Biryani with the Army


Fresh from our trip to the Markha Valley, we decided to do a little more exploring of the neighbouring villages around Leh.

We had heard good reports from other travellers of a town named Thiksey – a mere 17km south of Leh (though magically, 1 hour bus ride away) – so we decided to head off on Saturday morning to take a peek at its much heralded gompa – a spectacularly-located Buddhist monastery overlooking the village.

cleaning-up-the-stairs.jpg (As it turned out, the requisite gods must have been smiling on us, because it appears we had chosen the weekend of the monastery’s annual festival to visit)

After some difficulty determining and locating the bus that would actually take us to Thiksey, we found a lovely fellow in uniform who kindly pointed us in the right direction. It seemed that Private Durgadas was heading back to his army base – also in Thiksey – and, after enquiring after our “good names”, he requested that we join him for lunch upon arrival in town.

This was how we found ourselves, not two hours later, at the local army base – perched on the side of Private Durgadas’ bed, silver platters piled high with dhal and rice and chapatti balanced on our laps, and a parade of fellow officers streaming into the room to shake our hands and meet the new Australian friends – “Mrs Kate” and “Mrs Chris”! (…Not quite the monastery trip we had anticipated!)

Despite thinking that there would be fairly strict protocols governing who may be admitted into a military base in the sometimes-volatile state of Jammu & Kashmir, nobody seemed to think much of two dodgy-looking backpackers wandering through the midst of these khaki-clad officers. Durgadas himself was getting salutes and lower-ranked chaps standing to attention left, right and centre – and we merely traipsed through in our civvies, barely raising an eyebrow.

So, we ended up having a very surprising, but most hospitable, lunch with the local military. About ten of us sat crammed on two narrow stretcher beds in their very rudimentary tin-shed barracks – a psychedelic Hindi version of ‘Indian Idol’ playing on the television, and a bevy of small grey mice periodically appearing and making brazen attempts to dash across the room – over the beds and across the tangle of electrical cables that hung from the ceiling as part of some sort of elaborate high-wire act. All in all – a rather surreal experience…

We sat and ate, discussing this-and-that – the political situation in Kashmir, what the military was up to round these parts, the wealth of religious and ethnic diversity in India, the incredible nationwide infatuation with Shah Rukh Khan – India’s answer to George Clooney and Bollywood’s No. 1 star (Yes – even these military fellows were big fans… Everyone loves him!)

All of these men were brought to Ladakh as part of a mandatory 2-year posting in the region. All originally hailed from various other states of India – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, the Punjab, Uttar Pradesh – though between them, they almost seemed to have the entire country covered. They were all separated from their families during their postings, as family members were not made provision for on the bases, and Durgadas himself had lived apart from his wife and children for the past 11 years. It was with great joy and eager anticipation that he was returning to visit them the following day during his 3-week period of leave. He proudly showed us the presents – the pearl necklaces and the books – he had bought that day at the Leh markets to take back to his three children.

Given the complete separation from their families and the relative remoteness of their posting in one of the northernmost cities of India, it was not surprising that they welcomed some form of outside entertainment. Chatting with the two of us, apparently, was a welcome diversion from their regular weekend activities on the base (watching ‘Indian Idol’ being one of them!)

After lunch, Durgadas – still dressed in his military khakis – and his friend, Ganesh – a military engineer – joined us for the climb up to the Thiksey monastery. Both Hindu, it was interesting to witness the observance of religious rituals of these two military men in the confines of the Buddhist monastery. As they told us, there was a certain overlapping in the belief systems of these two major religions – Buddhism, as a derivation of sorts of Hinduism, had many of the same gods in its catalogue of deities. Therefore, they knelt down and bowed before the Buddhist idols, just as they would in a Hindu temple.

The next day, all the officers joined us at the monastery for the Masked Dance Festival, and then we were again invited back to the army base for another lunch soiree. Apparently, Ganesh was keen to show off his culinary skills and had decided to whip up a little something special in honour of our visit. On the menu – his special recipe Chicken Biriyani – which was apparently so revered on the base, that even a few of the Hindus (including the chef!) temporarily forgot their vegetarian status to partake in the luncheon.

thi-durgadas-says-goodbye.jpg Afterwards, it was all farewells and photo-shoots, before we were chauffeured back to Leh with Ganesh and Durgadas in the back of the army truck (far roomier than the bus!) We made a quick detour to the air-force base where Durgadas was due to take a military flight back to Delhi to visit his family (he was almost crying as we left – rather sentimental for an army bloke!), and afterwards we enjoyed door-to-door service back to our guesthouse. We exchanged email addresses, phone numbers, postal addresses and all manner of contact details with our new friends. They promised to send photographs of all their family – even distant aunties and grandmothers seemed to be included – and urged us to do the same. It was as though we were parting with some pen-pals that we had met on summer camp, rather than the hard men of the Jammu and Kashmir army. The strangeness of India had yet again prevailed…