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Updated: May 2, 2014 20:32 IST
Melange: Hidden histories

The military Uffizi

Shantini S. Diaz
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The MRC Museum in Wellington is a tribute to the oldest Infantry Regiment of the Indian Army

On the drive towards the Madras Regimental Centre (MRC) Museum in Wellington Cantonment, one of the signs says: “It is glory to die doing one’s duty”. The museum here is a testament to the glory of the Indian army. In typical military fashion, everything is squared away neatly and every display talks about the legacy of this regiment. While information on the MRC is available in the public and digital domain, a visit to the Museum is ‘by permission’ only.

The Madras Regiment was established in 1758 under Colonel Robert Clive. Since then, it has participated in every major war, campaign and operation that India has seen. Between 1767 and 1799, the regiment participated in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Mysore Wars. The original standard or flag of Haider Ali is on display here!

In the global theatre of war, MRC has earned battle honours for itself in India and abroad. Both the World Wars saw this regiment doing magnificent battle. Interestingly, it was the Battle of Assaye, 1803, that saw the origin of the regiment’s elephant insignia. Major General Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (after whom the Cantonment is named), was said to have likened the strength of each Madras soldier to an elephant.

The elephant seems to have given the soldiers extraordinary powers; all of it is on display here. Glittering medals that have adorned the chests of warriors of yore have been contributed to the Museum. Sacrifice badges sit in a display case. They talk about the lives that soldiers have led and given up as well.

I wondered about the conversations an ancient British telephone must have seen. Photographs of soldiers smile back at me with such mirth that I wonder whether they embraced the concept of glory even as they knew they were facing certain death.

The museum is not just about tremendous achievements in war. In 2001, MRC soldiers conquered Mount Everest, and there is a photograph and a model of the mountain on display. It was a soldier from this regiment who was responsible for dispersing Gandhiji’s ashes.

Amidst some rather scary-looking weapons, there is, incongruously, a picture of Lord Ganesha. I peer closely at it, and realise that it has been created by none other than Maharaja Marthanda Varma.

There is also silver everywhere! Take, for instance, the original Arjuna Award. It was given to footballer Havaldar Peter Thangaraj in 1967. Then, there is the photograph of Sepoy K.T. Irfan who came 10th in the 20-km walking event in the 2012 London Olympics. Subedar Rojas barely fits the photograph that he is in. He was Mr. India in the years 2008 and 2010. The army man who was showing me around the museum assures me he is in formidable shape even now!

The regiment was also one of the best marching contingents in the Republic Day parades in the years 1999 and 2014. As my eyes feast on the testaments to the strength of the Madras men in olive green, I see a flash of colour — it is the armour of a woman warrior! She was Kottaravai who worshipped her armour before she went into war.

At the end of my tour, I found it difficult to maintain a professional mien. On one hand, this Museum has the immense celebration of what goes into the making a soldier. On the other hand, it seems to be a constant and turbulent reminder of how many lives it takes to maintain our national presence.

One thing is for sure. I may not know what is the glory to die doing one’s duty but I am very aware of the glorious life I lead because I am associated with the men in olive green.

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