Sankranti

One of the major festivals in the Telugu states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, is Sankranti, often called as Makara Sankranti.  Along with Ugadi, Vinayaka Chaviti, Deepavali, Dasara, it is one of the most important festivals for Telugu speaking people. Essentially a harvest festival, it is celebrated primarily in the rural areas. It is primarily meant to celebrate the start of the harvest season and also the ending of winter too in a way. One thing we need to understand is that Sankranti, occurs throughout the year. It basically means transmigration of the Sun from one Rashi( a Zodiac constellation) to another.  In most of the regional calendars which are primarily sidereal solar , Sankranti, marks  the beginning of a new month.However the Bengali and Assamese calendar mark Sankranti as the ending of a month. What we celebrate as Sankranti is primarily Makara Sankranti, when the sun transitions into the Makara constellation( Capricorn).

 

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It also marks the start of Uttarayana, when it is believed that the Sun moves towards the Northern hemisphere, and lasts from January to July. While Makara Sankranti is undoubtedly the one that is celebrated most, there are couple of other Sankrantis too which are of equal significance. One is the Mesha Sankranti, when Sun is believed to move into the Mesha( Aries) constellation, and this actually marks the start of the New Year in the Hindu calendar.  It is also the period, when regional new year festivals like Baisakhi( Punjab), Pana Sankranti( Odisha) and Pohela Baisakh(Bengal) are celebrated. Dhanu Sankranthi is celebrated on the first day of the month of Pausha( December-January) primarily in Bhutan and Nepal.

Apart from India, Makara Sankranti is also celebrated in some other countries. Nepal celebrates it as Maghe Sankranti, in January, as per their calendar, which marks the beginning of the month of Magha and end of the inauspicious Pausha month. The traditional Thai New Year Day Songkran, is derived from Sankranti, coinciding with entry of Sun into Aries. Thingyan in Myanmar, Pi Ma Lao in Laos and Moha Songkran in Cambodia are also different variants of Sankranti in their respective cultures.

Sankranti is often associated with the Winter Solstice in India, which scientifically speaking is the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Basically what happens here is that as the Earth orbits the Sun, the hemisphere that was facing away from the Sun, experiencing winter, will now face towards the Sun, marking the start of summer. For farmers, it is a crucial time, as it marks the end of the long winter, and beginning of the summer, and a new harvest season. As per Hindu belief, the Dakshinayana( Southern journey) of the Sun ends here, and it’s Uttarayana( Northern journey) towards the Tropic of Cancer, begins.  This could be the reason why unlike other Hindu festivals, Sankranti usually falls on a fixed date, January 14 or 15. One more factor is that Sankranti marks the end of a rather inauspicious phase( sometimes in mid-December), and the start of an auspicious time. Bheeshma in the Mahabharat was believed to have passed away on Uttarayan, and therefore it has a religious significance too. While it is celebrated as Makar Sankranti in most Indian states, including Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, there are slight regional variations in other states.  Tamilians celebrate it as Thai Pongal, while Gujaratis observe it as Uttarayana. In Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana it is celebrated as Lohri, followed by Maghi, while for the Assamese it is Bhogali Bihu. In Kashmir this is called as Shishur Saenkraat,and Karnataka observes it as Makara Sankramana.

As a kid growing up in Andhra Pradesh,  Sankranti to me, primarily meant school holidays, visit to my grandparents’s native place.  My grandparents lived in Srikakulam, a small town in Andhra Pradesh, that is somewhere in between a town and a village. Though a town, Srikakulam had more of a rural backdrop, and due to this one could observe the celebrations in all their glory. Basically for most Telugu people, Sankranti is the time, they make the trip to their native village or home town, wherever they are staying in India or the world. In a sense, it is the time, most go back to their roots, acquaint themselves with their native traditions. And apart from celebrations, it is also a time when many Telugu people also pay respects to their departed ancestors or near and dear ones.  In both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the festival is celebrate for 4 days- Bhogi, Makara Sankranthi, Kanuma and Mukkanuma.

Bhogi

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The first day is called as Bhogi, it is the day preceding Makara Sankranthi. It is the day when people dispose off their old belongings, which are not being used in a huge bonfire. Called as Bhogi Mantalu( fires of Bhogi), these bonfires serve as a bonding purpose too for family and community members to huddle around. It is also quite a good way to beat the winter cold. One of the memories of childhood is when we would huddle around these huge bonfires, and also have our water heated on them( yes those were the days when we had no geysers).  The bonfire also symbolizes the discarding of old habits, vices, material attachments in the fire of knowledge.  It is also called as Rudra Gita Gyana Yagna, and represents the realization and transformation of the soul.

 

Another feature of Bhogi is showering small kids less than 3 yrs old with the Regu Pallu( the jujube fruit). It is done to ward off the evil eye, and lot of sweets, are prepared, distributed on this occasion like below. In rural areas landlords give special gifts to their workers on this date.

Makara Sankranti, the main festival falls on the 2nd day, also called the Pedda Panduga( Big Festival), it is the time when people wear new clothes, pray to God and also offer food to their departed ancestors.  It is also the time, when women and young girls draw the muggulu( Rangoli) with different patterns and colors. It is one of the occasions when you can see most young Telugu girls dressed up in the traditional langa and voni( a kind of half saree). As kids this was the day when our grandmother would wake as up and give us a total, native bath. No soaps, no shampoos, we were scrubbed clean with haldi, and for our hair, it was a mixture of Kunkudu Kayalu( Shikakai) and oil.

Yeah this  was our shampoo.

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One more feature is the gobbemalu( basically balls made of cowdung), which are placed on the Rangoli, and most young girls( dressed in the traditional langa voni as in above) sing songs and dance around it. It is also the time to relish some home made sweets and dishes.

Sakinalu, prepared primarily in Telangana.

Nuvvula Appalu

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Dappalam, is basically a vegetable stew, with a mix of pumpkins, drumstick.

Kanuma on day 3 is when the cattle are worshiped. Being a rural festival, cattle is very important to the farmer’s lives there. A line from an old Telugu song goes as follows

“Paaliche govaluku pasupu kumkum, pani chesi basavana ku patri pushpam”

Loosely translated it means “Haldi and Kumkum to the cows that give milk, and fruits and leaves to the hard working bulls”. It is a reference to the fact, that while the cows are meant for giving milk, the bullocks are meant for the harder tasks like pulling carts or ploughing the fields. While  the cows are worshiped with a sindoor put on their foreheads, the bulls are decorated with colorful clothes and taken in a procession from home to home, while it’s owner plays the music on his shehnai.

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The 4th day is called as Mukkanuma, which is when farmers offer prayer to the elements like soil, rain, fire for helping with the harvest, as also the local village goddess( often called Ammavaru). It is also the day when people have meat dishes, they are not eaten on the other 3 days in Coastal Andhra.

Another notable feature is the Haridasu( literally meaning Servant of Hari), who goes from home to home, singing songs of Lord Vishnu, with a pot on his head. The ladies of the home, then offer him rice and some alms.

And finally Sankranti is also time for merry making and enjoyment too. Telugu people being movie lovers, this is the time, when you have around 3-4 Telugu movies releasing, and there is often a race to see who wins. Other events during Sankranti time are

Cock fighting is a popular sport in rural Andhra Pradesh, particularly in the Godavari districts. Though banned by the Supreme Court, it still continues albeit illegally, and there is  whole lot of betting that goes on here.

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Kite flying is popular too, though a lot more in Hyderabad, where there are kite flying competitions,  and the city’s skyline is dotted with colorful kites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dhanu Jatra-When a town becomes an open air theater

Bargarh is one of those small towns that dot the Indian landscape, located in Western Odisha, close to the border with Chattisgarh. The Eastern Ghats flank the town, and they are quite rich in their flora and fauna. Historically speaking, the place was originally called Baghar Kota, and for some time, it was the capital of the Chauhan rulers of Sambalpur.  Till 1992 the place was part of Sambalpur district, until the then Chief Minister, the late Biju Patnaik, created a new district Bargarh, out of Sambalpur, with the town as the district HQ.

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While Odiya is the official language for communication, most of it’s inhabitants speak in Sambalpuri. Primarily dependent on agriculture, the town is a commercial hub for textiles, especially the famous Sambalpuri sarees, that are produced and sold here. The town’s major claim to fame though is something called Dhanu Jatra, that happens every year here.

Dhanu Jatra is basically to celebrate the story of Krishna and his slaying of Kansa, and is so called as it is held during the month of Dhanu. It is celebrated for a period of 11 days, narrating the tale of Krishna and Kans, through use of dance and drama. What makes this unique however is the way this play is actually staged. While it does sound similiar to Ram Leela, here, instead of one single stage, the entire town of Bargarh becomes an open air theater itself.

The uniqueness of Dhanu Jatra is that the town of Bargarh and the neighbouring village of Ambupali, become the setting for the entire drama about Krishna and Kansa. Every nook and corner of these two places becomes a setting for the drama, with all the residents joining in and even those visiting it. In a way this is an interactive drama, where the audiences and the actors become one. Imagine 10,000 residents taking part in this entire skit, on their own, and none of them are professional actors per se.

During Dhanu Jatra, the town of Bargarh, turns into Kansa’s capital of Mathura, while the neighbouring village of Ambupalli, becomes Gopapura, in effect Vrindavan, where Krishna grows up. The Jeera river that flows through Bargarh, becomes the Yamuna, and one of the settings for the play. What is interesting here is Kans character, for the entire duration of the play, the actor who plays Kans becomes the defactor ruler of Bargarh. He walks around the town in his regal attire, atop an elephant, people pay respects to him, even the district admininstration, the legislators, every one considers him as the ruler. No wonder that  the role of  Kans is the most coveted one, with the actor playing that role becoming a mini celebrity of sort. In the words of Hrusikesh Bhoi, a Govt driver, who waited for 10 years to do the role of Kansa,

“My dream was to enact the role of Kansa in the Bargarh Dhanu Yatra and I  got the opportunity two years ago when the organizing committee  selected me for the prestigious role. This is the second time I am  addressing the role of the demon king here and am very proud to do so,”

The record though is held by Gopal Sahu, a cop, who played the role of Kans for a record 22 years. And there is no rivalry between the actors here, many do it for sheer love and passion. Kans here is seen in two stages, during the morning, he is like any other king going around, meeting his subjects, imposing small punishments and fines, listening to their problems. During this time, every part of Bargarh becomes an impromptu stage of sorts, with the residents, getting drawn into the action.

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During night time, however Kans retreats to his Rang Mahal, where he spends time with his ministers, plotting on ways to kill Krishna, and invoking the demons. The Rang Mahal is a huge stage that is set up right in the middle of Bargarh town, decorated to look like a palace. And Ambupali enacts the scenes of Krishna’s life, his growing up under Nanda and Yashoda, his exploits with the demons. The Jeera river becomes the Yamuna, where Krishna performs his Ras Leela dance, while a pond becomes the Kalindi where the epic battle of Krishna with the snake Kaliya is enacted.

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Also the actors in the skit, deliver their dialogues impromptu sans any script or prompting. For the entire period, the town of Bargarh, is transported into another era, it is like entering a time machine. You could see Krishna doing one of his playful antics, or Kansa could be walking just past you. You are not the audience watching a play here, you are part of the play here, in some way or other.

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And finally the Dhanu Jatra comes to an end, with the last day showing Krishna and Balaram, entering Bargarh( Mathura), with the help of Akrura. The actor who plays Akrura, takes Krishna and Balaram across the town, and people there treat them like real gods. Krishna and Balaram’s fight with the wrestlers Chanura and Mushtika is enacted live, and finally the festival comes to an end with Krishna killing Kans, and restoring the throne to Ugrasen, Kansa’s father. He also frees his real parents Devaki and Vasudev, from the prison, which is another building in the town.

The origins of  Dhanu Jatra are not very clear, many state that this started after independence, when people celebrated freedom from British rule, with Kansa and his ministers representing the colonial rulers. In effect it is more of a harvest time festival with farmers and working classes, doing a thanksgiving of sorts. Whatever be the story behind it, fact is Dhanu Jatra is unique in it’s own way, a festival, where a town becomes an open air theater, and the audiences themselves become part of the drama. Truly, Incredible India.

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December 19, 1927

Shahjahanpur is one of those typical, dusty, sleepy small towns that dot the North Indian landscape.  The town was founded by Dilir Khan and Bahadur Khan, both of them generals who served in the court of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan.  It’s musical Gharana is one of the more well known ones, and the famous sarod player Amjad Ali Khan is from this Gharana.  However it was during the freedom struggle, that Shahjahanpur had it’s claim to fame, as a revolutionary hub. Most of the revolutioaries in the North, were from this town. And among them, the most famous were two friends, whom destiny would bring together- Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan.

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Ashfaqullah Khan was born at the turn of the 20th century on October 22, while Bismil was born 3 years earlier on June 11, in the same town.  Both of them were excellent writers in Urdu and Hindi.  Both of them would come together under the Hindustan Republican Association, not to mention the fact that Ashfaq was an admirer of Bismil’s poetry, and became close friends with him on that account. And both these men were hanged on the same date, December 19, 1927 for their involvement in the Kakori conspiracy. Two men from different religions, different backgrounds, yet destiny would bring them together.

Bismil’s ancestors hailed from Gwalior, and his native village was close to the Chambal valley. His father was a clerk in the Municipality, and later started a small business lending out money on interest. He taught Ram Prasad Hindi, and he later sent him to a Moulvi to learn Urdu too. By 14 years of age, Ram Prasad was fluent in Urdu, and read many novels. He learnt the rituals of worship from a priest near to his home and later learnt Sandhya Vandana too from Munshi Indrajeet. He was deeply influenced by Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s teachings and his book Satyartha Prakash.

Ashfaqullah on the other hand, was the youngest of six siblings, son of Mohd. Shafiqullah Khan and Majroonissa Begum. While his father, came from a modest background, his mother came from a well off family, whose men were highly educated. However their support to the British angered the common folk, and their Kothi was ransacked and burnt down during the 1857 Revolt.  He was introduced to Bismil’s poetry, through his elder brother Riyasatullah, who happened to be his classmate. The poetry of Bismil, so impressed Ashfaq, that he wanted to meet him as soon as he could. However Ram Prasad was absconding then for his involvement in the Mainpuri conspiracy.

When Ram Prasad came back to Shahjahanpur in 1920, that was the time Ashfaq got a chance to meet him.  Though he tried meeting Bismil many a time earlier, he could not. However one evening when Bismil was at the river,in  a meeting with other friends, Ashfaq did manage to meet him. On knowing he was the brother of his classmate Riasatullah, and an equally good Urdu poet,  Ram Prasad asked Ashfaq to meet him at Arya Samaj.  The principles of the Arya Samaj had a deep impact on Ram Prasad, which was not to the liking of his father. He even ran away from home after an argument with his father, and was later bought back by his father’s friends.

Interestingly Ashfaq’s family too was against him going to Arya Samaj, but he did not pay heed to their words, and went. After a rather long talk with Ram Prasad, Ashfaq became an active member of the Matruvedi, a party that was started by Bismil. And that put him on the road to the revolution.  Ashfaq advised Bismil that along with their revolutionary activities, they should also be part of Congress party. Many youngsters of Shahjahanpur too joined the Congress. Bismil along with Ashfaqullah and another freedom fighter Prem Kishen Khanna joined the Congress in 1921.

In 1921, Mahatma Gandhi called off the Non Cooperation movement and it gave an impetus to the revolutionary movement. This decision split the Congress into two groups, one headed by Gandhi, another by Chittaranjan Das.  Later Das along with Motilal Nehru formed the Swaraj Party, while the youth rallied under Bismil. Around this time some of the youth of Bengal, requested Bismil to start a new party. His fame had already spread wide, due to his involvement in the Mainpuri conspiracy. However Bismil, was busy with his silk  weaving factory, and felt he would not be able to devote time to it. It was Ashfaq again who convinced him to do so, and assured him of all cooperation.

Bismil went to Allahabad in 1923, and drafted the constitution of the new party along with Sachindranath Sanyal and Dr.Jadugopal Mukherjee.  On 3 Oct 1924, the Hindustan Republican Association was founded in Kanpur, with Sanyal as the Chairman and Bismil as the District in charge for Shahjahanpur, he was also in charge of the Arms. In fact owing to his organizational abilities, he was given the additional charge of Agra and Oudh too. Ashfaqullah was made Bismil’s deputy and it was up to these two to expand the revolutionary activity in the North.

With his business established well, Ram Prasad plunged headlong into the revolutionary movement again, organizing the workers and volunteers. However the lack of funds was proving to be a main hindrance. While he led some dacoities initially to gather money, Ram Prasad realized it was not sufficient, and there was no point in harassing his own fellow Indians. It was at such a time, while he was travelling from Shahjahanpur to Lucknow, by train, he observed that at each station, the Station Master bought bags of money and placed them in the guard’s carriage, there was no one to guard them.

Kakori was a small village near Lucknow, and the 8 Down between Shahjahanpur and Lucknow used to pass through it daily. Ram Prasad decided to stop the train at Kakori and take away the money bags, this was the genesis of the famous Kakori conspiracy.  Ashfaqullah though initially opposed the plan, saying it was too risky, and the Government would crack down real hard. However with others like Rajendra Lahiri, Thakur Roshan Singh going along with Bismil, Ashfaqullah too lent his support.

. August 9, 1925, evening time, along with 9 other revolutionaries, Rajendra Lahiri pulled the chain at Kakori station, while Ashfaqullah held the driver hostage with his Mauser pistol .  While Ram Prasad Bismil pushed the guard down and looted the Government money from his cabin. However when none could break the safe, it was Ashfaq once again who managed to break it with all his strength.

There was no bloodshed, except for one passenger killed accidentally. Soon the Government cracked down, on the Kakori conspirators and, and arrest warrants were issued.While Chandrasekhar Azad managed to evade the crackdown, Ram Prasad was arrested soon enough, while Ashfaqullah went into hiding for some time.  Ashfaq spent some time in Kanpur, working in Ganesh Vidyarthi’s printing press.  And for quite some time he wandered all over the North from Kanpur to Bihar to Rajasthan, changing names. He finally went to Delhi, and wanted to somehow escape India and meet Lala Hardayal. However he was betrayed by his own friend in Delhi, to the police and was arrested by Ikramul Haque.

Tasadukk Hussain, the SP, tried to provoke Ashfaq, against Bismil, using the Hindu-Muslim angle, but he refused to be.

“Ashfaq, I am also Muslim. I am very sorry for your arrest. I can have you released if you accept my advice. You become Government approver. Ram Prasad Bismil is a Hindu and wants to establish the rule of Hindus. You should not be with him.”

To which Ashfaqullah relied back.

“Mind your tongue,   Panditji( which is what he used to call Ram Prasad), aim is to for the freedom of India. He is my brother. I would rather die under the rule of Hindus than to live under the British rule. You called him a Kafir, I request you to leave now, else another case of murder will be registered on me”.

Finally Ashfaq was detained in Faizabad prison, his brother took the help of Kripa Shankar Haleja, a senior advocate. Others like Acharya Narendra Dev, Chandra Bhanpu Gupta, G.B. Pant too did their best to defend the Kakori case accused. In spite of the best efforts of Hajela, Ashfaqullah was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to death. Ram Prasad Bismil, Rajendra Lahiri and Roshan Singh were also convicted to death along with him. The whole country protested against the death sentences. Petitions were made to the Viceroy to reduce their death sentence into life sentences. Even the Privy Council was approached. It was all in vain.

It was during his stay in prison that Ram Prasad wrote his own autobiography, considered one of the finest works in Hindi literature. Though under strict watch in prison, he managed to successfully smuggle out copies of his manuscript in 3 instalments. The book was published in 1929, but was again banned by the Government. It covered his childhood, his ancestors, and his experiences with the Arya Samaj, along with more intimate portraits of his mother with whom he shared a close bond.

Oh Lord! Thy will be done. You are unique. Neither my tears nor I will endure. Grant me this boon, that to my last breath and the last drop of my blood, I may think of you and be immersed in your work.

At Faizabad, Ashfaqullah was put in solitary detention, where he spent time reading the Quran and doing the Namaz. During his confinement in Faizabad, he penned his own diary, apart from Urdu, was equally good in Hindi and English.

Patriotism brings with him all sort of troubles and pains, but a man who chooses it,everything become comforts and ease for him.There is no dream, and if there is,there is only one to see you my children struggling for the same and for which I am expected to die. Brothers and friends will weep after me but I am weeping over their coldness and infidelity towards our motherland. Only for the love of our country I suffer so much. Weep not children, weep not elders; I am immortal ! I am immortal !!-

But the most moving excerpt was in Ashfaq’s  diary just the night before he was hanged.

I shall go empty handed but with the pain, that when will Hindustan be a free nation once again. Bismil is a Hindu he says “I shall come, I shall come again and again, till I free Bharat from the foreigner”. I also wish to say the same as Bismil, but am bound by my religion. I am a Muslim, do not believe in rebirth; but if I meet Allah, I shall spread my arms in front of him, and ask him not for Jannat, but just one opportunity to be reborn again to free India.

Dec 19, 1927-

District prison, Faizabad. “My hands are not soiled with the murder of man. The charges framed against me are a bare false”- Ashfaqulla’s last words before hanged. He kissed the rope, and began to recite the Shahadat, as the noose tightened around his neck.

Gorakhpur prison- Ram Prasad got up, had a bath, said his morning prayers and wrote his last letter to his mother. He walked without any fear to the gallows, completely at peace of mind, even the authorities were surprised. As he mounted the gallows, Ram Prasad shouted “Vande Mataram”, “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and recited the prayer “Vishwani deva savitaha dunitani”.  Gorakhpur gave him a fitting funeral, with many breaking down seeing his body and he was cremated near the Rapti river.

The two voices were silenced, but their spirit would live on.  Two men from the same place, who became friends, united in death, their sacrifice would inspire countless others. Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan, the nation salutes you.

 

 

 

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K.S.Thimayya

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Coorg a tiny district in the state of Karnataka, is often called the “Scotland of India” for it’s lush green beauty, rolling hills and valleys, forests, lakes.  The term was actually given by Scotsmen, who began the coffee plantations there, as the place reminded them of their native land. Nestled in Karnataka’s Western Ghats, it was actually a separate Coorg state, before it was merged with Mysore in 1956, during the States Reorganization.  While very much a part of Karnataka, the region maintains its own distinct identity. Though Kannada is the official language, the inhabitants mostly speak Kodava, Tulu and Arebashe. The Kodavas, take pride in their martial traditions, carry guns, and their most famous dish is a mixture of steamed rice balls and pork curry. Known for it’s huge coffee plantations, it is one of India’s leading coffee producers. It is the place where the Kaveri originates at Talakaveri, and every year thousands of tourists visit the region, to experience it’s natural beauty, forests, waterfalls and hills.  It is not a surprise that some of the finest generals of the Indian Army hailed from here, K.M.Cariappa,  and K.S.Thimayya.

Kodendara Subbayya Thimayya, nicknamed as Timmy, served as Chief of Army Staff from 1957-61 in the years leading up to the war with China. The only Indian to command an infantry brigade during World War II, and dealt with the repatriation of POWs as head of an UN after the Korean War.Known for his quick wit, fiery temper, a no nonsense attitude, and an independent stance, Thimayya became a legend within military circles. He was also the first to point out the threat from China to Nehru, that was predictably ignored.

Belonging to the same Kodendera clan of Cariappa, he was born in Madikeri, into a well to do family of coffee planters on March 30, 1906. His mother Sitamma,was well educated and a social worker, while his father Subbayya was another of the well known coffee plantation owners.His  maternal uncle Ponappa, was among the first batch of Indian commissioned officers who fought during the War. He  did his schooling from Bishop Cottons in Bangalore, later he was sent to Royal Indian Military College in Dehradun.

His elder brother Ponappa, joined the INA, while his younger brother Somaiah, joined the Army and was killed in Kashmir.He was one of the 6 Indian cadets who was selected for training at Sandhurst, and joined the Indian Army in 1926. In 1928, Thimayya joined the 19th Hyderabad Regiment, now the Kumaon Regiment, where he became Lieutnant.He honed his combat skills in the North West frontier battling the fiercely independent Pathan tribes.  During his stint at Sandhurst, Thimayya, personally experienced British snobbery and racism, but typically stood his ground. Even when he was in the Army,  he sympathized with the nationalist leaders, he himself was a victim of British high handedness. At one stage, he wanted to resign from the Army, and join the Freedom movement, however Moti Lal Nehru dissuaded him from doing so.

Moti Lal Nehru, felt that once India became independent, people like Thimayya wud be needed to guide and develop the Army. He also had to fight for the rights of Indian soldiers and officers getting admitted into the exclusively British clubs. Like most Coorgis was a good sportsman himself, trained his battalion in hockey and football too.In spite of his best efforts, Indians were not allowed into most of the exclusive Army clubs meant for British till 1947. During the Quit India movement in 1942, Thimayya ordered his battalion men never to fire on the protesters,he would rather talk them down. At many places during the Quit India movement, he would  personally talk with the demonstrators, making them disperse, but never fired on them.

When World War II, broke out, Thimayya was at the Hyderabad Regimental Center in Agra,  as the Second-in-command. He later attended the Quetta staff college, where along with his wife Nina Cariappa, he gained fame for his services during a devastating earthquake that struck there in 1935. Later he became the first Indian to lead a brigade during WWII.  Thimayya served with distinction in Burma, counter attacking the Japanese units. His brigade was the first to enter Rangoon, after the Japanese evacuated the city, and the INA surrendered. His own brother was one of those INA officers taken prisoner in Rangoon, he also oversaw surrender of Japanese in Singapore.After the end of the War, he was sent to Japan to restore order, and was shocked to see the devastation at Hiroshima.

After India became indepenendent in 1947, Thimayya was member of the comittee that saw division of military assets between India and Pak. During Partition, as Major General, he handled the responsibility of keeping law and order, as well as relief measures well.  When Pakistani raiders attacked India in 1947, Thimayya commanded the 19th Infantry Division in Kashmir, and played a sterling role. One of his greatest achievements wud be at Zozi La pass where he personally led a tank battatlion to capture it from Pakistan.

Under Thimayya’s leadership,the 7th ligh Cavalry captured Zozi La pass, beat back the Pakistani raiders, and took Dras,Kargil,Leh.However his pleading to give him just 3 more months to drive out the raiders fully, fell on deaf ears, as Nehru took it to UN. Timmy Sahib as he was called, was by now a hero, regarded as the savior of Kashmir and Ladakh.After the way he led from the front at Zozi La Pass in a tank and recaptured it from Pakistanis, he became a legend of sorts in the Army. Normally divisional commaders are not in the front, but at Zoji La, Thimayya was in the first tank, leading assault, mounting a furious assault on the Pakistani raiders at Zoji La, catching them unawares, in blinding snow,stuff legends are made of. Such was Thimayya’s reputation in the Army, that his visit to any unit, would automatically boost their morale, lift their spirits.After the Korean War was over Thimayya played a major role in repatriation of the prisoners, which won him plaudits all over the world.

On 8 May, 1957, Thimayya became the Chief of Army Staff, he had a good rapport personally with Nehru then.However he never got along with the then Defense Minister Krishna Menon, know for his sharp tongue and arrogance. He had a running battle with V.K.Menon, over issues related to the Army, and he refused to surrender to Menon’s whims.Furious over what he felt as Menon’s constant interference, he resigned as COAS, he was however  persuaded by Nehru to take it back.

Nehru though defended Krishna Menon for his actions, and many felt it was a deliberate attempt to humiliate Thimayya.That incident had an impact on Thimayya, as he spent his last years in the Army, broken in spirit, thanks to Nehru and Menon. Pran Nath Thapar who was Thimayya’s batchmate at Sandhurst, was not as independent and forthright, and meekly surrendered to Menon’s whims.

“I hope I am not leaving you as cannon fodder for the Chinese…. God bless you all.”-

He had great love for the Kumoan Regiment, and initiated many welfare measures for the ex-servicemen and war widows. He persuaded then CM of Uttar Pradesh, G.B.Pant to allot land near Nainital for members of Kumaon Regiment. After his retirement, Thimayya also served with great distinction in Cyprus as part of UN Peacekeeping Force during Civil War there. His conduct in Cyprus won him the respect of both Archbishop Makarios as well as the Turks. He however passed away in Cyprus on December 17, 1965, when he was 59 to a heart attack.

A General Thimayya is not born in every generation. The likes of him there will seldom be a soldier. The General is a man’s man, the Army his soul and his soul the Army

Richmond Road in Bangalore, the main road in Lamaca, Cyprus and the road parallel to MG Road in Pune, have all been renamed in his honor. The alumni of Bishop Cotton Boys School hold an annual lecture series in his memory.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rajendra Nath Lahiri

One of the most significant events of the freedom struggle was the Kakori conspiracy carried out on August 9th, 1925. It was the time the Hindustan Republican Association founded by Ram Prasad Bismil,  was in dire need of funds for carrying out it’s objective of an armed revolution. And that was the time, they came up with this conspiracy. Kakori was the station between Shahjahanpur and Lucknow through which the No 8 Down passed, carrying the money bags of the Treasury. Apart from getting the funds for the organization,  it was also intended to get it noticed by the common people, and give a jolt to the British. The mastermind of the operation were Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan.

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One of the main persons in that conspiracy was Rajendra Nath Lahiri, born on June 29, 1901 in the village of Mohanpur, Pabna district( now in Bangladesh) to Kshiti Mohan Lahiri and Basant Kumari. At the time of his birth, his father was in prison along with his elder brother, for participating in the activites of the banned Anushilan Samiti. Imbibed with the spirit of patriotism when he was just 9 years, he went to his maternal uncle’s home in Varanasi. His education was primarily in Kashi, and he joined MA( History) in BHU, this was the time, when he met the famous revolutionary Sachindranath Sanyal. Recognizing the patriotism, revolutionary spirit and passion for freedom in Rajendranath,  Sachindranath  made him the editor of the magazine Banga Vaani,   as well as the coordinator and arms in charge for the Varanasi branch of the Anushilan Samiti.

His dedication to the cause, ensured Rajendranath got an invite to the secret meetings of the Hindustan Republican Association too. His love for Bengali literature and reading made him open a small library in the name of his mother. He was also in charge of the Bengali Sahitya Parishad at BHU, and he also was the one who came up with the handwritten letters of the revolutionaries in Kashi.  His endeavor was to ensure that the revolutionaries in Benares, could express their thoughts through their handwritten letters.

When the Kakori conspiracy was planned, he played an important role. When Ashfaqullah Khan was initially sceptical of the proposal, feeling it would bring undue attention to the revolutionaries. it was Rajendranath Lahiri, who stood ground, and forced Ashfaq to reconsider. As per the plan, he was the one who pulled the chain at Kakori station on August 9, 1925, giving signal to Bismil, Ashfaqullah, Chandrashekhar Azad and 10 others to rob the bags containing the money.

After the Kakori incident, Bismil sent him  to Bengal to learn bomb making, which is where the Dakshineshwar incident took place. He had just gathered all the material necessary for making the bombs, when due to the carelessness of another revolutionary, a bomb went off. The loud explosion alerted the police, and Rajendra was arrested along with 9 others. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, the British Govt however filed a lawsuit against the revolutionaries for the Kakori conspiracy.  Accusing them of launching war against the British crown, and looting the treasury,  the revolutionaries were declared guilty through fabricated evidences and false witnesses. Rajendranath was bought to Lucknow and put in the prison there.

In spite of many appeals and arguments, the British Government refused to reconsider it’s stand and Rajendra Nath Lahiri along with Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan and Roshan Singh were sentenced to death by hanging. While the others were to be hanged on December 19, Lahiri was to be hanged, 2 days earlier than them at the Gonda district jail.

December 17, 1927- The day he was to be hanged, Rajendranath Lahiri was doing his usual exercises in the morning. When the jailor asked him, why he was doing so even on his last day, Lahiri replied.

Jailor Saab, I am a Hindu, I believe in rebirth.  I want to be born with a physically fit body in my next birth, so that I can complete my unfinished tasks. Today is the most glorious day of my life,  how can I forgo my daily routine. I am not dying, but I shall once again be reborn in a free India.

Rajendra Lahiri, went to the gallows with a smile on his lips, kissed the rope, shouted Vande Mataram .Another great son of Bharat, had given up his life for the country’s freedom.

Rajendra Lahirí’s sacrifice is observed every year on December 17 as Lahiri Diwas, in Gonda district. Cultural activities are observed in Gonda district jail in his honor and a yagna is conducted in front of his statue there. There is also a memorial in his honor there.

 

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Battle of Basantar

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Shakargarh is a small tehsil town on the West bank of the Ravi river, originally a part of the Gurdaspur district, but transferred to Pakistan after Partition as per the Radcliffe award.  Pretty much a sleepy small town, like most in Punjab, it however was one of the major theaters during the 1971 India Pakistan War. 

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The battle theater was more specifically the Shakargarh Bulge,  which is basically a protrusion of Pakistani territory into Indian one. This particular territory was surrounded on all three sides by India, and was strategically important for both the nations. The road to Jammu from Punjab passed through this area, which meant that Pakistan could cut off access here. Straddling the more fertile Indus river belt, made this area economically important too. 

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Battle of Basantar

Basantar River is a tributary of the Beas, flowing through Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, which is where one of the most intense battles was fought. Starting on December 4 the battle lasted for 12 long days, and was one of the major tank battles post WWII. It was one of the hardest fought battles,  with both sides sustaining casualties, and one of the toughest resistance by the Pakistani Army.  2 Param Vir Chakras, 4 Maha Vir Chakras, and 4 Vir Chakras were awarded of which 5 were posthmous. The battle was known for the sacrifice of Lt. Arun Khetarpal, Major Hoshiar Singh, Major Vijay Rattan Chaudhary, Lt. Col.V.P.Ghai,  Capt R.N.Gupta who laid down their lives in the course of action.

With the war intensifying on the Eastern front, Pakistan decided to open up the Western front to divert the Indian army and prolong the conflict. Shakargarh was crucial, as Pakistan had a military base nearby in Sialkot, and if it launched a major invasion, Jammu and Kashmir, would have been totally cut off from the rest of India. The Indian Army’s base at Pathankot was around 37 km form Shakargarh, and forces were quickly mobilized to defend it. Again much like the Battle of Asal Uttar, the Indian tanks though outnumbered, launched surprise attacks on the Pakistani tanks in the Jarpal area.

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The Lineup

Pakistan’s I Corps had the 8th Infantry Division with 4 brigades, 15th Infantry Division, 8th Armored Brigade with 13th Lancers, 27th and 31st cavalry. Apart from this they had reserves of 5 divisions, commanded by Lt Gen Irshad Hassan Khan.

The Indian I Corps had 3 infantry divisions, 2 Armored brigades, 2 independent artillery brigades and the engineer brigade, which would play a crucial role.  The objective was to bridge the Basantar River and secure the vital Shakhargarh sector. 

Lt. Gen K.K. Singh from Rohtak, who had earlier won the MVC for his services during the 1965 War, headed the I Corps. Lt. Gen WAG Pinto headed the 54th Infantry, which led the main thrust during the battle, while Brigadier Arun Shridhar Vaidya was in charge of the 16 Armored Brigade( he would later head Operation Bluestar) while Lt.Col B.T.Pandit was in charge of the 9 Engineer Regiment.

The Battle

The initial thrust was made by the 54th Infantry and 16 Armored Brigade led by Lt Gen Walter Pinto.  They had to encounter minefields and a very still resistance. And this was the time the 9th Engineer Regiment played a crucial role.

9 Engineer Regiment

One of the most crucial role during the Battle of Basantar was by the 9 Engineer Regiment,  which was nicknamed the Thambi Regiment, as it was staffed by Tamilians mostly. The regiment had 3 field companies each of which were assigned to the 3 infantry brigades of the 54 Infantry division. The Regiment had the challenging task of laying the operational track, for the Indian army, through some absolutely tough terrain and an area that was heavily mined.

December 5, 1971, 7:30 PM- 2nd Lt N.P.Singh started laying the operational track, and by 9:30 PM they were in the Pakistani territory. The Regiment’s CO Lt. Col B.T.Pandit who supervised this task was later awarded the Vir Chakra.

By December 6,  the track was completed up to Badala Gujran in Pakistan and on December 7, a 600 m long, 6 m wide track was laid out in conjunction with the 47 Infantry Brigade.

December 8- 404 Field Company, was given task of providing support to the 91 Infantry Brigade, while 405 did the same for 16 Armored Brigade, while 406 extended the track beyond Tarakwal.

December 9-404 Field Company,  was marked for 76 Infantry, and the operational track was connected to Bari.

December 10/11-  Naik Subedar Doraiswamy, who had the task of clearing the minefields, found the path blocked by a damaged Indian tank. Taking an initiative, Doraiswamy, led a small unit through heavy Pakistani artillery barrage and succeeded in creating a detour, that enabled the Indian armor and artillery to move to the bridgehead. He was later awarded the Vir Chakra for this.

December 11- Diversion was created on the Mawa-Pandgaur road for free movement of vehicles, while 405 also cleared the minefield lane on December 12, and on December 13 it breached an enemy minefield with 1300 m deep trawls upto Lohara.

December 15- Engineering Task Force comprising the 3 units was grouped with 47 Infantry Brigade for crossing the Basantar River at Lagwal. This was the toughest part of the assignment, an operational track had to be constructed from Lohara to Lagwal, the enemy minefield had to be breached, and crossing places had to be constructed on two marshy nullahs.

The work started at 8 PM under heavy artillery fire from the Pakistani side.Major Vijay Rattan Chaudhary, heading the Task force, had to breach the minefield, and make the passage for tanks and other armored vehicles through the Basantar river. However the intense shelling  and lack of information about the obstacles, threw the unit into confusion. With not much time for reconnaisance, the CO, decided to send a small unit, pretty much a risky proposition. Captain Ravinder Nath Gupta volunteered for this hazardous mission. Braving enemy fire, he managed to bring back vital information by 9:30 PM.

December 16- 2 companies of 17 Poona Horse, took on the enemy’s counter attacks, and destroyed the armored formation, on the west bank. Capt Ravinder Nath Gupta, guided the  tanks, through the cleared minefield lane, and was killed in action along with Major Vijay Chaudhary, S.S.Mallik and 2nd Lt K.M.Mandanna. The ceasefire was called for on December 17 at 8 PM. For their heroic exploits, the Regiment was called the Basantar Regiment, given the battle honor Basantar and Theater Honor of Punjab.

“After overcoming the initial shock of the death of our gallant officers and junior commissioned officers, the Thambis’morale is high and we are prepared to breach more Basantars.”

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One of the heroes of the Battle of Basantar was 2nd Lt, Arun Khetarpal, to date the youngest winner of the Param Vir Chakra,  who died at the age of just 21 years in combat. Hailing from Pune, his father Lt Col M L Khetarpal was a Corps of Engineer officer. Arun joined NDA in 1967, and after graduating from IMA  was comissioned to the 17 Poona Horse.  

The 17 Poona Horse was the one in command of the 47th Infantry Brigade, during the battle and it’s main objective was to establish a bridgehead across the Basantar River.  At December 15, 9 PM, the bridgehead was established, however the enemy territory was heavily mined,  and the engineers were still halfway into the task. 

Dec 16, 8 AM- The Pakistani 13th Lancers, having the state of art Patton Tanks, launched their first counter attack on the 17th Poona Horse at Jarpal. With the commander of the Poona Horse, calling for reinforcements, Arun who was with the A squadron,  responded with his Centurion tanks.  The first counter attack of the Pakistanis was repelled by the Centurion tank brigade, with every one right from the individual tank CO, to troop leader Arun playing their role to perfection.

The 13th Lancers launched two more attacks, and breakthrough the Indian defenses. Arun however launched right into the Pakistani attack, almost alone in charge against some very stiff resistance. He knocked out a Pakistani tank, however he was hit soon by enemy fire, and badly injured, while his tank was hit too. By this time however he stopped the Pakistani tanks from making a breakthrough, and gave the Indian Army a stronger position in the Shakargarh bulge.  When his superior officer ordered him to abandon his burning tank, his last words over the radio were.

“No, Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My main gun is still working and I will get these bastards.”.

And in spite of being injured, and his tank damaged, Arun Khetarpal fought back hard, destroying around 10 Pakistani tanks, including one just 100 m away from him. However the second hit, destroyed his tank, and a badly injured Khetarpal succumbed to his wounds.  His tank was named Famagusta, and the radio operator Nand Singh too was killed in the action. The driver Prayag Singh and the gunner Nathu Singh, were captured by the Pakistani troops, but released  after the end of the war. Arun Khetarpal died a hero on the battlefield, denying the Pakistanis a breakthrough and giving enough time for the Indian Army to secure Shakargarh. 

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The other PVC awardee of the Battle of Basantar, was Brigadier Hoshiyar Singh Dahiya, from Sonepat district. Part of the Grenadiers Regiment, he was given the responsibility of establishing a bridgehead across the Basantar river. Heavily mined on both sides, and protected well by the Pakistani army, he was ordered to capture Jarpal. Under intense shelling, he led the assault on Jarpal,  and after some fierce hand to hand combat, managed to secure the place.  The Pakistan Army counter attacked with intensity, however  Hoshiyar Singh, moved from trench to trench, encouraging his men to stand and resist.  Though wounded badly, he refused to be evacuated from the battle field, till his company repulsed the Pakistani attack fully. Awarded the Param Vir Chakra, he later retired as Brigader. 

Even though Lt Col Akram Raja, launched a frantic counter attack to retrieve the situation, leading an old style cavalry charge, the assault ended in a disaster. The Indian Army secured Shakargarh, and came pretty close to the Pakistani military base at Sialkot. And expecting another massive assault, the Pakistani army called for surrender, which led to the ceasefire.  It was one of the most humiliating defeats for them after the Battle of Longewala.

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Rao Tula Ram

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Rao Tula Ram, Ahir hero.

 

If you had been to Delhi, you would have travelled along the Rao Tula Ram Marg from the airport or when going to Gurgaon. You have hospitals, markets and even a university named after him. But not many really know about the man behind the name. When one speaks of the 1857 Revolt, some of the names that immediately come to mind are Rani of Jhansi, Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope.  One such name not so well known, but equally significant is that of Rao Tula Ram, the Ahir leader from Haryana’s Rewari area, who led a spirited uprising against the British during 1857.

He  hailed from the Rao family of Rampura village in Rewari where he was born on December 9, 1825 to  Puran Singh and Gyan Kaur. Educated as per the traditional learning system, he knew Persian, Urdu, Hindi and a fair amount of English too. He took charge of Rewari, after the death of his father in 1839. He came from a very illustrious lineage, his ancestors had supported the Marathas against the British in 1803. However with the Marathas losing to the British, Tula Ram’s ancestors had their jagirs confiscated,and were given a grant of 58 villages.

So when the 1857 Revolt broke out, Tula Ram was one of the first to join it, the memories of what the British did was still fresh in mind. The people of Rewari also took up arms, listening to the stories of Meerut, one of the hot spots. On May 17, 1857, he attacked Rewari with his followers, deposed the Tahsildar, and took all the Govt buildings into possession.

Tula Ram ruled from Rampura village, primarily over Rewari, Bhora and Shahjahanpur, his commander was Gopal Dev. An able administrator he organized the revenue dept well, and was assisted by the mahajans in Rewari financially. He raised an army of 5000 soldiers, and set up a workshop at Rampura to manufacture guns, arms and ammunition. During the 1857 Revolt it was Rao Tula Ram who supported the rebel sepoys financially, and also supplied them with arms.

When Delhi fell to the British on Sept 20, 1857, and the Emperor was deposed, the British targeted Rao Tula Ram. Brig General Showers led the assault on Rao Tula Ram, his orders were clear, “destroy him and raze his fort at Rewari”. Foreseeing the destruction Rao Tula Ram, made a strategic retreat abandoning both Rampura and Rewari forts, with his men and arms. The British took Rampura, Rewari forts without much effort, but he was still elusive, biding his time somewhere. Even though Showers sent a message to Tula Ram, promising amnesty if he surrendered, he turned down the offer.

Col Gerard who captured Rampura now planned to proceed to the town of Narnaul via Karnaud, and marched there on Nov 16. However at a place called Nasibpur, enroute to Narnaul, Tula Ram and his men made a surprise attack on the British contingent. Leading the charge from the front Tula Ram scattered the British forces, the Patiala Infantry and Multani Horse were totally routed.However the Guides and Carabiners in the British army, attacked him and his men with heavy artillery, which was too much for them.

Just as the British seemed to be winning the battle, Col Gerard was mortally wounded, and their ranks were thrown into confusion. Taking advantage of the chaos, Rao Tula Ram, pounced on the British forces, and soon they were under retreat from an all out attack. The British were now scattered, the Multani Horse fled away from the battle field, The guns were recaptured, and both wings of the British forces were totally in disarray.

Major Caulfield then ordered heavy bombardment against the rebels, however Rao Tula Ram did not flinch and stood his ground well. In spite of the brave stand of Rao Tula Ram and his men, the British artillery was too strong, and they began to break under the assault. Two of Tula Ram’s best commanders Kishan Singh and Ram Lal, died in the battle, and his men now were disheartened. By now most of his men had either fled under the assault or were killed, and soon he stood alone on the battle field.

Tula Ram along with his trusted lieutenant Adbus Samad Khan, escaped the British, but some of his best men were killed in the battle. In spite of the fact that the British had superior arms, he managed to inflict heavy casualties on them, and went down fighting.70 people were killed on the British side, they lost their best commanders Gerard and Wallace, 3 Lieutenants were heavily wounded.

The British had gained a decisive victory in the Battle of Narnaul, but at heavy cost, due to some stiff resistance by Rao Tula Ram. After this he joined Tatya Tope’s forces and fought under him for a year, before the revolt was finally crushed. With the British considering him on the chief offenders of 1857. Tula Ram escaped to Afghanistan where he finally died in Kabul.

The British revenge was swift, Tula Ram’s family was confiscated of their Jagir, and many villages were burnt. Those villages that supported Rao Tula Ram had to pay a heavy price, with many of em massacred en massed by the British. His legacy lives to date with the road in Delhi named after him, and also his inspiring story of defiance and heroism. While many are aware of Rani of Jhansi, Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope, not many really know about Rao Tula Ram’s role in the 1857 Revolt.

 

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