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Ghosts of the Himalayas; as Revered by the Indian Army

There is just something about a ghost story that makes you want to sit
beside a fire with your legs curled up and a warm cup of coffee in your
hand or maybe even scotch on the rocks, depending on what suits
your fancy. And now imagine yourself in an alien land with treacherous
terrain, freezing temperature, miles away from family and anything
familiar. Won't a ghost story spice up your life a little bit? Maybe, thats
why these legends/ ghosts have made their way into the Indian Army's
folklore, giving them respite from their tedious and mundane activities
up in the Himalayas.

The Legend of Baba Harbhajan Singh:

“Harbhajan Baba ki Jai”, says the taxi driver as he crosses the rickety
bridge over the Teesta River. ‘Harbhajan Baba’ is revered across Sikkim
as a sacred entity. But who is he?.

Late Sepoy Harbhajan Singh was enrolled into the Punjab Regiment on
9 Feb 1966. Born in the village of Browndal in Kapurthala district of
Punjab, he enlisted in the army at an early age and found himself
posted on the misty heights of the Sino- Indian border near Nathula
Pass. The year 1968 saw heavy rainfall and vicious floods in the
region. On 4 Oct 1968, while escorting a mule caravan from his
battalion headquarters at Tukla to Deng Chukla, he fell into a fast-
flowing stream and was washed away. The search for his body
continued for a couple of days but was abandoned due to inclement
weather. And one day, Harbhajan Singh appeared in the dream of one
of the sepoys in his unit. In the dream, he informed his colleague that
he was no longer alive and told him the exact spot where his body
would be found. He asked him to construct a Samadhi at the spot
where his body would be found. After saying that he will always patrol
in the area and never give up being a soldier, he disappeared. The man
woke up and dismissed the dream as a manifestation of his grief for
Harbhajan Singh’s loss.

It wasn’t until another member of the same unit had the same dream
down to the last detail that suspicions were aroused. It seemed an
incredible coincidence that two people could have dreamed the same
sequence of events. When a search party was dispatched to the spot
that had been described in the dream, late Sepoy Harbhajan Singh’s
body was found. He was cremated with full military honours and a
Samadhi was made at Chhokya Cho as per the wishes that he had
expressed in his dream. The first part of the dream had been accurate
and what about the second half about remaining a soldier forever?

Soon reports of a man seen patrolling the area began filtering in.
Soldiers deployed in the area would talk of a lone uniformed man on
horse patrolling the region. Forces on the other side of the border
confirmed these reports and claimed that they too had seen the ghost
rider. Over the years, soldiers in the area began seeing Harbhajan
Singh in their dreams where he instructed them of loopholes and
unprotected areas from where the Chinese could attack. His
instructions generally proved to be accurate and the legend of Baba
Harbhajan Singh grew. Meanwhile, the popularity of the shrine was
also growing. It gained significance as a religious spot and people
came with the faith of having their problems solved or their infirmities
cured by the Baba who had come back from the dead. The Samadhi
dedicated to Harbhajan Singh consisted of a three room complex
where a bed would be laid out for him and his uniform and boots would
be displayed for the visitors. Caretakers of the Samadhi would swear
that each morning the bed sheets would be crushed as if someone had
slept in the bed the previous night and the carefully polished boots
would be soiled and covered with mud. This conundrum only added to
the Babas followers who came in truckloads.

The Indian army realised the importance of Late Sepoy Harbhajan
Singh and in honour of his contribution, he was promoted to Honorary
Captain. A pay check would be sent home to Kapurthala every month
and more interestingly, he would go home on annual leave on
September 14 every year. Soldiers would pack his trunk with basic
essentials and ‘Capt Harbhajan’ would be accompanied by two
soldiers all the way to Kapurthala by train and brought back after a
month the same way. This tradition continued for years until he was
retired a few years back.

Following the twisting narrow roads at a steep incline, taxis and cars
snake their way to 14000 ft to visit Harbhajan Baba every year. Devout
believers from all over Sikkim and Bengal visit the Samadhi bringing
the sick and the elderly in the hope of a miracle. They bring bottles of
water and take back those lying there. It is believed that water left at
the Samadhi over a period of time turns to holy water and is capable of
curing ailments. Food is served to the devotees who make the arduous
journey by the soldiers looking after the Samadhi.

The Samadhi dedicated to Harbhajan Baba is located amidst a
beautiful panorama of high mountains broken in places by gushing
waterfalls and dotted by multi-coloured shrubs. En route, one crosses
beautiful lakes and hamlets that resemble something out of a picture
postcard. One such village is Kyangnosla. The ascent is steep and
often takes skilled driving. In order to reach the Samadhi, a detour
must be taken along the road that leads to the Sino- Indian border post
of Nathula which was opened for trade recently. The Samadhi attracts
people from all religions – In its own way, it has promoted a certain
secular equanimity in the region – a rare feat in today’s world.

Taxi drivers and soldiers passing through the area generally stop at the
Samadhi to pay obeisance to the revered Baba. Not doing so is
supposed to bring bad luck. In a society that is dictated by tradition
and supported on the pillars of superstition, it is not uncommon to find
a legend of this kind. Perhaps the Chinese are just as superstitious as
we are because at the monthly flag meetings between the two nations
at Nathula, the Chinese set a chair aside for Harbhajan Baba.

And as the red flag bespeckled with stars flaps in the icy wind next to
the tricolour, a lone figure perhaps stands and watches- ever alert, ever
watchful, ever zealous, and ever protective of his country’s honour. A
zeal that has lasted beyond death.

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