Indian army like most other armies of the world follows a set of customs and traditions which are often fascinating, sometimes a bit strange and peculiar but more often than not, have a deep rooted historical rationale to them. Our army evolved and is in major part modeled on the British Army which is itself a repository of a large number of army customs and traditions. We have in some cases thoughtlessly copied some of them without diligently delving into their relevance to post colonial independent India. Mercifully, over time we have jettisoned some of them by design, but also due to selective amnesia. Be that is it may, traditions play a very important part in our bonding, camaraderie and in strengthening our regimental system. Many regiments have introduced their own set of traditions which they are proud of, and guard them zealously. We have adopted many different methods of wearing our dress and accoutrements. Many regiments wear their lanyards on the right shoulder which in the past implied a royal regiment or corps, much like the mark of respect for the champion squadron in NDA. Officers and jawans very proudly proclaim “This is our regimental tradition”.
For example 5 GR wears their belt buckle slightly apart as in the olden days the troops of the regiment carried an extra clip of ammunition in the belt. During a fiercely fought campaign everyone ran out of ammunition but the extra clips in the belt saved the day and ensured victory. Thus today they wear their belt this way with immense pride.
Another peculiar tradition which is lost in obscurity is the Naval tradition of piping the side. That is when an officer comes on board a naval ship he is piped in. The tradition started by accident. Often admirals and senior officers of that time were either old, fat, decrepit or too unfit to easily clamber aboard naval vessels. They were thus hoisted aboard a sling called ‘Boatswain’s Chair’. The signal to lower and hoist the chair was given by a Bosun’s call. This call became synonymous with welcoming senior officers on board. Thus today all officers are piped in when coming on board.
A very interesting tradition very popular and universally adopted by the army is to drink a toast to the head of state in our case the President after a formal dinner. However the origin and form of this tradition is rather interesting and hardly relevant today. The tradition originated in UK where due to the various struggles and wars for the throne of England, Lords and officers were required to drink a loyal toast to affirm their allegiance and loyalty to the King. Thus the toast was “To the King….” Implying I recognize you as my sovereign and drink to your well being. However the more fascinating but universally unknown sub part of the tradition is that before the toast is offered and the wine sent around everything from the table including water is removed. This originated because some lords and officers were not loyal to the English King but offered a loyal toast to their king in France. So in an ingenious way the officers toasted by subtly passing their wine goblets over water and then offering the toast, the water implying the English channel and thus in fact offering a loyal toast to the King in France across the channel. The procedure of removal of water from the table before the toast is still followed in messes in the Indian Army.
Customs and traditions need to be nurtured and understood in their modern context. They are the bonding adhesive of our Espirt- de- corps and the pride with which we wear our uniform and honour our regiments its colours and most of all our gallant and chivalrous army.
Lt Gen Sudhir Sharma,PVSM,
AVSM, YSM, VSM,(Retd) is the
Chairman of MitKat Advisory Services,
India’s leading premium risk
consultancy. He hails from the Brigade