Monday, September 3, 2018




For me, a holiday in the hills is, primarily, going on nature trails and birding trips. I pack my camera kit with the indispensable telephoto prepared to lug it around at every opportunity. Shimla in rains was proving to be a dampener in this respect. There were not many birds to be seen or heard, particularly from the patio of my retreat. On the other hand, there were enough black-faced langurs and red-faced macaques to hold my attention. Their wicked ways kept me on guard and almost holed up in my room.

I was in no mood to relent, though, come rain or ape. It was a particularly drizzly day, so strolling on the Mall Road was out of question. I wanted to be somewhere indoor when the cabbie suggested I go to Annadale. Apart from being the summer capital during colonial times, Shimla was a cool getaway for the British elite who loved their parties and theatre. In those days, the verdant valley of Annadale was a race course that doubled up as playground for polo matches, fairs, and balls. Today, it belongs to the Indian Army which has built a heritage museum here.

Annandale as it has been rechristened was a revelation. Surrounded by “sentinel” deodar forest, it is a world apart.

26 July, 2018: I am all agog as I stand amidst beautifully curated displays of Army paraphernalia – flags, regalia, medals, weapons – recounting history. Leafing through a catalogue of information of India’s Army Operations, I come upon Operation Vijay. It is sheer coincidence that 20 years ago, on this very day, Kargil War was declared successful. The sacrifice of 527 soldiers over 67 days was the price we paid for what we celebrate today as “Vijay Diwas”. Enough is known about the War as it was India’s first televised war, yet little is known about the Army way of life. Enough is talked about the Army’s machismo and nationalism, often termed as “jingoism”, but little about the soldier himself. The Museum attempts to bridge this gap.

Painstakingly designed by Army Training Command (ARTRAC) stationed in Shimla, the Museum, while being illuminating, is nothing short of a memorial to the warrior. The thought behind this heritage complex, as depicted in a placard, is to connect with the countrymen whose love and respect is all that the Army craves to stay motivated. With more than 20 diverse training units under it, ARTRAC is the nodal agency for institutional training. Contrary to the popular stereotype:: “Military Intelligence (or a thinking soldier) is a contradiction in terms”, the Army does lay emphasis on the “scholar warrior”.

The Army ethos comes, largely, from the epics - Ramayana and Mahabharata - and the treatise, Bhagavad Gita, as some of the exhibits inform. It is the ideology woven around an unending pursuit for excellence where excellence is an end in itself and serves its own reward. The concept of Dharma–of obligations and duties to oneself and unto others, the core value of Indian civilisation is its cornerstone. After all, the ethics of working for the common good of the society is manifest in the military’s motto of ‘Service before Self’. 


India has history of folklore and songs that valorise the heroic deeds of legendary soldiers who are remembered even today. Music has always been an integral part of the military vocation as it has inspired man to lead troops in battle. The Epic depicts use of martial music, not only to raise the morale of own troops, but also to strike terror in the hearts of the enemy. All varieties of drums, tambourines, trumpets, conch shells and cow’s horn were used in ancient times. 

Musicians formed a part of the Patti (foot soldiers) or Infantry laying the foundations for the contemporary Military Band. Regiments began maintaining regular bands since the 19th century and soon they were playing for ceremonial and official functions. One such stirring composition is the Army’s signature song, “kadam kadam badhaye ja” which it adopted from Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Not many may know that Field Marshal KM Cariappa who took the baton from the British as the first Indian Army Chief was instrumental in opening the Indian Military Academy of Music in Panchamarhi in 1951.


The Military is not all about “war-mongering”, as many like to believe. “A significant feature of the Indian Army has been that an officer was expected to combine business with pleasure without detracting from his devotion to profession.  This was the liberal milieu which aided and encouraged many officers to gain recognition as men of contemporary merit in pursuits way outside the ambit of soldiering.” Thus soldiers have excelled in diverse areas ranging from sports to natural history. An entire section of the Museum is devoted to the military’s contribution to the latter.

Officers of the British Army were the first naturalists, in a modern sense, who explored, studied, and documented India’s flora and fauna, a tradition that continues till date. Many army men find entry into the Hall of Fame of Natural History having carved a permanent niche for themselves. An exhibit informs that Lt Col RSP Bates’ (author of “Bird life in India”, 1930) knowledge of bird behaviour was as acute as his excellence in bird photo portraits. Salim Ali – India’s legendary birdman – is known to have paid a handsome tribute to his contribution: “Many of his portraits of Indian birds must still rank amongst the finest ever made.” Similarly, Lt. Col Gharpuray’s (Indian Medical Services) book, “The Snakes of India” (1935) ran into several reprints and remained the standard text for next 25 years.

Indian Army’s distinguished and scholarly heritage in this regard remains, largely, unknown and unsung. The Army has made significant contributions to conservation movements and to scientific study of nature. Its cantonments, depots, training establishments, etc. are located in wilderness areas in diverse ecosystems. Aware of the significance of these bio-geographic zones, it has often collaborated with national wildlife institutes such as the Wildlife Trust of India, Department of Wildlife Protection, Nature Conservation Foundation to assess the distribution, status and threats to globally endangered species in the country. For its unique conservation effort, the Indian Army was awarded the prestigious first (according to museum information) BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) award.

The “green” efforts of the Indian Army seemed as vibrant, to me, as the emerald spread of the valley outdoor. The verdure is alluringly complemented by the greyscales of deodars drenched in drizzle and intermittently enveloped in mist. In the hush of the hills, the glasshouse in the premises beckoned equally. There are hardly any visitors at the Museum complex as it is remote and not on the regular tourists’ radar; I have the place to myself. 

As I enter , haunting strains of “Sandeshe ate hain, humain tadpate hain, ke chitthi ati hain, to puche jate hai, ke ghar kab aaoge…” holds me spellbound. Already overwhelmed by the natural elements and heady with the military’s sense of purpose as essayed in the Museum, this comes as “shock and awe’. As it turns out, the young horticulturist in charge of the glasshouse, an alumnus of Himachal Pradesh University, is humming the song. Not only has he a great voice, but he brings the same pathos as Sonu Nigam originally did to the dirge.

The numerous gigantic cactus and succulents in the glasshouse resonate with the lament. This vegetation is out of place in the rainfed flora of fern and starwort of the hills. The ‘Mother-in-law’s Cushion with its menacing spikes is of particular interest. “Why cactus in the Himalayan habitat?” I ask. “So that people who are not acquainted with the arid flora can get to see them,” is his logic. On display are trophies won by ARTRAC, year after year, for their home gardens.

On my way out, I wait at the threshold to shelter myself from the downpour. Songs of the whistlingthrush and magpie waft on the mountain air. Raindrops drip through the branches of the cedars on to the awning, to ferns below, subsequently plopping into a water receptacle creating its own symphony. A Himalayan bulbul chatters continuously telling its own tale. As I stand still, soaking it all in, a tiny bird flies down from a flag-post nearby, sizing me cock-eyed. In that moment of shared solitude, the brown bush chat thinks it proper to serenade me. Tears start rolling down my cheeks; there is only so much beauty a soul can take.

Footnote: On my ride back as I sat in contemplation processing all that I had seen, the cabbie commented: “The Museum is the best thing that has happened to Shimla. It is something that every tourist should visit.” He maintained that Annadale had remained pristine and beautiful as it was under the Army, otherwise it would have gone the way “tourist Shimla” has gone, long back. 



1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written and an enlightening article enriched with lot of photos. Thanks for sharing.