For the few fortunate who have had the chance to watch the army-style badakhana in progress in recent times, it may well appear as a classic British hangover. Held on what is called the cultural day, there is still the keen sense of hierarchy, with often clear demarcations between the officers’ tent and that of the soldiers’. And while they do drink and partake the same kind of food and drinks, and soldiers are allowed to mimic their seniors, one is never quite at ease to say anything or even let go of the expected mannerism (read: saluting the officer and calling him sir or janab).
No wonder that for modern day sensibilities of some, the badakhana, on the crust, appears to be a colonial leftover that can be done away.
But this is where we get it wrong. Badakhana isn’t the British’s gift to us, nor is it a ritual that began with the creation of the army that we know today. Badakhana is just another name to the meal that the kings and generals had with the soldiers a day before going to war. As is explained in Geoffrey Blainey’s causes of war, the idea was to create a sense of brotherhood that would encourage them to fight as one unit.
Badakhana in its true sense was more of a tool with the generals and enterprising nobles who tried branching out on their own.
Or with those who dreamt of conquering the world. Timurlane, for example, would dine with his little battalion to generate confidence and foster sense of belonging.
In a much earlier age, the Arthashastra informs us, Chandrgupta Maurya, under the tutelage of Chanakya (and later even Shivaji), built a close-knit circle with his troops that remained un-breached. What did the trick?
The food, the informal dining and the fact that the king would often break protocol to come and partake the same food as the soldier. At a time when social status was given much importance, and kings were treated as divinity, such occasions worked like a charm to break the ice and build confidence, even respect.
Little wonder then that Akbar celebrated Nouroz in a way that his durbar hall was turned into a big dining space, where he ate with his courtiers and others, according to the Akbarnama. The feast of course extended to the lawns of the fort where commoners were served the same food as the royals sitting within. In fact, given that Akbar ate mostly alone, this little treat had a huge impact on reinstating faith and also culling any rumours regarding the health of the emperor.
Even today, says Brigadier Ashish Jindal (Assam Rifles), “partaking the soldier food and drink is still the essence of badakhana, which can happen as many times in a year. Of course now with little wars to fight, a badakhana becomes a ruse to celebrate the regiment’s achievements. In case of Assam Rifles, it can be a prize for ensuring peace at their respective station, culling insurgencies and even acing a new bootcamp regimen.”
Adds the Brigadier, “Badakhana’s importance in the armed forces today is as it was post the first war of independence, when the British revived this age-old military tradition to ensure there is no 1857 again. In fact, it became their ruse to built loyalty by using it to understand the soldier’s mood better.”
And while the contemporary badakhana in its structure still follows the same style as of the British army, the addition of culture and the freedom to mimic the senior officer is said to have been inspired from Subhas Chandra Bose, who treated his army of men and woman like a big family. And just like in the family, there were occasions where the rules were relaxed and life celebrated.
So, has the badakhana changed over the last few years? It has, depending on the place it is being celebrated, says Brigadier Jindal. “If it is at a field station where family are not allowed, it resembles the war feast of the yore where food is kept simple with a few interesting additions like mutton, a local delicacy and drinks along with songs and dance, but in family stations, it becomes more vibrant with a cultural programme and the spread a little more elaborate.”
Interestingly, rum became an army drink thanks to its presence at all the badakhanas because “it was the cheapest alcohol available and could be had by the box without a hangover the next day.”
But is badakhana still relevant today? More so now than before, says the Brigadier, who sees it as the most workable team building exercise. “Of course there is the more formal Darbar that happens annually that allows the soldier to keep forth his concerns and worries with the concerned officer answering to the queries and taking action, it is in a Badakhana that an officer really has the chance to built and reinstate faith in his command. And in army, eventually it is the soldier trust in you and respect that all matters.”
Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
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