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The braveheart of icy, hostile Khardung La

Triumph over adversity Tsering Dolkar, right, with her sister and daughter, Phunchok Dolma.

Triumph over adversity Tsering Dolkar, right, with her sister and daughter, Phunchok Dolma.  

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Tsering Dolkar, a casual labourer with the BRO, saved the life of a man buried under an avalanche

My Army husband is fortunate to have spent over five years in Ladakh, a wonderful but little known part of India that we both fell in love with. We had got to meet and know many Ladakhis, and among them is Tsering Dolkar, a casual labourer with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). During one of our visits to Ladakh, we went and met her in her home in Ganglas at 13,000-ft altitude, the last habitation on the road up Khardung La.

Her three children had grown up. The eldest, a son named Tashi Namgial, was in government service and had recently got married. Her daughter, Phunchok Dolma, in her mid-twenties, was at home because jobs are hard to come by, though she had studied up to Class 10. Her youngest, a son named Tundup Dorje, was a soldier in the Army’s Ladakh Scouts, then posted on the Siachen Glacier.

About 25 years ago, Tsering’s husband was not supporting her, and if her three children were to have any future, she would have to leave him and fend for herself and her little ones. Without formal education, there were few jobs open to her. So this determined young woman prepared to toil, and enrolled as a labourer with the BRO.

Road maintenance at high altitudes, manually clearing snow in sub-zero winters, is hard. For a single mother with little children at home, it was doubly so. But by the mid-1980s, she was a familiar face on the road between Leh and Khardung village and on Khardung La at 18,380-ft altitude. Ever smiling with a cheerful “Juley!”, sincere and hard working, she was always there to clear snow and boulders and channel snow melt. She toiled for many years, to feed, clothe and educate her children with her meagre earnings.

Day of reckoning

December 31, 1988, must have dawned like any other winter day for Tsering, yet it was to be a day like no other. She was working with the snow clearance team on the road just north of Khardung La when an avalanche struck the bulldozer component of the team. The bulldozer was buried in snow, but the operator and the overseer were carried away about 1,000 feet down the steep, snow-covered slope. The bulldozer operator managed to come out, but overseer Ram Naresh was buried in snow.

Realising that if he was not rescued quickly, he would die of hypothermia, and without a thought for her own safety, Tsering rushed down the slope, removed the snow covering the unconscious man with her shovel, lifted him onto her back and carried him to safety. She was awarded the Uttam Jeevan Raksha Pathak by the President. The citation ends thus, “Smt Tsering Dolkar showed exemplary courage and devotion beyond the call of duty in saving the life of a hapless man.”

As I held Tsering’s calloused hands, I felt humbled. Her eyes spoke of dignity, gentle strength and self-respect coupled with a humility that I have noticed in many Ladakhis. This unlettered woman had liberated and empowered herself. She had shown selfless courage throughout her life. Her name is mentioned in BRO history, and she remains a heroine of Ladakh.

sg9kere@live.com

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 5:56:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-braveheart-of-icy-hostile-khardung-la/article30306312.ece

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