Intro: Danger and death bring us closer to God, it is said. But for soldiers, who routinely face both, faith plays a big
role in keeping spirits high.
A senior retired officer of the Indian Army has said on record that faith/religion is considered the single most important battle-winning factor. Needless to say, India's troops from both rural and urban backgrounds have deep-rooted faith in their religions.
En route to a forward post near the Line of Control, on a road entirely monitored and controlled by the Army, we were in for a surprise. A colorful, quaint temple nestled in the mountains was perhaps the last thing we had expected to encounter. The road going up from Sunderbani to ‘Mala post’ on Akhnoor border (Jammu and Kashmir) witnesses military movement only, and is very rarely used by civilians. No one can travel on this road without special permission. The presence of Army is felt all along the way through clear and focused markings on mountain rocks and bends. Almost mid way, the road suddenly seems to open up and you realize you’ve reached a beautiful and well-maintained temple! Every bright color you can think of, it’s there – blue, yellow, green, orange, red and pink! It’s known as the Katao Mandir.
There’s a very interesting story associated with this temple which our escort, an army jawan, reverently related it to us. There are two water tanks in the temple premises, always filled with pure and clear drinkable water. No one knows the source of this water. It seems during the India-Pakistan war of 1965, the Pakistan Army surrounded this mountain. As Indian Army had lost many of its men, and the battle had reached a critical phase, at this point, Maa Durga appeared in soldiers’ dream and blessed them. Thereafter, the soldiers drank this water and faced the enemy with renewed vigour and confidence. The battle turned on its head, and the Indian Army was able to achieve unexpected victory. Pakistani armymen were defeated with the blessings of Ma Durga, which is why this temple is called ‘Katao Mandir’, the jawan told us. This tale is also written on a standee outside the temple. And yes, the water tanks are indeed there, though one has to climb many colourful steps and a steep mountainous trek to get to them.
As you go up the stairs to the main mandir of Ma Durga, other deities have been enshrined in small alcoves along the wall. Each deity has been reverently placed there by some regiment of the Army. Every morning and evening puja is performed at the temple by the Army’s official pujari.
As we breathed in the beauty and fresh air of the mountainside, we noticed a heavy duty Army vehicle coming down. As it approached the temple, it slowed down and finally came to a halt. The vehicle just stayed there, as if in ‘attention’ mode, for almost two minutes. Then the driver pressed the horn twice, and resumed driving. Intrigued, we asked our escort if this was normal practice. Yes, he said. It’s our way of asking for the Mother’s blessings, he explained.
The Indian Army recruits include qualified priests in uniform, with badges of rank in war, but are permitted to put on civilian wear like any other civilian priest in normal times. Their duties include religious discourses and lectures on values to the troops. The battle cries of various regiments can be traced to deep-rooted faith of the troops in their presiding deity or in their pride of belonging to their community. The Garhwal Rifles’ battle cry, for example, is “Badri Vishal lal ki jai” (Victory to the great Lord Badrinath). That of the Gorkha regiments is “Ayo Gorkhali” (Gorkha comes).
Interestingly, in Mathura and other cantonments of the pre-partition days, mosques constructed for the troops of Muslim units of the undivided British Indian Army still continue to be maintained, often by the Hindu or non-Muslim troops.
Abha Khanna Gupta (The writer is a senior journalist and social worker)