The essence of a walk over long many days in the Trans-Himalayas, where for aeons the only sound had been the sound of silence, was to allow your body and mind to meld with the vast mountainscapes and discover for oneself the meaning of Heaven-upon- Earth. But on his hurried quest for quick narrow gains, man often alters the evolutionary symbiotic status quo of Planet Earth and the fundamental equilibrium between cause and effect comes unstuck and the only sound that emanates from the ether is the nonstop grinding of the juggernaut unleashed by the industrial age technologies. So, when the Border Roads Organisation told us proudly on September 20, 2015 that they had successfully pioneered road connectivity between the Lahaul and Zanskar valleys, what in effect they were pronouncing is that the ages old and perhaps the last unsullied sacred zone of uninterrupted solitude, shall soon be replaced by the moans of automobile engines revving to ear shattering RPMs and the resultant contamination of the unadulterated, crisp mountain air by the nauseating odours of the vehicular exhaust fumes and much else which will inevitably follow in its wake.
Ever since August, 1947 India had institutionalised certain curbs for its citizens wishing to travel beyond the “Inner Line” for reasons arising from perhaps questionable geopolitical and military-strategic imperatives; foreign nationals were discouraged altogether to travel beyond the Line except when accompanied by Indian liaison officers. As a consequence, road and air connectivity to and within the prescribed restricted zones remained primeval till about the 1980s. Now, where the Zanskar Valley is concerned, because it lies wedged between the Himalayas to its East and the Karakorams on its Northwest and therefore maximally isolated, it lacked practically all means of travel-mobility and survival logistics and its inhabitants relied upon hamlet based “sustenance” economy. Axiomatically, the relatively untrammelled Zanskar region acquired the sobriquet of “Trekkers Delight” both with the global and the Indian trekkers’ fraternity.
So when in November, 1970 I was tasked to introduce ten young officers (in 2 to 4 years service bracket) selected by the Army Headquarters to the spirit of adventure, I promptly settled for a two weak trek along the longest East- West axis of some 290 km, almost through the middle of the Zanskar valley. We, (that is my wife included as she had given a written undertaking absolving the Army for any loss/injury to her life or limb) assembled at Manali in May, 1971 for one week of familiarisation to rudimentary techniques in rock and ice craft, in the close-by Beas-Kund area. The Beas-Kund amphitheatre with its floor at about 13,000 ft ASL, surrounded by ridges and summits ranging from 17,000 to 22,000 ft proved awe inspiring for the novices under my charge; a 360 degrees visual feast of countless peaks, two lush meadows humming with calls of countless Himalayan birds and Alpine flowers; the most favourite being the Himalayan Blue Whistling Thrush (full of melodious song), extensive blooms of the Marsh Marigold, its rich yellow in striking contrast with the green surroundings but above all the abundance of the Cobra Lily fern in true likeness of the Cobra, complete with spots as beady eyes, fully extended hood and its deadly tongue frozen in the stretched out mode! For sure, these officers would henceforth never spend their leisure moments, indoors.
We were now ready to tackle one among the longest trekking trails, taking off from Patseo in Lahaul Valley, arduous but not difficult. There were just no vendors of food or fuel beyond Keylong and in the absence of precooked, packaged meals of today, we confined our needs simply to wheat flour, rice, lentils, potatoes, onion, salt, sugar, tea leaf, powder milk and kerosene oil for fuel. We spent two days, breaking bulk in to forty kg loads which a pony would carry, in comfort. But how to commandeer thirty five ponies and ten more to carry minimal energy-feed for the ponies themselves as there were no pastures en route except one, mid way at Padum. So I sent word to call on the Thakur Sahib, the hereditary feudal chieftain of Patseo.
We were received with full courtesy and ushered in to a fairly large and neat room, on the first floor. The very next moment, I spotted a portrait of an army officer in uniform. And lo and behold, it was of Major Thakur Prithi Chand, MVC, of 2 Dogra, and a first cousin of the Thakur sahib. In another corner of the room was the portrait of Captain Thakur Kushal Singh, MVC of 2 Dogra; another first cousin. But the pride of place belonged to the portrait of Subedar Bhim Singh, VrC also of 2 Dogra being the maternal uncle of the MVC duo. Suffice to recount here that this trio had led the first company (armed with personal weapons only and frugal survival-food rations) on foot from the Srinagar valley in mid winter, across the Zoji La in February 1948 and reached Leh just in time, after a month long forced-march to successfully defend it against Pakistani intruders and won the MVCs for two sterling actions fought against grave odds. Concomitantly, Bhim Singh had raised a local Militia, led it across Khardung La and evicted Pakistani presence from the Nubra Valley. This trio from Patseo with common DNA, were justifiably called “Saviours of Leh”! Now, that was a fascinating insight of military history for my young team mates. Before I shut my eyes, will someone lead me to another, similar Hall of Fame, please?
Later in the day in a quiet moment by ourselves, my mind’s eye flashed back to mid October 1960; I was on a few days casual leave at Chandigarh when my father had taken me in tow to Lieutenant General (Retd) Kulwant Singh’s home for a drink. The General was quick to advise me that there was no substitute to reading and more reading in general, for acquiring merit in any profession and then enquired where I had had my schooling. When I mentioned the school, he told me joyfully that one of his friends, the last British Commanding Officer of 2 Dogra, Lieutenant Colonel Phelps was also an alumnus of that very school and lived close to Simla and asked me to meet him at the next school reunion.
It so happened that I had planned a few days of Kalij pheasant shooting at Tara Devi (the penultimate stop on the Kalka-Shimla train) where the Colonel lived. The chowkidar of the Forest Rest House where I had checked in informed that he knew where the Sahib lived and agreed to guide me in the evening. I was led to a huge colonial bungalow, in a sprawling family estate of which Colonel Phelps was the sole inheritor. A neatly attired servant ushered me inside and a minute later the Sahib walked in dressed in a black tuxedo dinner jacket. Had I walked into a formal dinner evening? Not at all, the Sahib simply lived by the age old rules of that household. A bachelor and the only occupant of the estate, he sat watching the glittering lights of his alma matter and Simla above the rim of the farther ridge of the valley as he filled me with episodes from his time at the School and it was close to midnight before I trudged two kilometres back to the rest house!
When Colonel Phelps turned eighty, he advertised in UK for a companion and not before long, he received a proposal from an eighty two year old spinster! But a few days before her arrival, Colonel Phelps passed away in his sleep and his wife by proxy, lived on the estate for a decade when she too passed away in sleep and lies buried by the side of the Colonel.
About twenty two years after my evening with Colonel Phelps, I had the privilege of having 2 Dogra Battalion in my brigade in North Sikkim and among the three Army mementos which we have retained in our home, a bronzed figure from 2 Dogra (a Subedar Major in full Dress uniform) graces one living space!
Armies may indeed “march on their stomachs” but their spirit is sustained by their past heritage of honour and chivalry.
Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956, Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces.