A soldier and a saint

Amid the stunning landscape of Nathu La Pass, Taran discovers the enduring legend of a braveheart

December 04, 2023 08:37 am | Updated December 30, 2023 11:10 am IST

Taran and his family were in Nathu La Pass, one of the highest motorable roads in the world. “Ma, this is the ancient silk route. A road from Asia to West Asia and Europe. Imagine that!”

“Yes, it was treacherous and filled with bad weather, bandits and middle men. Finally, it was abandoned in the 15th century when sea routes were discovered and sturdy ships were built.”

“Then one had to deal with pirates and sea storms!” countered Taran. “I wonder which one was a better deal?”

“Surely, aeroplanes!” laughed Appa.

At the shrine

Taran wished he was in an aeroplane too. They were in Sikkim, about 14000 ft above sea level near the Indo-Tibet border. The views all around were of snow-clad mountains, pine forests and frozen lakes. But his stomach was churning on the hair pin bends and he tried to distract himself.

“It seems Nathu La means Listening Ears,” he said, feeling rather queasy.

“What a beautiful name. If only we had more listeners than talkers in the world,” retorted Amma.

“Well, we need all sorts to make a world and we are off to the shrine of a legend: Baba Harbhajan Singh,” piped in Appa.

“Was he a saint, Appa?” asked Taran, forgetting about his tummy for a second.

“No, he was a soldier. He died in 1967 when he was only 23 years old. He was leading a pack of mules carrying army supplies when he fell into an icy canal. His body was not found for three days. It is said that he appeared in a soldier’s dream and told him where his body lay. Sure enough, the body was found there,” said Appa warming up to the narration.

The jeep driver nodded. “Yes, that’s correct, saab. Baba Harbhajan Singh is still with us. He comes in dreams and tells soldiers of the enemies’ plans. Many have seen the turbaned soldier on a cold winter night protecting the area.”

“An urban legend! Spooky!” said Taran.

They reached the shrine built by the Indian Army, which contained a portrait of Harbhajan Singh, a samadhi with his belongings, and a bunker where he used to stay.

“Look Amma, there is his bed. It’s almost as if he is still living here!”

Amma nodded. “Many believe he performs miracles. Devotees offer food and drinks. His family still gets his salary including annual leave from the Indian Army. There is even a train ticket booked for him to go home every year.”

“Fascinating,” said Appa. There was a crowd of people of all faiths who had come to pay respects to Baba Harbhajan Singh.

Taran took in the views around him. It was beautiful but very cold. And this was supposed to be summer. In the winters, the temperature dropped to -7°C. He tried to imagine a young soldier away from home trying to do his best.

“Do you think the legend is true, Appa?”

Well, when people live and work in such extreme conditions, they need something larger than themselves to believe in, and what better than a young soldier?

“I am sure he is there with us in spirit,” said Amma.

“Yup! Now how about a break? Maggi or momos?” asked Appa.

“I think Baba Harbhajan Singh would have said, ‘Both!’”

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