Remains of a war

Remains of a war

Remains of a war

India Gate. Whether it is the hot, scorching summer, the humid monsoons, or the crisp, bitterly cold winters, the evening scene around the monument remains the same: vendors selling ice cream, pani-puris, chaat, roasted channa, gas balloons, cotton candy, butta — anything that will have the Delhites coming back. And a must-see for the hordes of tourists, Indian and foreign, with professional photographers swarming around so that you can take home a souvenir picture. A noisy, babbling scenario.

The nation also knows that this is where the Prime Minister and the Army, Air Force and Navy Chiefs place wreaths each year on Republic Day, at the Amar Jawan Jyothi, where an eternal flame keeps burning in honour of the Indian soldiers who died in service of their country. But this flame and the reversed rifle and helmet was only added to the base of the soaring arch in 1971, after India took part in the liberation of Bangladesh. India Gate was actually completed in 1931 as a First World War Memorial.

The British, with their quirky sense of gratitude and responsibility, formed the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 to build memorials for soldiers killed in the Great War, as it was called then. The India Gate was to be an All India Memorial, and the foundation-stone was laid on February 10, 1921. You may be as taken aback as I was when you learn that about 71,000 Indians died, and over 68,000 wounded in World War I.

Designed by Edwin Lutyens, who was responsible for many of the grand buildings that are now a symbol of the Capital, the India Gate was based on an universal style that bore no allegiance to any religion or nation. It resembles the famous Arc De Triomphe in Paris.

The India Gate, as we now know it, was inaugurated by the then Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in February, 1931. Many of the regiments that fought in the War were honoured for their gallantry and meritorious service by the addition of the prefix of ‘Royal’. Among those were the 5th Gorkha Rifles and the 117 Mahratta Light Infantry, which were integrated into the Indian Army after Independence.

As I stood there in front of the War Memorial a few months ago, and read as many names of the fallen warriors as I could, I also came across names that had ‘drummer’ and ‘follower’ after them. These were not even people who had joined to fight as soldiers — they had perhaps joined to earn a better livelihood, and ended up being names on this famous landmark.

The names inscribed on the memorial are from all over the country. The main inscription says: “To the dead of the Indian armies who fell honoured in France and Flanders Mesopotamia and Persia East Africa Gallipoli and elsewhere in the near and the far-east and in sacred memory also of those whose names are recorded and who fell in India or the North-West frontier and during the Third Afghan War.”

Indians drawn from various regions, princely states and villages who fought and died in distant lands, thousands of miles from their homeland — in cold, freezing Flanders, in torrid Egypt, in unfamiliar Mesopotamia.

Imagine sombody from the baking plains of South India in the freezing battlefields of the Western Front in Europe. Or some soldiers drawn from the cool mountains of Garwhal ending up in hot, dusty deserts. The names of the stone blocks went on and on, as I craned my head up and took photographs, a lump forming in my throat, thinking about the utter senselessness and futility of all wars.

As I completed the long walk around India Gate, and came back to the front, with the three flags of the Indian Army, Navy and the Air Force fluttering in the breeze in front of the eternally burning flame, I felt like saluting.

The noise and the hubbub of loud visitors and hawkers faded away for just a few moments, and I could not hear or see them — I was picturing brave young Indian lads from the Indian cavalry on the Western Front, and other sincere souls determinedly trudging on in the battlefields of East Africa and Flanders and so many other theatres of war…

As I came back to the moment and walked away from the magnificent monument, I could not help thinking that perhaps all the noise and the din and laughter was a sign that life goes on. But maybe when you visit the India Gate the next time, or see pictures of it on TV, you could perhaps pause and ponder at the thought of thousands of Indians who were among the millions killed and injured in the World War I one hundred years ago.

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