Sunday, May 4, 2014

Tales of Valour : Battle of Saragarhi

Battle of Saragarhi

Battle of Saragarhi where 21 Sikh soldiers chose to fight to the death against 10,000 Pathans and Afghan tribesmen advancing on their signaling post in Saragarhi. It is considered by some military historians as one of history's great last-stands.

The Battle at Saragarhi is one of eight stories of collective bravery published by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). It has been mentioned as one of the five most significant events of its kind in the world which includes the Battle of Thermopylae associated with the heroic stand of a small Greek force against the mighty Persian Army of Xerxes I in 480 B.C.

The 36th Sikhs were raised in 1887 at a time when Russian expansion was feared and the North-West Frontier needed strong fortification. Their brief history is notable for one action that ocurred in 1897 when the regiment defended the Samana Ridge against a huge army of Pathans. Many acts of great bravery were performed by soldiers of the 36th during a few days in September of that year, most notably at Saragarhi.

The British colonial rulers had constructed a series of forts to control the NWFP (North West Frontier Province - today a state in Pakistan) and to provide security to troops against marauding tribesmen and their lashkars (large body of troops). Most of these forts had initially been built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh as part of the consolidation of the Sikh empire in Punjab and the British added some more. The British had only partially succeeded in gaining control over this region, consequently, skirmishes and sometimes serious fights with the tribals were a frequent occurrence. However, the NWFP was a good training ground for the Indian Army to hone its skills and techniques.
Two such forts on the Samana ridge of the Hindukush & Sulaiman ranges that is Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan were a few miles apart. Since these forts were not inter-visible, a signalling relay post called Saragarhi was located mid-way on a bluff to provide heliographic (A heliograph is a simple device for sending Morse code using a mirror catching the sunlight) communications between them. This post or picket had been fortified to provide safety and protection to the signalling detachment. In 1897 there was a general uprising in the NWFP engineered by Afghans as part of their policy, which came to be known as the 'prickly heat policy' to direct the wrath of the tribals against the British. In this uprising, Mullahs (Muslim religious leaders) played a prominent role. It was the duty of the 36th Sikh to occupy Gulistan and Lockhart forts. On 3rd and 9th September 1897, Orakazai and Afridi lashkars attacked Fort Gulistan. On both occasion the attacks were beaten back. A relief column was sent from the fort to assist in beating back these attacks.

The Battle

The burnt-out interior of Saragarhi where the bodies of 21 brave men of the 36th Sikhs were found on the 14th September after the seige on 12th.
The relief column from Lockhart on the return trip reinforced the signalling detachment at Saragarhi making its strength to 1 NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) and 20 ORs (Other Ranks). In a renewed effort, on 12 September 1897, hordes of tribesmen laid siege to Fort Lockhart and Saragarhi, with the aim of overrunning the latter and at the same time preventing any help from the former. The Commanding Officer of 36th Sikh, Lt. Col. Haughton, was at Fort Lockhart and was in communication with the Saragarhi post through helicograph. The defenders of Saragarhi under the indomitable and inspiring leadership of their detachment commander, Havildar Ishar Singh, resolved to defend their post in the best tradition of their race and regiment. They were not there to hand over the post to the enemy and seek safety elsewhere. Havildar Singh and his men knew well that the post would fall, because a handful of men in that make-shift fort of stones & mud walls with a wooden door could not stand the onslaught of thousands of tribesmen. These plucky men knew that they will go down but they had resolved to do so fighting to the last.
From Fort Lockhart, troops and the Commanding Officer could count at least 14 standards and that gave an idea of the number of tribes and their massed strength against the Saragarhi relay post (estimated at between 10,000 to 12,000 tribals). From early morning the tribals started battering the fort. The Sikhs fought back valiantly. Charge after charge was repulsed by the men of the 36th Sikh. The tribal leaders started to make tempting promises so that the Sikhs would surrender. But Havildar Singh and his men ignored them. For quite some time, the troops held their own against the determined and repeated attacks by the wild and ferocious hordes. A few attempts were made to send a relief column from Fort Lockhart but these were foiled by the tribals.

 Cairn on the Site of Saragarhi Post

At Saragarhi, the enemy made two determined attempts to rush the gate of the post and on both occasions the defenders repulsed the assault. While the enemy suffered heavy casualties, the ranks of the defenders too kept dwindling as the fire from the attackers took its toll and their ammunition stocks were depleting. Unmindful of his safety, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh kept signalling a minute-to-minute account of the battle from the signal tower in the post to Battalion HQs. The battle lasted the better part of the day. When repeated attacks failed, the enemy set fire to the surrounding bushes & shrubs and two of the tribesmen under cover of smoke, managed to close in with the post's boundary wall in an area blind to the defender's observation and rifle fire from the post holes. They succeeded in making a breach in the wall. This development could be seen from Fort Lockhart and was flashed to the post.
A few men from those defending the approaches to the gate were dispatched to deal with the breach in the wall. This diversion by the enemy and the defenders' reaction resulted in weakening of the fire covering the gate. The enemy now rushed the gate as well as the breach. Thereafter, one of the fiercest hand-to-hand fights followed. One of the Havildar Singh's men, who was seriously wounded and was profusely bleeding, had taken charge of the guardroom. He shot four of the enemy as they tried to approach his charge. All this time, Sepoy Gurmukh Singh continued flashing the details of the action at the post. Beside this the Commanding Officer of 36th Sikh and others at Lockhart Fort also saw his unique saga of heroism and valour unfold at Saragarhi. The battle had come too close for Sepoy Gurmukh Singh's comfort, so he asked Battalion HQs for permission to shut down the heliograph and take up his rifle. Permission was flashed back. He dismounted his heliograph equipment, packed it in a leather bag, fixed bayonet on his rifle and joined the fight. From this vantage point in the tower he wrought havoc on the intruders in the post. He died fighting, but took 20 of the enemy with him.

The ruins of the Saragarhi signal post, defended to the last by Havildar Ishar Singh and his 20 men of the 36th Sikhs. Fort Lockhart is on the skyline, left centre. Circa 1887.
The tribals set fire to the post, while the brave garrison lay dead or dying with their ammunition exhausted. Next morning the relief column reached the post and the tell tale marks of the epic fight were there for all to see. The tribals later admitted to figure of a miniuim of 600 - 1400 were dead and many more wounded. This episode when narrated in the British Parliament, drew from the members a standing ovation in the memory of the defenders of Saragarhi. The story of the heroic deeds of these men was also placed before Queen Victoria. The account was received all over the world with awe and admiration. All the 21 valiant men of this epic battle were awarded the Indian Order of Merit Class III (posthumously) which at the time was one of the highest gallantry awards given to Indian troops and is considered equivalent to the present-day Vir Chakra. All dependants of the Saragarhi heroes were awarded 50 acres of land and 500 Rupees. Never before or since has a body of troops - that is, all of them won gallantry awards in a single action. It is indeed a singularly unique action in the annals of Indian military history.

In their Memory

A tablet erected in the memory of these brave men.
The tablet reads;
"The Government of India have caused this tablet to be erected to the memory of the twenty one non-commissioned officers and men of the 36 Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry whose names are engraved below as a perpetual record of the heroism shown by these gallant soldiers who died at their posts in the defence of the fort of Saragarhi, on the 12 September 1897, fighting against overwhelming numbers, thus proving their loyalty and devotion to their sovereign, the Queen Empress of India, and gloriously maintaining the reputation of the Sikhs for unflinching courage on the field of battle."
  • 165 Havildar Ishar Singh
  • 332 Naik Lal Singh
  • 834 Sepoy Narayan Singh
  • 546 Lance Naik Chanda Singh
  • 814 Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
  • 1321 Sepoy Sundar Singh
  • 871 Sepoy Jivan Singh
  • 287 Sepoy Ram Singh
  • 1733 Sepoy Gurmukh Singh
  • 492 Sepoy Uttar Singh
  • 163 Sepoy Ram Singh
  • 182 Sepoy Sahib Singh
  • 1257 Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
  • 359 Sepoy Hira Singh
  • 1265 Sepoy Bhagwan Singh
  • 687 Sepoy Daya Singh
  • 1556 Sepoy Buta Singh
  • 760 Sepoy Jivan Singh
  • 1651 Sepoy Jivan Singh
  • 791 Sepoy Bhola Singh
  • 1221 Sepoy Nand Singh

Poem : Your Eyes

Your Eyes

When I look into your eyes,
It feels like a warm summer surprise,
Gives me a that modicum of relief,
Just one look brims me up with self-belief,
That there is something only for me to treasure,
And that long look you give fills me up with pleasure

That innocence, that look you give,
Makes me feel like a helpless captive,
I love that by the way,
All the funny things I say,
Are just to make u look this a way,

Knowing that I can make you smile,
Makes every moment worth the while,
Sometimes we share just a cursory glance,
Like we had an entire conversation in advance,

Your eyes are my guiding light,
Like a beautiful starlight night,
I know you give many a look,
Each one has got me hooked,
Some can get others to fret,
But you stop me from saying something I might regret,

Your eyes are so expressive,
Just to keep looking at them seems excessive,
It’s like reading the climax of a book,
page by page … I mean look by look,
And sometimes I feel your reading mine,
Like a pantomime,
In case you haven read them yet,
You know it’s time to get set
When we next time share that moment together,
Your eyes captivating forever

- Digvijay Pande

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Poem : Day Dreams at Night

Those nights when you don’t sleep a wink,
Even though you have been beyond the brink,
I look outside the window sill,
I try to look beyond the river, and hill,
I look at the vehicles that pass me by,
And the stars that fill the sky.

I think of the glorious days gone by,
Reliving moments without a sigh,
Memories are a bank of hope
One walks along a slippery slope,
From morn to night to morn I toil,
My dreams on a simmering boil,

Too few hours of sleep,
Too many promises to keep,
There is so much to achieve,
There is no time left to grieve,
No time for thoughts to meander,
Just face the world with grit and candor

One must discover one’s own path,
One must face head on the whole worlds wrath,
For when one’s dream is yet to unfold
One’s endeavors get just a tad more bold
And ones hopes and expectations - manifold

In such a state of mind,
hope one must find,
even In the depths of despair,
there is nothing genuine laughter cannot repair
With all baggages left behind,
One is ready to face the grind,

I will go the extra mile,
With tears withheld and a welcoming smile,
Radiate the feeling that everything is fine,
cause all those hopes, dreams and aspirations are mine,

As the night turns to dawn,
I will fight my fears and worries till they are all gone,
Resist the many temptations that be,
For there is so much yet to see,

Now that the sun has started to rise,
I must get back and be worldly wise,
Only then can I fulfill my vision,
Utilizing each day with precision,
For now I have my goals in sight,
Thanks to these Day Dreams at Night,

Friday, March 7, 2014

Poem : The man who broke a mountain

The man who broke a mountain,
A faceless, nameless, landless ordinary farmer he was,
And to bring a smile on his wife’s face was his only noble cause,
To earn his daily bread, all day, he toiled on his field,
From morn to dusk and then again, trying to increase his yield.

A shared meal with his wife, was the highlight of his day,
But a treacherous route across the mountain, shortened the length of her stay,
Yet he enjoyed every day as it came, letting his goats graze by the mountain side,
Every evening he enjoyed the view of the valleys far and wide,

Till one day his wife slipped on her way to for lunch and fell
Hearing this news, his face aged, as if sentenced to serve an eternity in hell, 
his simple world came crashing down upon him,
his wife’s fate looked grim,

In a desolate remote village, the hospital was 36 miles away,
And the towering mighty mountain stood tall, blocking the way,
Along the winding road he went, tears marking his path,
In his agony he screamed, the mountain bearing the brunt of his wrath.

His wife, his beautiful wife, had fought really hard,
and when later she passed away, it did leave him scarred,
A poor, uneducated person, he knew there was no government for him,
Only the rich had highways made, the poor had only hope but even that had started to dim,
People they had for years tried to have a road through the mountain built,
But they were never able to have,the odds in their favor tilt,

That night he cried and cried till tears could no more flow,
He promised to himself, no one else would have to before the mountain bow,
There was fierce fire burning on those eyes,
For all things material he only had a look of despise,

He sold his goats only for a chisel, hammer and rope,
Giving up on his aspiration of youth, he began his walk up the mountain slope,
He sold his hut and moved base, right at the mountain’s foot,
Armed with a burning passion, all future hopes and dreams caput.

He began next morning, chiseling away at the great beast,
Aloof, not bothering to join in the many celebrations at the village feast,
The village folk in the beginning sympathetic, now his sanity began to doubt,
But the young man had decided to work tirelessly on this route,

So the days, weeks months turned to years,
This man had overcome all his fears,
He worked and chiseled and hammered away,
Soon the children of the village next to him began to stay,
The cheered him on every now and then, bringing a smile on his face,
Even the villagers in their dreary life lost track of his “different” ways.

Soon the small dent in the mountain, became a hole and then a path,
22 years had gone by,and only this one man hath,
Taken on everything on his way, the mountain, the sniggers and sneers,
Being called a madman, treated as an outcast and finally even accepting the children’s cheers,
Soon it dawned on the villagers what this one crazy man had done,
The 35 mile treacherous pathway was now less than one,
The path was 16 feet wide,
with people from 60 villages using the road for a motor or bicycle ride

No longer were they isolated, begging the government for their right,
And with this “one man monument” in sight,
One can see the power of will, the power of one,
And what all is achievable and can be done,

For no, this man did not build a TajMahal in his wife’s memory,
It is still for all a wonder of a world,
A world where we cry for the smallest of things
This path in the middle of a monument is as good as the Sphinx,

Next time one sits down on a corner feeling helpless and all alone,
Think of this one man who took on the world and won - all by chiseling away at stone,
The man who broke a mountain,                                                                                 
What an enormous beast to tame,
Overcoming insurmountable odds he has achieved immortal fame 
 - Digvijay Pande

Based on the true story of Dashrath Manjhi

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Poem : The Clan of Lone Walkers

He walked alone, on a lonely path,
He looked like he really needed a bath,

Yet, there was this glint in his eyes,
As if he was, a prince in disguise,
Like he had a vision, he wouldn’t disclose,
But still ignorant townsfolk made fun of his nose,

He walked all day from morn to night,
resting only to see the stars shine bright,
Stopping in the day for a meal in the shade,
He showed no fear of any criminal’s blade,

I once offered him water when I was a child,
And then one day our paths crossed again
He only mumbled this in his voice so mild,

“I am no priest, I am no saint
I am not artist and I cannot paint
I seek no grail, I seek no crown
And On no one’s face will I cause a frown,
I just want to explore the lands
Unravel the mountains, seas and sands,
And when my day cometh and I must go,
I want the whole world to know,
That I did my best to make a mark,
And just before my eyes go dark,
I remember those whose lives I touch,
even if only ever so much,

That those who just let their days go by,
I can only utter a sigh,
One must do what one wants in life,
As long as it causes no one unnecessary strife,
Remember there are those who cannot hear, smell or see,
This rests on those powers that be,

One cannot fight ones fate,
And at any given rate,
I have spoken too much as old men do,
You are a man with many years ahead,
I hope you hold yourself in good stead,
I wish you well, do what you will,“

With that the man lay to rest,
And I carried on with my lifes own quest,
Till one day I realized I was a worn old man,
And then I met another young lad on his moving van,
We shared a meal under the shade of a tree
And gave him the message, one that I never forgot,
Just when I left that man,
I then realized we were part of a little secret clan,

Whilst the world carries on with menial tasks,
At home, at work, wearing different masks,
There are those people, who do what they like,
And have no regrets at their end of time,

Whence this clan will grow in size,
This world may have a little less vice.
This Clan of Lone Walkers still cherishes the earth,
Lives life to its fullest and looks at the rest with purest mirth

- Digvijay Pande