11 Gorkha Rifles march down during the Republic Day Parade (Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The devi, invoked by the brave kings and soldiers in fearless war cries, has propelled them to fight for the great Indian civilisation, and emerge victorious.

Worship of the female goddess as the primordial creative force on the Indian sub-continent is as old as the history of civilisation in the region. Terracotta figurines of the Mother Goddess found at various Indus Valley sites show that the notion of the primordial female spirit from which all creation has sprung, was popular in South Asia as early as 3000 BC. Through the vedic period, we see further development of this notion into male and female deities with specific roles in the pantheon. With time, the notion that male and female represented two sets of complementary forces, whose harmonious interaction sustains the universe, began to get codified in a wide variety of theological concepts –  ranging from the vedantic philosophical meditations on the nature of prakriti and purush to the theological depictions of Ardhanarishwara, Yama-Yami, Lingam, Yoni etc.

Towards the end of the sixth century, there was a further shift in these ideas. With the rise of Shaktism, the female came to be viewed not just as one part of a whole, but the whole itself. At the same time, her nature underwent a transformation – from the benign mother-earth like deity to the fierce, destructive, Mahishasurmardini, who was armed with the most potent weapons of the gods in her fight against evil.

In the Shakta cosmogony, prakriti as the primordial female energy existed before purusha. It was from her that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were born. This conception of devi as the all pervading energy found its apotheosis in the legendary battle of devi with Mahishasura.

This was also a time of great political change in the Indian sub-continent. As the peace and political stability provided by the Gupta empire was eroded by an influx of Hun invaders from Central Asia, strife and constant warfare became the norm. A need, perhaps, may have been felt by different sections of society to unite against the invading hordes, for it was certainly reflected in the gods people worshipped. The transformed devi that emerged at the end of the Gupta period was represented as the possessor of the collective power of the various deities against a common, powerful enemy – Mahishasura – in the theological texts of the time. Not only was she a conglomeration of the energies of various deities, she was also adorned with an assortment of different weapons, traditionally ascribed to a host of different gods. By the time Devi Mahatmya – the ode to the goddess that is a central text of Shaktism spread to different parts of the Indian sub-continent in the seventh century, the benign Mother Goddess of the Indus Valley had been transformed into the fearsome Mahishasurmardini.

War like times call for war like gods.

The Warrior And The Goddess – Devi In Indian Martial History

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One of the earliest instances of a warrior invoking the female goddess before heading into battle is found in the Mahabharata. In the Bhishma Parva, just before the beginning of the great battle between Kauravas and Pandavas, Arjuna is directed by Krishna to offer a hymn to Durga known as the Durga Stotra. The goddess, pleased by Arjuna’s devotion blesses him with a promise of victory over Kauravas.

Towards the beginning of the second millennium, various Rajput tribes began to assert themselves in West and Central India, carving out large kingdoms for themselves during a period of constant warfare. This period of struggle would subsequently form the subject of richly layered folklore recited by the courtly poets, known as Charans and be handed down from one generation to the next. Each story would, however, be marked by a similar narrative structure where the struggling Rajput prince, on the verge of despair is rescued by the devi who, pleased with his devotion, guides him to victory in battle against his foes and becomes the protector of his dominions.

With time, each Rajput clan began to associate themselves with a kuldevi or a clan goddess whose primary role was to protect the king and his subjects. Thus, the Rathores of Marwar (Jodhpur) have Nagannechya Mata as their kuldevi, the Sisdodiyas of Mewar (Udaipur) have Ban Mata and the Kacchwahas of Amber (Jaipur) have Jamwai Mata as their kuldevi. The kuldevi’s foremost arena of protection was the battlefield, where she guided the warrior if he was righteous, or punished him with defeat if he had been unjust to his people. This relationship of protection and patronage was formalised by the king by performing public acts of worship and sacrifice during Navratri, which were meant as a symbolic imitation of the devi’s slaughter of the demon Mahishasura. The Rajput king, thus, was not just protected by the kuldevi, he even derived his legitimacy in a real, physical sense by publicly acknowledging the kuldevi as the protector of his realm.

In the seventeenth century, the rise of Maratha power was linked inextricably to Tulja Bhavani – the family deity of the Bhosale clan of Marathas to which Shivaji belonged. Shivaji was known to frequently seek the goddess’ blessings at the famous temple located in Tuljapur, in Osmanabad district. According to legend, the goddess blessed Shivaji’s sword, promising him victory in battle. An ardent devotee of the goddess, Shivaji is believed to possess three finely crafted swords each of which he named after a goddess of war – Bhavani, Jagdamba and Tulja. According to some recent reports, at least one of these swords was made in Toledo, Spain for Shivaji by craftsmen who produced the finest swords in the known world in the seventeenth century.

Meanwhile, further to the north in Punjab, the Sikhs were forming themselves into a military order in a direct challenge to the increasingly oppressive Mughal state under Aurangzeb. In 1699, the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, laid down the foundation of the Khalsa Panth – a brotherhood of warriors sworn to the path of justice as directed by the Sikh Gurus. To extol the martial qualities that the Guru desired in his Khalsa, he invoked the primordial female spirit in her destructive, warrior, form – Chandi. By praising the exploits of Chandi as she slew demons and put an end to evil, the Guru exhorted his Khalsa to arm themselves and prepare for battle. In his famous composition known as Chandi Di Var (The Ballad of Chandi), Guru Gobind Singh poetically describes rich imagery of the blood-soaked battlefield that the Khalsa would need to be prepared to encounter in order to resolutely follow the Guru’s path.

The Warrior Goddess And The War Cries Of The Indian Army

It was in such a state of affairs that the British East India Company landed on the coast of Gujarat in the seventeenth century and slowly went about building an army for themselves to conquer the Indian sub-continent. For the soldiers who fought for the company, it was but natural to invoke the gods of their ancestors as they charged into battle, staring death in the eye. These blood curdling cries of the company soldiers with time became the battle cries of the various regiments of the British Indian Army that were to ring out over the fields of Belgium, the beaches of France, the deserts of Africa and the jungles of Burma in the years to come.

The modern Indian nation inherited this army and its regimental structure to a great extent, although modernisation and mechanisation have brought about many changes. To the original class based regiments of the infantry have been added several ‘all class’ and mechanised regiments, while the infantry itself has seen its role supplemented to a great extent by the armoured corps and the artillery.

Nevertheless, devi is still invoked by the Indian soldier as a patron and protector as he heads into battle. Some of the Indian Army regiments, whose battle cries invoke the goddess are described below.

The Kumaon Regiment

War Cries Kalika Mata Ki Jai, Dada Krishan Ki Jai

The Kumaon Regiment of the Indian Army was raised in 1813 by Sir Henry Russell to serve in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s forces. Major Somnath Sharma, the first recipient of Param Vir Chakra belonged to Kumaon Regiment. Maj Sharma made the supreme sacrifice on 3 November 1947 at the age of 24, defending the Srinagar airfield from a Pakistani attack. In 1962, the regiment was to get its second Param Vir Chakra when Major Shaitan Singh made his famous last stand at Rezang La against the Chinese. Maj Shaitan Singh led a company of 120 Kumaonis against a vastly superior Chinese force at a height of 5,000 metres above the sea level on the Indo-Tibetan border. The Indians fought almost to the last man and Major Shaitan Singh’s leadership ensured that for every Kumaoni who fell, at least five enemy soldiers were brought down. Maj Shaitan Singh made the supreme sacrifice defending Rezang La on 18 November 1962.

The regiment has also produced three Army chiefs – Gen S M Sriganesh, Gen K M Thimayya and Gen T N Raina.

The recruiting base of the regiment is the remote and mountainous area of Kumaon in Uttarakhand, where soldiering has been a way of life for the people since ages. The Kumaon region is also home to many prominent devi temples, the chief among them being the Haat Kalika temple of Gangolighat. Dedicated to goddess Kali, the temple is regarded as a Shakti Peetha, and gives its name to the famous war cry of the Kumaon Regiment – "Kalika Mata ki Jai".

The Dogra Regiment

War Cry Jwala Mata ki Jai

The Dogra Regiment was formed in 1846 after the collapse of the Sikh empire in the Second Anglo-Sikh war. Hardy hill men, the Dogras soon distinguished themselves in campaigns in the hilly, inaccessible terrain of the Indian North West. The regiment has to its credit three Victoria Crosses and 13 Mahavir Chakras. Gen N C Vij, Chief of the Army Staff from 2003 to 2005 was also from the Dogra Regiment.

The Dogra Regiment has been at the forefront in the various counter insurgency operations in India. During both the Chandel attack that happened in Manipur in 2015 and the 2016 Uri attacks in Kashmir, the Dogra Regiment was under fire from insurgents. Each incident later led to reprisals from the Indian Army in the form of surgical strikes on Myanmarese and Pakistani territories respectively.

The war cry of the Dogra Regiment invokes Jwala Mata, the presiding deity at the shrine of Jwalamukhi in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh. The Jwalamukhi temple is regarded as a Shakti Peetha, it being believed that the tongue of Sati, fell here, after Vishnu dismembered her body. The importance of the Jwalamukhi temple is evident from the fact that it is has been patronised by some of the most powerful monarchs in South Asia through history. It counts among its historical possessions a golden parasol presented by emperor Akbar, a brass bell presented by the Rana of Nepal, whereas the dome of the temple was gold plated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore. Kangra region is one of the major recruitment centres for the Dogra Regiment, soldiering being the ancient way of life for the people of these hills.

The Gorkha Rifles

War Cry – Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali

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The Gorkha Rifles are a series of regiments, collectively known as the Gorkha Brigade, raised from the ethnic Gurkha community of India and Nepal known for their fearlessness. The largest of these is the 11 Gorkha Rifles that comprises seven battalions. Between them, the various Gorkha Regiments have taken part in every war of the Indian Army and account for three Paramvir Chakras (PVC). The Gorkhas’ first PVC was won in 1961 by Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria of 3/1 Gurkha Rifles who laid down his life in Congo as part of a United Nations Peace Keeping Force that was tasked with clearing a roadblock manned by Katanga rebels. He is the only UN Peacekeeper to have been awarded the Param Vir Chakra.

In October 1962, Lt Col Dhan Singh Thapa of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles was taken a prisoner by the Chinese during the Sino-Indian war while defending the now famous Pangong Lake in Ladakh, but not before Lt Col Thapa and his men had overthrown three successive Chinese attacks by vastly superior forces. For his heroic defence, he won the Gorkhas’ second Param Vir Chakra.

The Gorkhas’ third Param Vir Chakra was awarded to Captain Manoj Kumar Pandey of 1/11 Gurkhas, who made the supreme sacrifice on 3 July 1999, leading the capture of Jubar Top in the Batalik Sector at the young age of 25. Captain Pandey is remembered today as the Hero of Batalik.

The Gurkhas’ blood curdling war cry of ‘Jai Mahakali, Aayo Gorkhali’ (hail goddess Mahakali, the Gurkhas are here) are known to strike fear in the hearts of the enemy. The present army chief, Gen Bipin Rawat is from the 11th Gorkha Rifles, the fourth officer from the Gorkha Brigade to become the Army Chief.

The Jammu and Kashmir Rifles

War Cry – Durga Mata ki Jai

The Jammu and Kashmir Rifles was born in 1821 when the intrepid Dogra General Zorawar Singh was tasked with conquering Tibet by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore. After the fall of the Sikh empire, the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles became the state forces of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Post Independence, the regiment was absorbed as it was into the Indian Army.

The regiment has a long and proud history, however, its most glorious hour came during the 1999 Kargil war when it won two Param Vir Chakras in quick session.

On 4 July 1999, Rifleman Sanjay Kumar of the 13th Battalion, Jammu & Kashmir Rifles led an attack on an enemy bunker in which he suffered two bullet wounds to his chest and forearm. Despite being wounded, he captured one bunker in fierce hand-to-hand fighting and charged towards a second one.

Four days later, Captain Vikram Batra, also of the 13th Battalion of the Jammu & Kashmir Rifles, led the fearless capture of Pt 4875, in the face of heavy enemy firing. Shouting the J and K Rifles war cry of 'Durga Mata Ki Jai', Captain Batra killed a number of enemy soldiers before falling to a grenade splinter that hit him in the head. He was only 24.

The Punjab Regiment

War Cries – Bol Jwala Ma ki Jai, Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal

The Punjab Regiment has an old and glorious past. However, it was immortalised in the annals of Indian military history by Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri and his band of 120 men that held off an attack by an entire Pakistani Brigade and some 45 tanks during the famous Battle of Longewala in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Filmmaker J P Dutta would later bring this otherwise little known story to national attention with his 1997 film Border. Major Chandpuri (later Brigadier) was awarded the Mahavir Chakra, India’s second highest gallantry award, for his leadership during the Battle of Longewala.

The Punjab Regiment is also unique for being perhaps the only infantry regiment in the world that has a naval vessel in its regimental insignia. This curious bit of history dates back to the raising of the original Punjab regiment by the British and the taboos on crossing the black waters among Indians during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The Punjabis apparently had fewer qualms about overseas travel. If anything they seemed to relish it – by 1824, the regiment had fought in as many as eight overseas campaigns. This also reflects in the motto of regiment – 'Sthal wa Jal' – by land or sea. This bond of the regiment with the seas is further strengthened by its formal affiliation with the INS Ranjit – a guided missile destroyer of the Indian Navy named after Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab.

The devi has seen changes and transformation through every great upheaval that the march of time has brought. She is the primordial female spirit, is the cosmos itself.

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