The Madras Regimental Centre in Wellington, is the oldest regiment in the Indian Army. Its history is chequered with battles won and lost, bravery, courage and endurance.

254 glorious years

It’s a pleasant afternoon in August. Moisture-rich monsoon clouds hang low over the skies of Wellington in the Nilgiris. After a while they part to let in the sun. The rain dampened asphalt in the square below glistens.

The moment of calm is abruptly broken with the standard MRC greeting of Namaskaram, a sharp blast of a whistle to announce half-hour and also the crescendo of soldiers following commands during training.

I am at the Wellington (Shrinagesh) Barracks, home of the Madras Regimental Centre (MRC).

The Madras Regiment is the Indian Army’s oldest regiment, formed in the 18th century. It has played an active part in many campaigns with both the British Indian Army and the Indian Army. It's past is rich with incidents of valour, sacrifice, glory and victories.

It’s not surprising therefore, that the “Thambis” are highly decorated, with a haul of battle honours (45), Chief of Army citations, certificates of appreciation and gallantry awards. It includes two Victoria Crosses (before Independence).

To appreciate this regiment’s standing, one has to go back in time to when the empires and kingdoms of the Chalukyas, Hoysalas, Pallavas, Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas and Bahminis ruled various parts of South India including Sri Lanka and South East Asia, till the end of the 18th Century A.D. Alongside them, were also famous warriors like Maharaja Marthanda Varma of Travancore, Pazhassi Raja, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Katta Bomman of Tamil Nadu and Maharaja Krishnadevaraja of the Vijayanagar kingdom. After independence, the battalions of Travancore, Cochin and Mysore State forces were merged into the Madras Regiment. Much of the “Thambis” valour springs from here and goes back to the Third Century A.D.

Among the great battles fought in India were the Battles of Colachal (1741), Seringapattam (1799) and Assaye (1803) where the bravery of the “Thambis” was evident. In fact it is the Battle of Assaye that rubbed off on this southern regiment as its soldiers were in the thick of battle.

Seven qualities

The insignia of the Assaye elephant, which can be seen on the MRC crest, is in recognition of the regiment’s victory in this battle. It spells the seven qualities of the MRC soldier — courage, endurance, sagacity, strength, confidence, obedience and faithfulness. It was all this that made the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesly, while penning his notes say that the most difficult battle of his life was not the Battle of Waterloo but the Battle of Assaye and that the “The Madras Infantry is the best I have ever seen in India.”

More was to follow. During World War I and II and after 1947, the MRC saw action in the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1947, 1965, 1971, Operation Blue Star (1984), Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka) from 1987-90, Operation Meghdoot (Siachen glacier) and operations in the north and eastern regions of the country. Being a part of U.N.-peace-keeping and anti-terror operations are other achievements.

Now, let’s move away from war to the sports field where too the “Thambis” have excelled. In football, mountaineering, volley ball, hockey, boxing, golf, aquatics, fencing and shooting, it’s been bronzes, silvers and golds. An advantage of being in the Nilgiris is easy practice in high altitude running and walking. Here too, the MRC has led in various national, international and inter-infantry contests.

In the recent London Olympics, the MRC was very much there! Sepoy Irfan K.T. who represented India in the 20 km walk bagged the 10th position.

Given its history, it is not surprising to learn that the martial art Kalaripayattu is an integral part of training at the MRC.

Later that afternoon, the Commandant said that any bright young person the Indian Army looks forward to recruiting would be very privileged to be a part of the MRC and its 27 battalions.

One cannot but nod in agreement.

On a winning spree

The MRC has won the Republic Day marching contingent trophy. In 2001, it won all seven trophies. The MRC band, one of the best military bands, bagged awards in 1994, 1996 and 2001. An MRC team scaled Mt. Everest in 2001.

At the World Military Games in 2007, the MRC bagged two bronze medals. It has also made a mark in the prestigious Durand Cup.

A unit of the MRC performs ceremonial duties at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The barracks

A walk around the permitted areas of the red-roofed Shrinagesh Barracks is inspiring. The characteristic high ceilings have many a cranny or two in which sand martins find a safe place to build their mud nests.

The giant structure was designed to house 54 non-commissioned officers and 820 soldiers. Work to build it began in 1852 and ended in 1860. Teak was brought from the fabled forests of Wynad (Wayanad) in Kerala while stone was quarried from areas nearby. Once the troops completed the building, the first Regiment to move in was the 74th Highlanders.

From 1860 to 1947, a number of European battalions were housed here.

The entrance to the Barracks is through a short tunnel which leads to the massive square (8,000 sq.m) and an open parade ground. A two-story structure boxes the square. There are first floor entrances, lanterns and flag-poles at intervals that give the Barracks a truly majestic presence. Offices and computerised training rooms occur at regular intervals.

The MRC moved to Wellington in 1947 becoming the first Indian regiment to do so. The Barracks were renamed “Srinagesh” Barracks in 1947 in honour of Gen. S.M. Shrinagesh, the first Indian colonel of the regiment.

Peek into history

Tucked away on the ground floor is the Museum. A guided tour takes a visitor through the MRC’s history in three stages. Documents, flags, pictures and maps tell the regiment’s complete story of 254 glorious years. There is also a glass enclosed display that shows the evolution of the MRC uniform.

Special attractions are a canon and flag of Tipu Sultan, the martial weapons of the Travancore royal family, rifles and guns seized during the India-Pakistan and Indo-China wars, and even spears. There are reports of the MRC’s rescue role during the 2004 tsunami. Finally, there are some rare pictures of war campaigns.

The MRC’s military ceremony to pay respects to the legendary Field Marshal S.H.F.J. Maneckshaw, who passed away in Wellington in 2008, has been documented.