By Col PB Thapa (Retd)
Summer… and a chance opportunity took me to a place that encompasses Garhwal’s history sans kings and queen and palaces, but preserves within its fold deeds of valour and the chivalry of its simple and brave soldiers, not only within but beyond the shores of India.
Even at the cost of revisiting our colonial history and tryst with destiny which abounds with sights and sounds of that period, already widely written about and read, I am compelled to add my own, very brief yet delightful experience of a ‘regimented town’ that only its original creators could have thought of.
‘Up the tumultuous path’ from Kotdwar, tucked away in a pocket of beautiful hills, is a destination that may not command a tourist’s parallel attention in comparison to larger/more vibrant places, but provides simple yet comfortable amenities, amidst luxurious natural wealth and ‘heritage’ which is thriving yet silently, away from the sight and sounds of the country or over-crowding wayfarers.
Lansdowne is primarily a military cantonment that was established by the British, a little distance away from village Jairikhal. It is home to one of our bravest regiments, named The Garhwal Rifles, where raw recruits of this Himalayan region are trained to emerge as full-fledged soldiers.
Right in the centre of the town and above the magnificent parade ground, stands the eye-catching statue of their symbol of pride and bravery… the ‘Garhwali soldier’, with a rifle in hand and gazing challengingly into the far distance. Designed and sculpted by master craftsmen, it is enough to fill your hearts with pride to stand beside the gallant soldier and appreciate its craftsmanship. This stone wonder was created in England-France and shipped across oceans to our Indian shores and carted on a bullock cart caravan up the foot-tracks from Kotdwar to its present location.
Almost all military establishments (without grudging their origin) are the gift of the former British rulers. Our love-hate relationship might add a little romance to that ‘era’ of heroic battles of India, being slowly subjugated … yet bringing in development and modernisation that we may have had difficulty in achieving otherwise. Yes, we paid a heavy price for it, but there is no denying that we benefited equally if not more. Our entire country is dotted with Vintage/Heritage institutions, constructions, traditions and relics of that period, wherein began the humble beginning of places for not only housing picturesque ‘Regimental homes’ but structures that accommodate their men and institutions. Call it ‘attachment’ or a bond between the soldiers of then and now, their continued use and maintenance in the original pristine splendour, speaks volumes about the present generation’s commitment to history and military traditions, without affecting our national pride.
My simple effort is to touch upon one such destination of cultural wealth in our own backyard.
The place is named after its founder … Lord Lansdowne, then Viceroy of India. Its original name was Kaludanda and remained so till 1887, when the first battalion of the Garhwal Regiment was shifted here from Almora. (This unit was originally a part of the Third Gorkha Rifles and continues to wear the Gorkha hat on ceremonial occasions. Since there was no separate regiment for men from this region, the Garhwalis were enrolled in Gorkha regiments and when it was realised that much of the bravery owed to Gorkha Battalions was due to Garhwali soldiers also it was decided to raise a separate regiment for them). Today, it has nineteen battalions on its ‘rolls’ with thirty ‘battle honours’, three Victoria Crosses and many more awards of past and post independent India, and they had all started their journey from ‘Lansdowne’ and continue to do so.
That is history and if one has to see it still thriving…that’s partly where the author’s main interest lies. I belong to a different regiment of equal acclaim, but it was a rare treat to visit this place and wander within its portals of fame – dormitories and institutes, which are a mix of Victorian vintage alongside present-day constructions. Colonial India, not preserved as relics or monuments but still lived-in with our own masterly adaptation, and maintaining the glory and splendour of a life in uniform…fast and furious soldiery… conquest and banquets … pipes and drums … gaiety regardless of demanding training in peace, or being martyred in the ‘field’. Motivation is a big factor and Lansdowne’s humble yet historical past contributes to making of fine soldiers.
But can silent structures of the ghostly past, showcase all these splendours within the narrow confines of a regiment? No, it cannot. The vast collection in the Regiment’s Museum show-cases only a fraction of what they actually possess … likewise, the Officers’ Mess displays only ‘a little’ of their grand inventory of silver and souvenirs (not to be interpreted as pompous grandeur … but as a way of life, beyond the comprehension of sages and saints). The surrounding hills reverberate with gruelling training schedules and the oath taking ceremony of recruits graduating to full–bloodied soldiers. It cannot but impress the most untouched with the equally impressive parade, witnessed by a large number of military and civilian dignitaries, relatives and enthusiastic visitors and gentry from near and far. The magnificent parade ground, with its war memorials/vistas containing names of decorated soldiers of past and present, adds luster to its laurels.
Over the years, the Regimental Centre has vastly improved on its original assets without disturbing the original and thus promoting the charm of destination Lansdowne, overall. The mix of old and new is harmoniously sublime, where the ‘additions’ have not robbed the former’s grandeur.
Take the Officers’ Mess for that matter. Built in 1888, the building and its contents belong entirely to that ‘period’… every piece of furniture, paintings, exhibits connected to heroic battles, hunting and sports mementos and many more collections of rare sight and value. There are many more institutions and bungalows in similar health and use, defying the lure to replace them. The additional annexes and constructions, necessitated by the increased strength and technological development, may be sharp in modernity, but blend pleasantly with the older order.
It may be difficult to list all that is there ‘to be seen’ within these columns, but readers may find delight visiting the ‘Darban Singh Museum’, which houses its entire history through a rare collection of exhibits. The grand old officers’ mess and nearby bungalows, where a soldier will expertly educate visitors with its past and present matchless glory, is a never to be forgotten experience. Its ‘library’ spreads on both sides of the main entrance and instantly reminds one of the famous ‘Library’ of Mussoorie in likeness and content. It must be seen to be believed, to remind many a one that a soldier is an equally keen reader. And, when the magnificent antique table is laid-out in the Dining Hall, adjoining the equally majestic Main Hall, one is left to wonder if the Viceroy with his elegant Vicereine might still be attending. St John’s Church, which spreads across an enormous area, is still functional and though St Mary’s Church now houses a museum, they add to the romance of a bygone era. The newly constructed regimental Mandir is an architectural delight … and perched on a knoll, it commands instant reverence.
I will leave it at that. From the tourism point of view, it is comparatively a small yet enchanting destination which centres ‘in and around’ the Regimental Centre/Cantonment, but the heritage makes it a must see hill resort surrounded by silently winding hillside roads, magnificent viewing points like the famous ‘Tiffin Top’, dense oak trees and the hills’ nostalgic Lali-Buras (red flowering trees) with rare animals, birds and bees which is another major attraction of this place, along with the excellent trekking opportunities. Its charm lies in its unique ‘quiet and silence’ that allows a visitor to hear the jungle come alive with its musical encores.
‘Bulla Tal’ (lake) is yet another attraction. Named after the young recruited soldiers, as they are affectionately called, this engineering wonder was built with their own hands and resources. (Up ahead and ‘out of bounds’ for nosy enthusiasts, a retired colonel may be seen snoozing in his 1932 ‘Hermitage’ with determination to live ‘out’ his life from here…why because he himself was born in it and finds it far better than the madding crowd elsewhere… and not poetic illusions alone. That is where his similarity with Ruskin Bond ends, though both live in similar places).
(NB… I owe this episode to Colonel DK Pradhan, SM, ex-Commandant of the ‘Centre’, who took us on this most memorable journey. And, of course, entry to certain places requires permission but it is seldom denied).