An Amazing Night Sky

Last night walking Baron was magical! Not only was there a beautiful full moon, I stumbled upon a woman with her camera trained on the western horizon (where the Sun had just subsetted). She asked me not to walk in front of the camera but as my car was parked next to the camera, and as I was at the end of my walk, I asked her if starting the engine and headlights would bother her observation process. She pondered and asked if I could wait a few minutes, I was okay with that. That opened our conversation about what was happening in the ethers! She showed me Jupiter, Saturn and Venus, visible to the human eye and then pointed to where comet Leonard was. Although not visible to the human eye, she showed it to me on a photo her camera took. I was so amazed and delighted at this wonderful gift from the skies that I was so oblivious to. I am going to cherish this memory for a long time for sure.

Full moon at the Marina
The western horizon
Leon stands for comet Leonard

An Overdue Honoring on Remembrance Day…

Babaji Indar Singh

Today, on this Remembrance/Veterans Day, the world celebrates and honors the fallen soldiers of the Great War. It also commemorates the day Armistice was signed that brought World War 1 to its end. In this sea of poppies, which is considered a symbol of sacrifice, I too want to recognize and pay tribute to my ancestor Subedar Indar Singh, who saw the various theatres of war fighting the Germans in Flanders & Western Front and later the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia.

Part of Indian Expeditionary Force (34th Sikh Pioneers, Lahore Brigade), saw action very soon after landing in France (October 1914). As a specialized infantry regiment with expertise in engineering and construction in addition to being conventional infantry men, they quickly supported building and fortification of trenches, establishing communication lines and other infrastructure. Eager to fight, this was the first time these men from India were exposed to ‘Trench Warfare’. Needless to say, the conditions were deplorable! The trenches were mostly waterlogged; full of mud and slime that not only jammed their rifles but also caused them to develop ‘trench foot’ (and led to many a foot amputation). Add to that inclement weather for which initially they didn’t have proper protection (and they had to contend with their summer-grade Khaki uniforms, not ideal for European fall/winter weather). In addition, the trenches were filled with rats competing for their meager rations, and the soldiers had to endure instances of body-lice breakouts! There was the ‘Trench deadlock’ and to gain a few yards, each side of the warring factions faced each other across the no man’s land, and 24/7 launched repeated & aggressive trench attacks, saps and raids. This was aided by heavy artillery bombardment, constant bursts of machine guns, grenades and mortars attacks, arial bombardment and tanks ( although in their infancy), and snipers galore. Of the German armament, ‘Minenwerfers’ (mortar bombs) were the most dreaded. They were effectively used to clear obstacles, bunkers, barbed wires, parapets, sentry positions, etc., and once launched it could be heard coming and with it’s sound getting louder and louder as it approached and then exploded with great power creating a crater as big as a room! It’s psychological impact was so huge that ‘Shell-shock’ was officially recognized by the medical and psychiatric communities. As the war progressed there were even more fearsome weapons such as the ‘Flammenwerfer’ (Flamethrower) that threw/hurtled sheets of flame and smoke towards the trench soldiers and in essence burning them alive! Also, for the first time chemical warfare in the form of large-scale use of lethal poison gas where liquid chlorine was used (second battle of Ypres, 1915) followed shortly afterwards with mustard gas. Needless to say that despite such destruction and horrific conditions, neither side made any meaningful gain! Instead, both sides amassed massive and crippling casualties! Shrapnels, fragments, bullets, bodies and injured everywhere!

Having said that, the ‘Battle of Festubert’ (on November 23-24, 1914), was very pivotal for my ancestor and his regiment. According to Iain Smith (Sikh Pioneers and Sikh Light Infantry Association UK), it was the worst day for the regiment on the Western Front. They were told to take over the German trench at all cost! In the thinly manned Allied Line, the German attack decimated the 34th! 9 out of 12 British Officers were killed, wounded or went missing. Same happened to the men. Only the very experienced soldiers survived and they were instrumental in keeping the morale high and normal functioning of the regiment. One of those Indian officers was Indar Singh, and the regimental records show that he got promoted from Jemadar to Subedar on November 24th, 1914. Also the regimental effort and sacrifice was honored by the King and ‘Royal’ was added and thus the regiment was called the ‘34th Royal Sikh Regiment’. Very few regiments have been honored in this way. Also, at some point, he also received the Russian imperial order of St. Stanislaus (which was reciprocal award amongst the Allies). Plus, there has been a family story that has passed down thru the generations, that he carried his injured commanding officer (CO) 5 miles to safety. In my research, it so turned out that the men did indeed carry their CO Col. GHF Kelly 5 miles to be buried in the cemetery at Beuvry Cemetery, I am assuming my ancestor was one of those men!

In 1917, the regiment was sent to Basra/ Mesopotamia to take part in the Ottaman empire offensive. During the ‘Battle of Daur’, General Maude mentioned him Despatch (November 2, 1917). In Kut Al Amara, he eventually got wounded with a bullet lodged in his spine. He was sent home as a war-wounded and soon afterwards, he succumbed from his war injuries during the second wave of the Spanish Flu (Oct-Nov, 1918)

Continue reading “An Overdue Honoring on Remembrance Day…”

Part 2: Exodus from Anandpur, The Epic Battle at Chamkaur, The Aftermath…

It’s an especially bitterly cold, rainy and wet December in 1704, when Guru Gobind finalizes his decision to evacuate Anandpur.  This resolve is not an easy one given waves of unrelentless enemy attacks, weakened state of his men (enfeebled from starvation due to the prolonged 8-month siege), and the unwavering resolve of Gur Sahib himself to rid the subcontinent of abject tyranny and subjugation of its rulers.  Evidently, Gur Sahib’s meteoric rise, his expanding popularity and growing political influence in the area, was very unpalatable and threatening to the ‘Pahari Rajas’ (Hill Chiefs of the neighboring principalities), and to Wazir Khan, the governor of Sirhind (a quintessential Mughal territorial center).  Therefore, to subjugate him, they repeatedly harass and ambush him (and his Sikh resistance), as witnessed by the battles of Bhangani (1688), Nadaun (1691), Guler (1696), Anandpur (1700 & 1701), Nirmohgarh (1702), Basoli (1702), 1st war of Chamkaur 1702), etc. 

The final and full-on assault on Anandgarh Fort happened on May 20th, 1704. It was a formidable one!  A coalition enemy army, a million soldier strong, was assembled (contrived from a military alliance between Mughal forces from Sirhind, Lahore and Kashmir territories; troops of Pahari kingdoms from Kahlur, Kangra, Kullu, Kionthal, Mandi, Jammu, Nurpur, Chamba, Guler, Garhwal, Bijharwal, Darauli and Dadhwal; and tribesmen from Gujar and Ranghar tribes of Bajrur).  This gigantic army clearly had an unfair and disproportionate advantage; they began their assailment to annihilate the Khalsa bastion (about 4000 strong). Despite the enormity of the attack, the Khalsa were able to successfully engage and thwart all attempt of this herculean army. This tenacity, persistence and resoluteness of these unflinching defendants, led the syndicate to change their campaign to that of besiegement. Hoping to draw them out thru starvation, suffering and desperation, the burgh was barricaded, and all access to food & essential supplies were cut off. Simultaneously, they continued to provoke, hackle and exasperate them including unleashing an intoxicated elephant so that the Lohgarh gate, an iron gate of the fort, could be broken (that Bachitter Singh thwarted). Plus, capitalizing on Guru’s sense of honor, the Rajas falsely pledged their vow (that would allow Guru and his group to leave safely) on revered Hindu articles of faith (i.e., pious cow and ‘janeau’, the venerated thread). Gur Sahib fully aware that Pahari Rajas could not be trusted, demonstrated their insincerity (and fallacy of their oath) by masterminding a sham evacuation that was promptly attacked and plundered. Thereby exposing their true intentions and greed!

There were also calls for desertion and defection. The enemy publicized that whosoever rejected Sikh beliefs and proclaimed that they were not Guru Gobind Singh’s Sikhs, would be allowed to leave safely, unharmed! Some men from Majha, led by Mahan Singh, apprised Gur Sahib of this intention. Guru in return asked them to write and sign this ‘be-da’wah‘ (disclaimer of not being a Sikh). Upon receiving this deed, the Gur declared “From now on, you are not my Sikhs and I am not your Guru” and allowed them to leave. However, when they returned home, their women did not accept them and shamed them for their desertion and cowardice. Subsequently, they redeemed themselves in the ‘1706 Battle of Kidrana Lake’ (now Mukstar), where under the command of Mai Bhago, the great female general, they laid down their lives fighting valiantly for the Guru. Mahan Singh, breathing his last, begged Guru Gobind Singh for forgiveness, handed him the aforementioned ‘beda’wah‘, and pleaded to him to tear off that shameful statement (whereby allowing them to return to the fold of the Guru). Their martyrdom has a special place in Sikh annals as ‘Chalis Mukte’ (Forty Liberated Ones), and each time the Ardas (prayer of remembrance) is said, their sacrifice is recalled!

The eight months of beleaguerment concluded with the arrival of the ‘Shahi Parwan’ (a royal decree) from the emperor himself.  Inscribed and signed on the pages of the holy Quran, was the Aurangzeb’s covenant assuring protection and desire for a future meeting in Dina. Gur Sahib, compelled by the suffering and desire of his people, and against his better judgment and prudence, accepts this armistice.  Arrangements were made to evacuate the fort, heavy guns disbanded, certain weapons/equipment destroyed, and other relics and manuscripts burnt.  However, this consecrated pledge of the emperor, as envisaged by Gur Sahib, was also a ruse, a ploy and a cunning gameplay to draw them out.

This resolve to leaving Anandpur on December 20th is about to test the mettle, ideals and faith of Gur Sahib.  As soon as they left their bastion, they were pursued relentlessly by this huge opposing enemy.  At ‘Shahi Tibbi’ near Nirmoh (also called the Battle of Sarsa), a contingent of the Sikh armies engaged the armies of Wazir Khan and for three hours kept them at bay. Both sides suffered heavy casualties but it allowed the Guru and his retinue to reach the swollen Sirsa River.  Due to flooding, fast currents, and frigid temperatures (compounded by starvation and fatigue), few could only navigate the treacherous river. Even the Guru’s family got separated! Gur with his two elder sons (Ajit Singh and Jhujjar Singh) and 40 of his stalwarts, successfully maneuvered their horses and crossed the river.  Whereas, his two youngest sons (Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh) and their grandmother (Mata Gujari), unable to traverse the creek, ended up in ‘Saheri’, the village of Gangu Brahmin, their trusted household cook.  So, with the imperial armies hot on their pursuit, the Guru’s entourage took refuge in a ‘Garhi’ (mud fortress) in Chamkaur (that was reknownrd for its strategic location).  This set stage for the epic battle (also called Chamkaur Di Garhi or Garhi Chamkaur Di), and it fulfilled Guru Gobind Singh’s famous proclamation- 

Chiriyan To Mein Baaz Laraun (I’ll Train the Sparrow to Fight the Hawk)

Gidran To Mein Sher Banaun (I’ll Teach Jackals to Become Lions)

Sava Lakh Se Ek Laraun (I’ll Prepare One to Fight Quarter Million)

Tabhi Gobind Singh Naam Kahaun (Then Only Can I Be Called Gobind Singh)

Guru Gobind Singh

Against overwhelming odds, 43 surrounded by a million (yes, a million), every defendant knew death was inevitable! Also evident was that the ‘Garhi’ and its defenses would succumb under pressure of this imposing onslaught.  The Guru, already a warrior extraordinaire, a military genius and a meticulous war planner, readied his team for an intense combat.  He orchestrated and executed a well thought thru offensive that considered the weaknesses & limitations of the opponents, various types of weapons at hand, the diverse & advantageous tactical zones/areas, potency, energy & effectiveness of his fighters, etc. By daybreak, waves of five battle-ready and resolute stalwarts, despite ravaged and starved bodies, stuck enemy positions.  The element of surprise compounded by their lightning speed, military precision, purposive ferocity and unpredictability of the charge (from different directions), stunned the enemy.  This band of few, aided by Gur Sahib’s accurate and protective archery cover, wreaked havoc across enemy lines.  Plus, when the Sikh battlecry ‘Bole So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akaal’ (one who utters prospers, that timeless God is the truth), along with the salutation ‘Waheguruji Da Khalsa, Waheguruji Di Fateh’ (pure souls belong to God, and victory is always of God), reverberated in the air, stuck terror and paralyzed some enemy planks.  This strategy worked and this colossal army was not able to trounce them the entire day.  The valor, gallantry and resolve of the Khalsa was in full display, and not only did they die fighting till their last breath but caused heavy casualties across enemy lines.  Two outstanding and magnificent martyrs that day were Gur Sahib’s own children, his eldest sons – 17 years old Ajit Singh and 14 years old Jhujjar Singh.

By nightfall, it was very evident that with only a handful of Sikhs left, that both the Fort and Khalsa defenses would fall the following day.  This is when the faithful invoked the covenant of ‘Panj Pyare’ or Five Beloved. This pledge of collective authority given to ‘Five Sikhs’ was specified by Guru Gobind Singh himself in the 1699 initiation of the Khalsa ceremonies.  While forming the new order, Gur Sahib declared “wherever five Sikhs of mine congregate, they shall be the highest of the high. Whatever they will do, will carry the authority of the Khalsa”, and this jurisprudence also applied to him as the sixth Khalsa initiate! Therefore, the Guru had to abide by the command and edict of the ‘Panj Pyare’ and they mandated him to leave Chamkaur, with the instructions to resurrect the Khalsa so that evil and depravity of the Turk rulers could be uprooted.  It is said that before leaving, the Guru Sahib announced his departure by bellowing “Sat Sri Akal” (Eternal God alone is the truth), blew out the torches of enemy camp via his precise arrows, and clapped his hands a few times and said “Peer Hind Rahaavat” (holyman of Hind is leaving). Eventually, when the adversaries took over the Fort, to their chagrin they were unable to capture the Guru – dead or alive!

In the meanwhile, Gur Sahib slipped into the jungles of Macchiwara. While wandering there, he wrote one his very poignant shabad (hymn), ‘Mittar Pyare Nu, Haal Muridan Da Kehna’ (To my friend beloved, how do I state the condition/problem of your disciple), in which he expresses his gratitude to the Divine despite the suffering and hardships. As the Guru made his way to Dina (with enemy forces looking high and low for him), he was helped by two of his ardent Pashtun followers, Ghani Khan and Nabhi Khan.  They disguised him as the ‘Uch Da Pir’ (an exalted Sufi master) from Multan and carried him on palanquin, with the front manned by the Pathan brothers and the back by his followers, Daya Singh and Dharam Singh. Thus, they cleared all check-points and orchestrated the great escape! 

Taren Kaur’s rendition of ‘Mitra Pyare Nu’ Shabad
Nusrat Fateh Khan’s ‘Mittar Pyare Nu’ Shabad


Meanwhile, unbeknown to the Guru, his mother (Mata Gurjari) and his two younger sons (8 year old Zorawar Singh and 6 years old Fateh Singh), who got separated from the larger group during the exodus out of Anandpur, were tricked into going to the village of ‘Saheri’ by Gangu Brahmin, their trusted household cook. Gangu deceived the family for a few gold coins and jewelry they were carrying (and for any Mughal bounty or awards this notoriety would bring). They were arrested and handed over to the Mughal Faujdar of ‘Morinda’ and eventually to Wazir Khan, the Nawab of Sirhind. In Sirhind, in the thick of winter, they were first imprisoned for seventy-two hours in an especially cold prison called the ‘Thanda Burj’ (Cold Tower) and thereafter the two minors were put on trial. Wazir Khan, having returned empty-handed from the battle of Chamkaur, wanted a full-on revenge! During the proceedings, the children were offered reprieve and gifts if they embraced Islam and converted into muslims. The children refused, and for their defiance, the tribunal ordered the children tortured and entombed alive!  It is said that Sher Muhammad Khan, the Nawab of Malerkotla, openly protested this callous, unjust and cruel punishment. Whereas, Diwan Sucha Nand, another courtier, persuaded the Governor to carry out the verdict by quoting a Farsi poem by ‘Firdaus’ that, snakelets will become snakes, wolf-pups will become wolves, and these children of the Guru are like the snake neonates who will surely grow up to become a serpent just like their father, thereby, no mercy be shown to them.

So with their fate sealed, on December 26th, 1704, they were then bricked alive! It is said that when the wall was being built around them, the ‘Qazi’ (priest) again offered to pardon them if they converted, but this offer too was spurned by the minors. In the end, the wall failed and the minors were executed with the sword. When the news of their death reached their grandmother (Mata Gujari), she breathed her last upon hearing of this savage and inhumane death that was inflicted upon these innocent children. So in a span of just a few days, Gur Sahib had lost his entire family. The news of their tragic and gruesome deaths (including his mother’s demise), reached him only when he reached Raikot. Rai Kalha, the muslim ruler of Raikot, was Gur Sahib’s ardent devotee and he dispatched a messenger to Sirhind to enquire about the family’s whereabouts. When the messenger returned with this agonizing news, Gur Sahib showed great grace, serenity and stoicism despite his unsurmountable loss and unimaginable grief. Here, he also prophesied the end of the Mughal empire and Turk lineage in India.

Coming Next Part 3: The Rebuke…

Celebrating My Nanaji (WW2 Veteran)…

Capt. Bhagwant Singh Grewal

As the world celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the VE Day marking the end of WW2, I want to pay homage to my ancestor, Captain Bhagwant Singh Grewal. As an officer in the Indian Pioneer Corps, he is credited for constructing the emergency airport at Imphal, and shortly thereafter, he came under heavy bombardment of the retreating Japanese on the Burma front. At first, he was presumed dead (and the family informed of his missing-in-action status), he was eventually located at the Military Hospital in Jalna (near Pune/Poona) with severe head injuries. During surgery, parts of his ruptured cranium was removed and replaced with a platinum plate. Once he recovered, his medical category was permanently downgraded and sent home for his disability (war-wounded). Although all his life he had to deal with episodes of disabling seizures and headaches (for which my mother recalls, he had to be given sulphur pills and never left alone), he actually lived a full and long life. On February 5th, 1973, he passed away at the ripe age of 75 years.

His life story is very engrossing and captivating. An only child, he was born on 18th August 1898, to Bhagwan Singh (Nazim of Nabha State) and his wife Narain Kaur (of Mansa Sardars). Although my mother doesn’t remember much about his childhood or where he did his basic education, she does have knowledge that he attended Khalsa College Amritsar. While studying there, he also persisted thru the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (which he and his fellow students survived only by laying flat, staying still, and then eventually scaling the walls in the wee hours of the night). Thereafter, on 5th December 1919, he got married to Chitwant Kaur (nee Sangha), daughter of the Nazim of Patiala state. The story behind their betrothal is also fascinating! It turns out that there was a judgment handed out by the Nazim of Patiala State that was delivered to the Nazim of Nabha state, and at first the penmanship of the Patiala Nabha impressed the Nabha Nazim, but when the latter found out that the beautiful handwriting was that of his daughter, my ancestor promptly sent a proposal so that both their children could be married. My mother states that her grandfather used to say that a refined and educated mother will ensure that future generations value education and learning. However, this was not an easy feat, firstly because of the inter-royal rivalries between these two Phulkian states, and second, because the Regent of Patiala was a known philanderer, so getting permission to allow for this inter-state marriage was impossible. This was achieved by the wedding ceremonies conducted in Ludhiana (Bhadaur House) and away from the politics of both royal states.

Then in 1923, after the birth of my aunt, my grandfather went to Ann Arbor Michigan, to study mechanical engineering. While at there, he actually meets Henry Ford in a ball! Mr Ford very impressed and intrigued by his turban, stuck a conversation, and asked my grandfather to look him up when he finished his education. The family narrative is that he worked with Henry Ford for a short period, who then offered him the position to be the General Manager for Ford Motors for Southeast Asia (based out of Bombay). Although he agreed, the family was not very happy about it because the general attitude of Indian society those days was that with independence came bad habits (due to lack of family’s checks and balances). So they had another plan waiting for him! His father had contacted the Viceroy of India and a military career awaited him! He enlisted in the British Indian Army as a permanent commissioned officer, and joined the Madras Sappers and Miners regiment. It was tantalizing to learn from my Uncle that he was also trained to be a cipher and the only India as a core member of thee war operation office in India. However, when there was a troop movement leak, the suspicion fell on him as being the lone Indian with high security access to secret operations and classified information. Needless to say, he was suspended till all investigations into the matter were concluded. In due course, it was discovered that one of the British secretary, excited that her boyfriend was on one of these deployed ships, inadvertently disclosed this information while inebriated in the bar. My grandfather was reinstated, but these events were distressing to him so he asked for a change of branch. Being an engineer, he then joined the ‘Indian Pioneer Corps’ (as a commanding officer) and that’s how he ended up on the eastern border and in Burma.

My Grandparents with all seven children
From Left: Beant, Kuldip, Swaroop, Gursharan, Bharpoor, Birinder and Satwant (my mother, on the lap)

All together, he had quite a life! Only regret I have (and its a selfish desire) that I wish my mother was not the youngest child and I could have really known him. Nonetheless, I am very glad that my mother is quite an historian & record-keeper, and she (over the years) has shared so many cherished stories and anecdotes that I feel that I really do know him – his likes/dislikes, his character traits, and the kind of person he truly was. For that, I am ever so grateful!

Bapuji and Beji

Part 1: Satinder’s Zafarnama, Aurangzeb, Guru Gobind…

Satinder Sartaj ‘Zafarnamah’

With great curiosity and inquisitiveness, I listen to singer Satinder Sartaj’s newest release, ‘Zafarnama’.  I must applaud Sartaj for singing this legendary, celebrated, magnificent and multi-dimensional composition of Guru Gobind Singh so flawlessly.  Pièce de résistance for me is the integrity of this exquisite versification (and as penned by the Tenth Guru Farsi/Persian) that Sartaj was able to maintain. Plus the tone emanated the essence of this powerful and venerated letter that Guru Sahib sent to the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb.  For me, Gur Sahib’s fearless and resolute defiance of evil; reprimand of the emperor for tyranny & betraying his consecrated oath; eyewitness account of the fierce war of Chamkaur and its aftermath; his unequaled eminence despite his deep suffering, traumatic loss, and supreme sacrifice; all came thru. Zafarnama is an elegant, artistic and poetic and momentous play of words, by which Guru Gobind Singh passionately abjures tyranny, oppression, cruelty, subjugation, and injustice (which was prevalent in northern India during his time).

So what is this literary masterpiece? And what is the historical context in which it was written? For this to unfold we need to go back in history to circa 1705 AD. 

Aurangzeb, an aging orthodox Alamgir (emperor) has ruled India with an iron fist for five decades now.  In 1659, he came into power after a coup, a savage succession, that included deposing his father (Emperor Shah Jahan) and imprisoning him at the Fort in Agra; decapitating his much beloved elder brother and heir apparent (Dara Shikoh); and murdering rest of his other brothers. Although, considered a very austere, pious and reverent regent devoted to a very puritanical interpretation of Islam, he is a hardliner and very intolerant to any non-muslim or minority beliefs, doctrines and theology.  In his sultanate and rule, ‘Sharia‘ (Islamic law) was imposed; music, singing and alcohol was banned; and the ‘Jaziya‘ (a protection tax for non-muslims abolished from Akbar’s time) was reinstated. Plus, non-believers were meted with violent subjugation, discrimination, persecution and as well as coerced conversions.  Furthermore, it is during his reign that in 1675 AD, Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Sikh Guru) and his devoted companions, were barbarically tortured and killed in a very macabre manner (for providing protectorship and security to Kashmiri Pundits who sought his refuge fleeing zealous & forcible religious conversions, and for his declinature of the emperor’s offer of conversion to Islam in order to spare him his life). The Guru was publicly beheaded, and his loyalists (while still alive and in front of the Guru’s eyes, to serve as a deterrent) were sawed into half (Mati Das), boiled in a cauldron (Dayal Das), and burnt wrapped in cotton-wool (Sati Das). The Guru gave up his life but not his principles (Sis Diya Par Sirr Na Diya), and for this noble altruistic sacrifice that protected the fundamental rights of mankind, Guru Tegh Bahadur is also called the ‘Hind-Ki-Chadar’ (Shield-of-India).

Now at the tender age of 9, Gobind Rai became the tenth Guru of the Sikhs.  Recognizing the abject fear that this heinous crime instilled in the hearts of the Sikh followers and when taunted by the emperor’s men, it precluded them from even identifying themselves as Sikh loyalists and to claim the slain body of their Guru so that proper funeral rites could be administered). This event, compounded by the rampant oppression and tyrannization that existed in the kingdom, compelled Guru Gobind to forever transform and change the path of the faith.  He had the premonition and foreboding that ridding the subcontinent of evil, depraved and immoral personages, would require minds that were disciplined and steady, detached and indifferent to death, devoted with limitless courage. He knew, and let known) that this would not be an easy path with his maxim, ‘Jin Prem Kiyo, Tin Hi Prabh Payo‘ (One Who Truly Loves, Realizes The Divine). He built upon the saint-warrior foundation laid by Guru Nanak, the First Sikh Guru, who chapioned honest and truthful conduct, ethical and principled living, and above all equality for all.

Consequently, during the harvest festival of Basakhi, Guru Gobind created a new Sikh Order, a new fraternity of soldier-saints, whom he called the ‘Khalsa’. He did this very dramatically! On 30th March 1699, he mandated all his followers to assemble at Anandpur Sahib, and at the peak of this revelry, he appeared with an unsheathed drawn-out sword, and asked for volunteers willing to give up their lives for the Guru. A sudden sullen silence engulfed the gathering. When the Guru repeated his demand, Daya Ram volunteered, and he was escorted into the tent. After some time, Guru emerged with fresh blood dripping from the blade, and asked for a second volunteer. In all, he did this for a total of five times. It concluded with the Guru revealing to the congregation, in flesh and blood, these five volunteers who demonstrated their staunchest devotion, loyalty and commitment (and the blood on his sword of an animal).

He called them the ‘Panj Pyare‘ (Five Cherished), and they were the first initiates into this new order of the Khalsa, who then in return baptized the Guru, as the sixth initiate, and he went from being called Guru Gobind Rai to Guru Gobind Singh. He also blurred the lines between Guru and the Khalsa (Khalsa is the Guru and Guru is the Khalsa, he recited), even interchanged/reversed them (Guru is also the disciple, Gur-Chela). During this ceremony, he gave the ‘council of five Sikhs’ (Panj Pyare) collectively the authority to dictate to all Sikhs and ordered that their their edict (Gurmatta) must to be obeyed. Plus, to build on the equality principles, all men were to be called ‘Singhs‘ (Lion) and women ‘Kaur‘ (Princess). The dress, articles of faith (including the 5K’s), scriptures, poetry, ballads, etc., were to make the Sikh stand out so that they intervene when any injustice is being carried out (and unable hide in masses), ensure battle readiness, adherence to the highest code of conduct, and the ability to make the ultimate sacrifice. To me, what sums the martial tradition is verse 22 of Zafarnama, where it makes reference to the sword, as an holy ferrous sacrament, to protect the weak, but only when all peaceful means have failed! And this is how Guru Gobind Singh took a minority religion and made them the best fighting force that world has ever seen.

Coming Next – Part 2: The Epic Battle of Chamkaur, Aftermath and The Rebuke…

References –

COVID & The Spanish Flu, An Interesting Parallel…

There is no doubt that the current global COVID-19 health crisis is fluid, perplexing, dramatic, unsettling, paralyzing, and all-consuming; with countless images and data of people hooked up to ventilators or in body bags, healthcare workers & first responders in full PPE, (exhausted in some cases), deserted and empty streets, masked and gloved people and officials, rumors of shortages, etc., are omnipresent 24/7, in all news outlets, social media, concerned welfare calls, expert opinions and analysis, governmental or public health briefings, in unemployment numbers, in obstructed routines, etc.  Although some details are useful and informational, inspiring and even funny, but mostly forbidding, confusing, and conflicting! What’s confounding is the level of disruption, uncertainty, unpredictability and paranoia that prevails.  I wonder why our emotions are so heightened this time around?  Doesn’t the seasonal Flu kill more people annually?  What about more deadlier outbreaks like Swine Flu, SARs, MERs and Ebola, haven’t they become somewhat unmemorable & an illness of the past? It’s odd how we are indifferent and unconcerned to some maladies, yet so irrational and fearful of others?  Is it because its novel (no pun intended) & unfamiliar, and we haven’t developed any coping mechanism for? Or is it more innate and is triggering our reptilian brain and our instinctive survival mechanism?  Could it be even more primordial, perhaps it lays bare the cosmic truth about death, that we ultimately are not in control of how and when we die?

Also, what’s uncanny is the similarity that exists between ‘COVID-19’ crisis and the ‘Spanish Flu’ Influenza’ outbreak from only a 100 years back!  Both respiratory diseases (one coronavirus and the other H1N1) are so analogous that barring the period attire, one can easily swap pictures, posters and advice, and in my opinion one wouldn’t even know the difference!  Also, now overhearing my father, recount over the phone for his friends, the suffering from fall/autumn of 1918-19, as shared by Manji (his beloved grandmother who also lost her husband to this affliction within a short span of returning home to recuperate from the injuries to his spine that he sustained fighting in WW1), I hear him say, “Manji said there were so many deaths, when you returned from one funeral, the next funeral would be ready for cremation”.  I was stunned by this revelation and the poignant, sobering and soul-stirring picture these works painted, that are also so reflective of what we are seeing with the disturbing COVID-19 scenario!  Unfortunately that was the reality of the times and a common suffering, misfortune and depravity that many people and families share globally. I also noted that he called the infirmity ‘Katak di Bimari’ or ‘Illness of Katak’ (Katak, in Punjabi is the eighth month of the Desi calendar, 30 days long, with the first day falling on October 15th and the last day on November 13th), which my father later clarified that because there was absence of formal education and even lack of English language knowledge in the masses, perhaps Manji (and the locals) described this pestilence in Punjabi dialect which they were familiar & comfortable with, and one which made sense to them.  

As I further my research into the perils of ‘Spanish Flu’ in India, I am finding that although it is very well pictorialized in the West, photos from Indian subcontinent was hugely lacking. This felt odd given that Indian deaths accounted for 1/5th of the 50 million deaths worldwide!  Also, India had a large contingent of soldiers in WW1 and in the epicenter France where this disease broke out, what was I missing?  I know experts called it the ‘forgotten pandemic’ and it certainly seemed true from the Indian experience. Also now that are read these two write-ups – 1) Arnold David’s paper titled ‘Death and the Modern Empire: The 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic in India’,  where he states that “the impact of the disease was overshadowed by the prior encounter with bubonic plague, by military recruitment and the war, and by food shortages and price rises that pushed India to the brink of famine”, and 2) Angana Chakrabarti’s article “102 yrs before COVID-19, India braved The Bombay Fever pandemic that killed over 10 mn’,  she calls ‘Spanish Flu’ ‘Bombay Fever’ or ‘Bombay Influenza’!  I wonder if the depravations that existed in colonial India were so grave that people didn’t see ‘Spanish Flu’ as a distinctive disease and also the various colloquial names used to describe the disease takes away from knowing the true human tragedy in India?  While we ponder on this, there is no doubt that Spanish Flu came to India in three waves (like the rest of the world), mainly – 

  1. The first wave manifested in May/June 1918 in the dock workers at the Bombay port.  It lasted about 4 weeks and devastated Bombay (or Mumbai) and which the local British health officer, J.A. Turner, professed at the time “it came to Bombay like a thief in the night” (Chakrabarti, 2020).  Symptoms reported were fever, bone pain, bronchial inflation, congestion, eye pains and a general feeling of malaise.
  2. The second wave, the most lethal & fatal, targeted young men between ages of 20 to 40 years old (of which my aforementioned great-grandfather was one of its fatalities), came to India and Punjab in September 1918 and lasted till December 1918.  
  3. The third and final wave came in 1919.

In closing, although it’s unknown with COVID-19, what the next few days, weeks or months are going to look like, or how it may show up in history’s storyline & timeline, I am confident in the human spirit and its resilience.  Also, history is witness that mankind has overcome many endemics, epidemics and pandemics, so certainly we will prevail over this too.  For now, please head the warnings of the experts, wash your hands, and stay safe.  

References –

Mystery Of The Medal Solved…

I had a conundrum with one of my ancestors’ medal.  At first glance it is an inconsequential, flimsy medal; a red enameled cross with a ceramic white center with the letters SS surrounded by a gold wreath of sorts.  It doesn’t resemble any known British campaign medal of the time.  Plus, I hypothesized, given its lackluster and diaphanous quality, it to be an insignificant regimental honor given for a sporting competition or some leisure activity.  So you can imagine my astonishment and disbelief when my friend Tejpal shared it to be the Russian Imperial medal ‘The Order of St. Stanislas’ (Orden sv. Stanislava, Орденъ Св. Станислава).  A medal of great historical significance and quite a collector’s item!  

Wait.  What? A dynastic Russian award from the times of the Tsar/Czar!  What? How did my ancestor, an Indian soldier of the British-Indian army, ever get such a decoration?  In what way would he have had contact with any Russian?  As the name of the ancestor is not inscribed on the medal, could it be from Babaji Sawan Singh’s 2nd Afghan war times which was fought to drive Russians out of Afghanistan?  Or was it from Babaji Indar Singh’s generation when Russian empire was part of the ‘triple alliance’ on the Western Front?  It so turns out that during the First World War about 350 ‘Orders of St Stanislas’ were awarded to British and Indian troops!  Iain Smith, my connection from the UK based ‘Sikh Pioneers and Sikh Light Infantry Association’, stated that “at the end of the war, the Allied states made a point of making reciprocal awards of medals to their fellow Allies. You often find lists of medal awards in the London Gazette with British and Indian soldiers receiving French, Belgian, Serbian, Romanian or Russian medals. You are very lucky still to have the medal”.

Hold on.  When was the Russian Revolution?  Wasn’t the Russian imperial family deposed in 1917 (while the Great war ended in 1918)?  So, was this awarded under Czar Nicholas II’s reign or by the Russian provincial government that took over when the Czar abdicated?  Although, getting my head around Tsar Nicholas II, ’House of Romanov’ or ‘Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution’ was overwhelming but it really brought history to life!  Now those boring and monotonous classes of world history (and historical events) had context and connection. Wow!  By now you must be wondering.  What is this award?  From my research it appears that this royal decoration has origins in Poland where it was awarded for ‘chivalry and exemplifying christian virtues’. Then sometime in 1831, it entered the Russian honor system and was given out to both military personnel and civilians for their distinguished service.  In 1844, after undergoing a few revisions and redesigns ( including splitting it into 3 classes), it started to be given out to non-christians as well.  It remained in place in Russia for some time in 1917, when the ‘Provincial Government of Russia’ came into power after the abdication of the Czar.  However, once the ‘Bolsheviks’ took control, all imperial and dynastic award were suspended and discontinued.  The original medal as it would have been awarded to my great grandfather would have been a ‘Bath’ cross with four double-headed eagles (representing the Russian empire) with swords at each angle (all made of gold), with a circular wreath of green laurel holding the white enameled medallion with red SS in the middle.  Plus, it would have been finely crafted in the workshops of highly skilled goldsmiths, silversmiths and enamelers!  

In closing, although, ours is a denuded medal that is stripped of its decoration of gold crown, eagles, and swords (perhaps for its extrinsic value), it is a magnificent reminder of my ancestor’s valor, heroism, sacrifice, and for being brethren in arms in the trenches of an awful war.  It tells of a tremendous story of resilience in the battlefield for which he was recognized by a foreign sovereign/government.  What an exquisite and priceless piece of history which I will cherish all my life!

Other Interesting stuff –

  1. Our medal has a mismatched ribbon! For some reason, a family member swapped out the ribbon with the one from 1911 Delhi durbar.  Hopefully, I can correct it in future once I procure the correct ribbon.
  2. Did you know historians did not chronicle WW1 records until 1922 (4 years after the war ended)?  Therefore, they may have failed to properly document the accounts of Indian soldiers especially the ones who perished before the war records were tabulated.  Thus my great grandfather’s story in an incomplete one! (Thank you Tejpal for this information

References –

Caste and Clan Clarification …

Growing up I was acutely aware that I belonged to a Sikh family and was different from the population at large.  Although there were quite a few Sikhs in the different Air Force stations that my father got posted to, we were still a small number.  I remember my father looked different from other fathers because of his turban, my mother was taller than all my friends mothers’ & wore salwar-kameez as opposed to saris, their penchant for speaking Punjabi to each other (and their delight when other folks spoke their mother-tongue) while switching to other dialects in public. Plus, the unfettered liberty my classmates/friends took in cracking Sikh jokes also added to one feeling distinctive.   

Having said that what I was not much cognizant of the clan/caste differentiation that is so deeply rooted & entrenched in the psyche, traditions, beliefs and sentiments of the society and people of the subcontinent.  I think my first recollection of this stratification was thru my school curriculum where the ‘Laws of Manu’ was taught in history and sociology classes.  Although, as a minor, I didn’t see much evidence and any questions I had regarding caste/clan was countered with a very healthy discourse that the Sikh Gurus departed from such practice(s), and in the formation of the ‘Khalsa Panth’ (Sikh religion) the last Guru homogenized the religion by abolishing the clan/caste delineation by instituting that all men were to be called ‘Singh’(Lion) and women as ‘Kaur’ (Princess) as their last name.  Regardless, awareness of caste/clan social order crept in subtly and perhaps thru socialization!  For instance, during our annual vacation trip to Punjab, it was customary for my grandparents to take us to our ‘Pind’ (village), not only to mingle with our rural cousins, expose us to our ‘Jat’ roots, visit our farms, but also to socialize us to the ways of the ‘Jats’!  It was expected that as children of prominent ‘Jat Sikh’ family of our village, we not only needed to be familiar of our rural land holdings, what the land grew, when was the harvest season, etc.  Any talks of selling these lands were quickly hushed and made known that there is no Jat without land (farms that is).  For me the unspoken bias regarding inter-clan/caste dynamics came into prominence during my sister’s wedding.  My sister was marrying a ‘Khatri’ Sikh, and the idea that my parents even sanctioned it to take place was very unpalatable for many of our relatives.  They made their opposition & disapproval to this union known, with some being very vocal whilst others grumbling behind closed doors.  This was a bit of surprise to me given she was marrying a Sikh guy (and the only other example I know of a marriage that was opposed was that of my cousin who married a ‘Gupta’ but I thought that antipathy was because she married outside the religion!).  Now that after two decades of marriage my sister and her husband are divorcing, the same polarity & dogmatism is surfacing with our relatives surfacing their original opposition to this marriage. I realized that the clan/caste lines in India is very dominant and it transcends religion and time.  Powerful stuff!

Having knowledge of this bias, I was very surprised during my research into my paternal ancestor’s military service in the British-Indian Army that their regiments (23rd and the 34th Sikh Pioneers) were predominantly compromised of Sikhs from the ‘Mazbi’ clan.  The more I researched the more it got confusing with most literature calling all members of the regiments as ‘Mazbis’ as well as modern day experts congratulating me for the bravery of my ‘Mazbi’ ancestors.  Initially all this amusing given my introductory remarks but it became very apparent to me of the disservice this is creating toward the contributions of others that were also part of the regiment, and their participation was going unrecognized!  Although I have lots of questions, mainly around how come my paternal ancestors who were ‘Jat Sikhs’ end up in a regiment of ‘Mazbi Sikhs?  Were they progressive and aspired to the teachings of the Sikh Gurus who attempted to erode these class/caste/clan structures?  or were they ambitious and saw an opening for faster promotion in a regiment of a different clan?  I guess the answer I will never know but I do know that they were brave men and their contribution is immense which I will make entries in future blogposts.

India Calling…

As I sit in the airport lounge in rainy San Francisco, heading to India via Helsinki,  I can feel my excitement to go to India finally building.  Although I feel terrible leaving my two pets for 3 weeks, this trip has been 6 years in the making! I am finally thrilled that I have been able to get myself strong enough to not my disease dictate my life (did I tell you guys that I have stage 4 metastatic breast cancer of the bone & 2017-18 was touch and go!). Even though the day of the trip is here, it’s been quite a chaotic day. Since I left home this morning, I have given a phone interview en route to the John Wayne Airport (keeping my fingers crossed to see I make the next round of the promotionally interview :)); handled some very heavy suitcases (I mean really heavy ones) including my carryon; tactfully avoided the extra weight charges by having to really sweet talk the agent!; had my flight to San Francisco (SFO) diverted to San Jose; having had to retrieve my bags which I thought were booked to Delhi; then bussed to SFO; had to wait again for couple of hours to have the Finnair counter to open (and deciding to take advantage of the food court and try San Francisco’s clam chowder, which I must say was D-E-L-IC-I-O-U-S!); again dealt with saga of the suitcases and avoiding $100 charge….phew! Finally, I am cosily settled into the lounge with a warm cup of tea and a crostini, and contemplating the joys of travel 🙂

Update on the travel – My Finnair flight got into Helsinki ahead of schedule. I now have couple of hours of transit and I am enjoying the Ikea-ish minimalist but stylish decor. The landscape has a dusting of snow and I am trying not to do any duty free shopping 🙂 All I can say is that this is the final leg & I am half-way to India! So before I know it I should be in New Delhi and seeing my gorgeous sister Neenu after such a long time. She is one of the most bravest, honorable & feistiest person I know. She has handled life’s lemons so gracefully and with great inner strength, and I just simply love my little sister 🙂

Okay it’s 8:20pm Finland time & the flight is full, boarded and on the verge of takeoff. So here I come India, like it or not 😜