw better things in life and enjoyed whatever he did. He was a great listener. Simplicity was his forte. We spent many hours in the Garhwali Mess - mostly sitting in the Gazebo sipping Rosy Pelican Beer from Murthal. I took him around the Mess showing the flooring made entirely of tiny pieces of broken crockery- some of these having Regimental Crests upon them. There I told him about the number of beer bottles I had won as a young subaltern betting with my bachelor friends as to who will locate maximum crests in five minutes flat!

We also sat at the dining table manufactured by C. Lazarus & Co, Calcutta discussing Regimental matters. Then I took him to the billiards room and showed him the German Flag taken out by our Bhullas at Nunquissart, Germany in 1915. In three days, I took him all over the place and did my best to explain to him all that I knew of our illustrious Regiment and the remote places our Bhullas came from.

We drove together to Delhi in the same car Behram & Farzana had brought together. Throughout the journey, we continued talking of the Regiment and related things. He was extremely fond of good food. I recall with nostalgia our wayside 'dhaba' lunch where he told me that 'baigan bharta' was prepared extremely well and the 'tandoori paranthas' were just super! He declined to have 'gulab jamuns' saying that he wanted to retain the taste and not mix it.

We arrived at Mr. Dorabji's house in New Delhi in the late afternoon where Farzana made excellent coffee & served fresh-baked biscuits. It was about 6 PM when I parted to arrange for the Centenary Press Meet at the Red Fort - then the location of 5 GARH RIF.

While I and my wife met Behram and Farzana a couple of times at the office of The Afternoon Dispatch & Courier at Fort, Mumbai, and over lunches at the Ritz Hotel in later years-with Brigadier Grover's hospitality at his very best, I never met Behram again. Behram had sent me a few copies of his paper dated 5 May 1987. Excerpts of his preview of the Centenary Celebrations with minor editing are given out in succeeding paragraphs.

This is a testimony of his love for the Regiment. I am sanguine that the spirit of regimentation, velour, group dynamics, chivalry and camaraderie, as witnessed by him, shall continue to motivate and inspire all ranks of our Great Regiment with a prayer to our Presiding Deity Lord Badri Vishal that we celebrate 200 years of dedicated service to our Motherland in 2087 in a befitting manner.

"We were Guests of the Garhwal Rifles in their mountain eerie in Lansdowne, 6000 Ft in the pine & oak forested hills. We were given the Pauri Suite - a small cottage at the edge of the ridge, with its own private ledge, a not too strong railing to stop us falling into a ravine below.

Col Bhandari explained: This is Dev Bhoomi-Veer Bhumi & Kala Bhumi. Bhagirathi & Ganga start from here. There directly across, as the mountain eagle flies, is Lord Badri Vishal-our Presiding Deity. The Garhwali Battalions have always launched their attacks with the battle cry BOL BADRI VISHAL LAL KI- CHARGE!!!! It is from these hills and mountains that the Regiment has recruited its men for 100 years. Men who have won 31 Battle Honors, three Victoria Crosses, one Ashoka Chakra, five Maha Vir Chakras, and 35 Vir Charkas besides hundreds of other Gallantry & Meritorious Awards. The Regiment also has the highest number of Gallantry Awards won by any single Infantry Battalion in a single operation; one Mahavir Chakra and 18 Vir Chakras in the Tithwal Sector of Jammu and Kashmir.

There were other officers, besides Col Bhandari who had taken leave from their battalion stations and come to Lansdowne to help out with the Centenary preparations. You could see the pride for the Regiment in all of them. Lt Col Mohan Bhandari was one of them, commissioned into 7 Garhwal Rifles in 1967. A cousin Lt Bipin Bhatt was in 8 Garhwal Rifles, killed in a mountaineering expedition in 1962; an uncle, a Major in 2 RAJPUT, was killed in battle in Dhola Sector (NEFA) in the same year. So there was nothing left for Colonel Bhandari but to leave his University and join the Garhwal Rifles. He was a MA in Military Science, Personnel & Business Management.

Actually, Lansdowne is a very unique hill station. Almost the entire town is a military station, with a very small area for the local population. There are no hotels, no restaurants, and no facilities for ordinary tourists. If you want to visit Lansdowne, you have to go as a guest of the Regiment."

We traveled by car from New Delhi in a private taxi kindly hired by the Regiment, leaving the Red Fort, where it has a Battalion stationed - through Meerut and Bijnore and Moradabad, straight North to Kotdwara, which is the market of the District. The mountains stand directly behind Kotdwara, giving the town a craggy look. The sun was sinking as we began the climb through eucalyptus forests, deodars, pines shedding their needles, the fragrance of crushed jasmines (though there were no jasmine trees around!).

St Mary's Church and St John's Church

The road meanders through a maze of bungalows built by British officers were given to the Regiment at their departure. The Army never forgets its past, so they are still known by the names of their original owners, Lyell's, Orton's, Robert's- a story goes that the last was building his bungalow across a track that moved to Badrinath; so he was told otherwise in a dream, however, he went ahead with the construction and was struck blind. There is another story of the Regimental Ghost, who continued to visit the Quarter Guard on lonely wintry nights, riding a white charger ordering 'Grand Rounds'.

The next day, Colonel Bhandari began educating me in the 100 years of history of the Garhwal Rifles.

He told us that in recognition of the distinguished services and outstanding gallantry during World War I, the King-Emperor had conferred the title of 'Royal' on the Garhwal Rifles. The Regiment was thus privileged to wear the Scarlet Lanyard on the right shoulder"

I explained to Busy bee that the Holy Shrine of our Regimental Deity located at Badrinath - our Sanctum Sanctorum, the Scarlet Lanyard and the Regimental War Memorial, Lansdowne are the 'Three Emotional Rallying Points' for the Regiment and are sources of motivation and fortitude to all Ranks of the Regiment.

Busy bee continued, "On the Parade Ground, standing in the shade of a large deodar tree, the Regimental Brass Band was playing 'Gangotri' composed by Subedar Major GS Negi. The Command Guard sweated it out at the tarmac in the sun, rifle but clicking, the tar melting under their stamping boots.

Military Bands and Parades have always affected me. And here it was more than ever- The War Memorial of the Garhwal Rifles, a rifleman standing on the marble pedestal, the Maltese Cross of the Regiment, the Regimental Flag, the buglers sounding the fanfare, the sound of a single bugle echoing and re-echoing through the mountains, the rhododendrons in scarlet bloom, the hillside covered in pansies. The Military Band had all veterans. Naib Subedar Bikram Shah, 19 years with the Band, Havaldar Madan Singh Rawat, for 24 years playing the French Horn, though he could also play the Trumpet, Clarinet, and Saxophone. For our pleasure, Subedar Major GS Negi took the Band through 'Colonel Bogey', 'Over the Waves', and 'Colonel of the Regiment March', 'Bedu Pako', etc. A Pipes & Drums Band, at the opposite end of the Parade Ground then came up and stood at attention, looking for a request. The request was given 'La Paloma' with the rest of the repertoire. Both Bands were just superb!

Next to the Parade Ground is the magnificent Regimental Museum-a repository of Garhwali Battle Honors. But the heart of the Regiment, both living and past is in Garhwali Mess. It is said that that there is nothing like it anywhere in the world. The walls are entirely packed with game trophies-a white lion by Capt Tucker in Tanganyika in 1932, a tiger by Mr Garola, District Forest Officer of Lansdowne, a tiger by Colonel DG Lowndes in Nepal in 1926. There are snow leopards, black leopards, bison, thars, barking deer, mountain goats with curling horns, etc. The biggest trophy and every visitor to the Mess have to see and admire is a Tian Shan Wapiti, a stag with antlers spanning 49 inches; the antlers are in 13 segments, the normal maximum being 12 segments. It was shot in Tian Shan Province of China and said to have lived for five centuries.

Colonel Bhandari explained,' British officers would walk down the Mess Hill, shoot a few pheasants, and then come back for dinner. There is still a lot of game in the Valley; a panther was seen the day before.

I spent some time in the Library also, the most complete library of its size I have come across, reflecting the tastes of the officers of an erudite and liberal Regiment. The Regiment not only read books but also wrote them. 'Across the Roof of the World' is a masterpiece. There was one by Lt Colonel K Henderson, written in 1923 after 25 years in Lansdowne, under the guidance of Mrs. Bateman-Champion and verbal guidance of PC Kanjilal. Lot many Books on Gardening, Shikar, Flora & Fauna, etc, etc - the list is endless! "

The flowering season was just starting in Lansdowne when we left. Shortly before leaving, we sat in the Gazebo with large glass panels shuttering out the cold wind and had a final look at the mountains, the Mess with its red-tiled roof, cables pointing to the skies, one of them with a TV antenna. I was to return to Lansdowne after I had finished with the Centenary Press Conference at Red Fort.

Rifleman Dan Singh was detailed to look after guests at Pauri Suite. He was a great help to Behram & Farzana. They remembered him folding out things into dark cupboards, neatly packing them away - but finding it hard for them to locate the items when they were needed the most! Laughingly, Behram told me that they had learnt to hold on to their plates because the food was removed from the tables as fast as it was put there. Dan Singh had passed out from the Attestation Parade recently and would join one of the battalions in the forward areas after the 'Shatabdi'.

The Taxi Driver who had brought Behram & Farzana from Delhi was a Garhwali. His village was near Lansdowne. He visited his folks & spent a night there. On the morning of our coming back to Delhi, he returned with a nephew to be recruited into the Garhwal Rifles. He had a request if he could join & serve the Regiment. Behram looked into my eyes & I understood his message.

(Dear Readers, I took it upon myself to ensure that the Bhula was recruited in our Regiment. After a few months I received a letter from the taxi –driver thanking me profusely).

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