Do you realise that while we sleep comfortably in our beds, the Indian soldiers guard our borders day and night without any complaint. From the mighty icy Himalayas to the scorching deserts, they stand tall and proud, unmoving like the mountains themselves.
Our freedom comes at a price, and for every Indian who is reading this, we should do a silent prayer for those innumerable soldiers who protect our country every day and every night.
One such post of strategic military importance in the Himalayas is the Nathu La pass. It is one of the highest motorable roads in the world, famous for its picturesque beauty and beautiful environment. Nathu means "listening ears" and La means "pass" in Tibetan.
Nathu La is a mountain pass in the Himalayas in east Sikkim district, situated at the height of 1440 feet on the Indo China border. It connects the Indian state of Sikkim (Gangtok) with Tibet (Lasa). I have an old association with Nathu La region.
In 1962 and again in 1967, there were often altercations or skirmishes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Nathu La pass region. As an army officer, I was posted in this region from 1964 till 1965. Our regiment was located at Changu lake and our fire observation post was at Nathu La pass. Nathu la is snow bound for most part of the year. In winters, temperature is as low as minus 29 degrees.
From this post, one could see stunning views of the Kanchenjunga mountain, the third highest mountain range in the world. Land in this region was mostly barren with hardly any vegetation. There were no human settlements in the area. Some times, Tibetans could be seen grazing yaks , sheep and goats from which pashmina was made.
Few people know that the two Indian prime ministers, Jawahar Lal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, in the company of Paidan Thomdup Namgayal, son of Chogyal, King of Sikkim, crossed the Nathu La pass to visit Bhutan. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyasto used Nathu La pass to enter India from Lhasa for the 2500 birth anniversary celebrations of Gautam Buddha.
Roads were in bad state and living conditions were tough. In September 1965, a war broke out between India and Pakistan. I was posted at Changu lake in Nathu La when I received orders to report at the Ambala Officers Transit camp. I was to be directed to my new unit from there in the war zone.
I left Nathu La region in September 1965. I was sure that I will not return to this beautiful location again in my life. But than providence has its own ways and life throws many surprises at us. In my case it was my visit to Nathu La once again in 1982, after a gap of eighteen years.
I was a journalist now, a correspondent with All India Radio. I was an emergency commissioned officer in the army, with a set tenure of five years. I left army at the end of my tenure and joined Indian Information Service and served mostly in All India Radio news.
In 1982, the Indian army took a press party to Nathu La region to showcase defense preparedness of the Indian army. I was part of this press party as AIR correspondent. From a soldier guarding these lands, I was now visiting as a newsmaker, assessing the situation.
I was really curious to see changes that Nathu La and adjoining areas have undergone. It was indeed a total transformation. The roads were now much wider and metallic. A very good communication network connected the area. Jawans and officers were wearing heavy jackets, snow boots, snow goggles and woollen caps. They were carrying automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Even accommodation and food had improved.
The Nathu La post now offered a good view of the Nathu la pass. The Chinese post was on the other side and as you looked at them, they waved hand in a friendly gesture.
Located on the Old Silk Route, Nathu La Pass connects Sikkim to China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Gangtok is just 60 kilometers from Nathu La while Lhasa, is 430 kilometers. Nathu La is one of three open trading border posts between India and China. It was sealed for almost 4 decades after the People’s Republic of China suppressed a Tibetan uprising in 1959. However, when the former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited China in 2003, talks to open the strategic route were resumed. The Nathu La Pass was reopened in 2006 and since then, it has served as an official Border Personnel Meeting (BPM) Point.
The Opening of Nathu La pass shortens the travel distance to important Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage sites. Pilgrimage to Mansarover from India through normal route takes about fifteen days but through Nathu La pass, the journey period is two days.
The Mail Exchange
Many of you must have been to Wagah border and seen the flag hosting ceremony between India and Pakistan. But do you know about the Mail Exchange that happens between India and China, twice a week in an exchanging ceremony?
Twice a week at 8:30 am, on Thursdays and Sundays, a mail exchange ceremony takes place for exactly 3 minutes. In this exchange, the international surface mail between India and China is exchanged by postmen of the respective countries at Nathu La's Sherathang border post. The volume of mail is declining due to email and internet but the letters are mostly from the Tibetan Refugees in India or among the locals with relatives on both sides of the border.
Bhim Bahadur Tamang is a quiet man and a postman for more than 25 years, delivering letters from India to the China Post, twice a week.
In one of the interviews with Hindustan times he said, “We just exchange bags, sign the mail manifest and leave the shed. There is no conversation whatsoever — I speak Nepali and Hindi, my Chinese friend follows neither.”
This arrangement reduces the mail delivery time for the people of border areas to few days which would otherwise takes weeks to be delivered via the circuitous logistics chain. In this short exchange, no words is spoken as both sides do not understand each other's language, mail is exchanged, an acknowledgement letter is signed, sometimes empty mail bags are exchanged. This system, since the times of chogyals dynasty, continues uninterrupted even during the India-China disputes at 14,000 altitude where temperature drops to minus 20 C.
The Army has built a befitting memorial to 267 martyrs at Sherathang, five kilometers from Nathu La. Most of them lost their lives in 1962 Indo Chinese war and 1967 skirmishes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Nathu La region.
Changu lake, where my regiment was located, is another famous attraction but one has to get permit from Gangtok to visit Nathu La and Changu lake area. Lake is totally frozen during winter months. The lake surface reflects deferent colours with change of season. Local Sikkimese hold it in great reverence. Buddhist monks study lake water to forecast future events. A festival is held on the banks of Changu lake on the occasion of guru Purnima. Faith healers known as Jhakris from Sikkim assemble here and worship the lake for its healing qualities. After mid May, flowers of deferent hues blossom and you enjoy a riot of colours around lake. Deferent type of birds emerge in the area. Brahminy ducks can be seen floating in lake. Alpine forests cover catchment area of lake.
Only people of Indian origin can visit this area. The permit is of immense help for pilgrims who wish to visit Ramtek monastery and related Buddhist shrines. A rope way has been built at Changu lake at a height of 14500 feet. Decorated yaks and mules are offered at the lake side for rides and opportunity to get photographed. There are also variety of stalls offering snacks and beverages. Snow boots and gum boots can also be hired.
So that is Nathu La pass for you, a place in India that every citizen must know about. If you get a chance, do visit this piece of historical significance, atleast once in your lifetime.