Brigadier KN Thadani, VSM : An Accomplished Mountaineer


Brigadier KN Thadani and Mrs Sneh Thadani used to take me to the Defence Services Officer’s Institute(DSOI) at Dhaulakuan, Delhi every Sunday and we used to play cards and tambola (housie or bingo).  The evenings would invariably wind up with dinner in some classy restaurant in Delhi.

I also had some interaction with their two sons – Akash and Kailash. I remember signing the documents for Kailash for his adventure training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling.  That was the day when Brigadier Thadani taught me as to why the old rubber stamps had a drawing pin on one side – One needs to always ensure that that correct side faced the document when you stamped one, lest it would turn out upside down!

Brigadier Thadani was also a skilled mountaineer and both passionate and knowledgeable about his craft.  Many years later, while he was commanding 3 Artillery Brigade in Leh, he led the very first expedition of 16 soldiers to conquer Apsarasas I peak. The Apsaras group of mountains lies to the North of Teram Shehr Glacier and consists of a large massif with the ridge line running from West to East. The highest point is Apsarasas I, height 7245 m with Apsarasas II (7240 m) and Apsarasas III (7230 m).


The expedition left Leh on 25 July 1980 (four years before the Indian Army occupied Siachen Glacier), moved across the Khardung La, 18,360 ft (which is reputedly the highest pass in the world over which a road has now been built), and thereafter descended, to the Shyok river and on to the Nubra valley in Ladakh.  The team set up four camps with the base camp at the snout of the Siachen glacier.  The advanced base camp was sited near the confluence of three glaciers, the Siachen, Teram Shehr and Lolofond at a height of about 5180 m (12,000 ft).


A number of parties were sent out on various approaches to determine a suitable route to Apsarasas I. The Western approach along the ridge line was found unsuitable as it had a formidable overhanging glacier on the route to the ridge line. The South-Eastern approach was selected and summit Camp 1 was established on 7 September and summit Camp 2 the next day.

At this stage the expedition was struck by bad weather; heavy snowfall with occasional blizzards prevented further progress on the mountain. The fixed ropes between the two summit camps were buried in the fresh snow and the members had to remain firm in their respective camps. For almost a week, they had to endure extreme privation in the sub-zero environment. Meanwhile, the route to these camps was obliterated by avalanches.

A party of eight moved up to summit Camp 3 having used 15 fixed ropes to secure the route. The following day they reconnoitred the route to the summit and on 18 September, seven of them made an early start and reached the summit of Apsarasas I at 11.12 a.m. They hoisted the Indian tricolour and the expedition flag. They stood in prayer, expressed their gratitude to the Gods of the mountains for having given them the strength to reach the summit and offered oblation. The second summit party of nine members, seeing that the weather was clear and the route to the summit had already been secured, climbed 3000 ft at that altitude. They were fully aware that they could at best return to the security of a camp only after nightfall. They reached the summit at 3.30 p.m., took a few photographs and as the clouds were gathering fast, they hurried back and reached the camp at 9 p.m.


This added another glorious chapter to the history of mountaineering by these 16 gallant men of the Indian Army led by Brigadier KN Thadani. These peaks are now in the enemy held areas of the Glacier. When the line of control was delineated it was not clearly defined in these areas and so the Indian and Pakistani perceptions of the LOC were quite divergent. In those days the ground was not occupied by either army and both countries allowed in mountaineering in these areas. Despite all these circumstances, it was still no mean feat for him and his team to enter what was then palpably Pakistani held territory.  What happened in the years to come with the Indian Army occupying most of the Siachen Glacier is etched in golden letters in the annals of Indian military history.

Even though both his war experience and mountaineering took a toll on his body and mind, like a true soldier, he rarely spoke about it and when he did it was in bits and pieces. He was a man of few words and I used to be ever on the lookout when those pearls of wisdom came from his lips.

Brigadier Thadani loved sports and was a passionate follower of Cricket.  I fondly remember the days when we together watched the Benson & Hedges World Championship of Cricket, a One Day International tournament held from 17 February to 10 March 1985 in Australia which India won.  The most crucial match was the semi-final with New Zealand – India had to make 207 runs in 50 overs.  In the 32nd over, India was 102 for 3 and needed 105 runs to win in the remaining 18 overs – a difficult task then.   It was Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev who took the team to victory, both scoring half centuries.  The match was nail-biting and intense, and caused Brigadier Thadani and I to smoke two full packets of Wills cigarettes. By the way, Brigadier Thadani, stylish as ever, in those days only smoked his pipe.

As Brigadier Thadani sitteth on the right hand side of God, let me reveal an incident that always remained a fascination with me. Brigadier Thadani, while commanding 3 Artillery Brigade in Leh, had been close to His Holiness Dalai Lama.  In April 1985, His Holiness came to our Officers’ Mess to meet his old friend.  I too had the opportunity to interact and dine with His Holiness and I will always cherish the meeting till my grave.  I was destined to witness this meeting of two great personalities and two best friends who ardently admired each other.

A Letter to Santa


Most children believe in the existence of Santa Claus just as our children did while growing up.  Why wouldn’t they? After all, they always found the Christmas gift they prayed for under the Christmas Tree every Christmas Morning.

During the Christmas of 1994, I was posted as the Brigade Major at Binnaguri.  Veteran Lieutenant General KR Rao, PVSM, AVSM, VSM was then our Colonel General Staff. Before coming to wish us ‘Merry Christmas’ he called up and our daughter Nidhi, aged three, answered the phone and asked him as to who he was.  Colonel Rao with a tinge of humour said “I am the Santa Claus .”  Nidhi was overjoyed and said “Thank you Santa, I got the Barbie which you sent across.  How did you know that I really wanted it?”


Santa Claus – it all began with St Nicholas, saint of children and sailors, a Bishop who lived in the Fourth Century in Myra, Turkey.  He was a very rich and kind man with a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people.  The legend has it that a poor man who had three daughters could not get them married as he could not afford dowry.  One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house which fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry.  It was repeated for the second and third daughters. Thus commenced the tradition of hanging stocking by children expecting Santa to drop their gifts down the chimney.


St. Nicholas became popular in the Victorian era when writers and poets rediscovered the old stories.  In 1823 the famous poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ was published by Dr Clement Clarke Moore.  The poem describes St Nicholas with eight reindeer and gives them their names. They became famous with the song ‘Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer’, written in 1949. The other seven reindeers are named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.

Are these reindeer male or female?  Obviously they are females as female reindeer keep their antlers throughout winter whereas the males shed them. It’s a mystery, though, why many of them have obvious masculine names, Rudolph for instance.

Santa in England became ‘Father Christmas’ or ‘Old Man Christmas’, in France, he was called ‘Père Nöel’, in Austria and Germany he was ‘Christ kind’ a golden-haired baby, with wings, who symbolised the new born baby Jesus.

In North America his name was ‘Kris Kringle’ (from Christkind). Later, Dutch settlers took the old stories of St Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle and St Nicholas became ‘Sinterklaas’ or as we now say ‘Santa Claus.’


Canada is home to the tradition of children writing letters to Santa.  Canada Post has been helping Santa with his mail for decades. Since the national program started, in 1981, Santa’s North Pole Post Office has answered more than 27.8 million letters, in 39 languages, including Braille.  Look at the Postal Code – it is ‘Ho Ho Ho’ – Santa’s signature laugh.

Santa is assisted by volunteers called ‘ Postal Elves; who help him with this monumental task. They volunteer more than 260,000 hours to make sure all the children who write to Santa get a reply before Christmas.


The first snowfall or the Santa Claus parades held in most cities and towns across Canada is a trigger for children to write their letters to Santa.  Schools, daycares and homes organise Santa letter writing.  One needs to include full return address for the Postal Elves to deliver a reply.  Postage is free, but Santa loves stickers.  Children are encouraged to write about their favourite sports, jokes, school activities or family fun with pictures and drawings.

A child normally writes two letters to Santa, one from school and the other from home.  In order to prevent a child from receiving inconsistent responses from Santa, all mails from schools and daycares are replied with a generic, poster-size group letter, which will include every child’s name.  A letter from home will get a personalised response from Santa.

Santa is often asked interesting questions by children -, “Does Rudolph have a girlfriend?”; “How many cookies do you eat?” and so on.  Some even ask for reuniting their separated parents.  He also receives requests for toys, pets, dresses, etc. The advent of modern communication technology has not reduced the number of hand-written letters to Santa, but has increased year to year.

Children dealing with issues write letters showing their concerns.  These ‘special letters’ are dealt with by a team of trained Postal Elves — from psychologists and social workers to police —  who help Santa handle them.  If they think the child is in danger, a process is set in motion to solve the issue.  These Elves are trained to give a correct reply that will help provide some reassurance that someone is listening.

We must appreciate Canada Post, the Postal Elves, the teachers, the parents and the children for these letters and for keeping the tradition alive.

Wishing all readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

(Images Courtesy Google)

 

A Peerless Soldier : Remembering Late Brigadier KN Thadani, VSM


In 1985, Brigadier KN Thadani and Mrs Sneh Thadani moved into the Officers’ Mess of our Regiment, then stationed in Gurgaon. He had retired from the Army a few months earlier.  Our Mess was a hired house in DLF Colony in Sector 14, Gurgaon. Many years earlier in 1971, as the Commanding Officer (CO) of our Regiment, he had led the unit into battle.  They were getting their house constructed in Gurgaon and it was only natural they moved into our Officers Mess.  That was the first time I met this wonderful couple.


Mrs Sneh Thadani cutting the cake during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of our Regiment – February 2018

In the army it is extremely rare that subalterns get an opportunity to closely interact with Brigadiers, retired or serving. I, then a Lieutenant, and the only bachelor, was the sole dining-in member of the Officer’s Mess, being the only bachelor. So, as mess mates, I therefore had a lot of interaction with Brigadier and Mrs Sneh Thadani. I really cannot fathom how or why I became an object of their benign indulgence. But oh, I was relishing it so much. They were excellent human beings; erudite, lively and animated conversationalists.  I learned a lot from them about soldiering, spirituality and myriad other facets of life. I fondly recall those days and reminisce about the couple  and their times.


Second Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal, Param Veer Chakra (Posthumous)

During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, Lieutenant Colonel KN Thadani had commanded our Unit – 75 Medium Regiment, which provided Artillery fire support to the legendary 17 HORSE The POONA HORSE, in the famous Battle of Shakargarh.  This battle reminds everyone of the supreme sacrifice of Second Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal of this Regiment who was honoured by the nation with its highest gallantry award , the Param Veer Chakra.  During the same battle, Captain Satish Chandra Sehgal of our Regiment, who was the Observation Post (OP) Officer (for direction of artillery fire) with POONA HORSE, also made the ultimate sacrifice. He was honoured with a Veer Chakra.


Mrs Sneh Thadani with Veteran Brigadier MS Brar, Sena Medal, during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations

Captain Madhu Mehububani, now a Veteran Brigadier, was the Observation Post Officer with 4 (HODSONs) HORSE during the war.  He was Mentioned-in-Dispatches for his heroic actions and display of valour in the face of enemy.  Major MS Brar, was his Battery Commander. Major Brar was awarded Sena Medal for his gallant actions and his professional acumen in providing close artillery fire support for our armoured columns during their advance and the consequent battle with the enemy.


Brigadier Madhu Mehbubani remembers: “Colonel Thadani was our Commanding Officer, a thoroughbred gentleman, a saint at heart and a father to all young officers of the Regiment.  During the war I used to be an energetic young Captain with soldierly adrenaline pumping through all my veins, ready to bash on ahead, engaging enemy tanks with artillery fire.  I used to be very ‘vociferous’ on the radio net when calling for artillery fire.  Colonel Thadani would always come on the net, night or day, take over the net with his ‘cool’ demeanor and ensure that the guns fired as per my orders.”


Major Hoshiyar Singh, Param Veer Chakra
Our Regiment under then Lieutenant Colonel Thadani’s command was also involved in another famous battle, providing Artillery support for the Battle of Jarpal, where Major Hoshiyar Singh of 3 Grenadiers was awarded the Param Veer Chakra. In a gallant action, his C Company of 3 GRENADIERS captured Jarpal along the Basantar River inside Pakistan and then successfully repulsed many counterattacks.  It resulted in the enemy retreating, leaving behind 85 dead including their Commanding Officer and three other officers. Though seriously wounded, Major Hoshiyar Singh refused to be evacuated till the ceasefire.

Throughout the operation, C Company led by Major Hoshiyar Singh was provided with effective fire support by our Regiment. The artillery fire was directed  by Captain Mohan Krishnan who fought alongside Major Hoshiyar Singh as the Observation Post Officer.  Captain Mohan Krishnan was  Mentioned-in-Dispatches for displaying  conspicuous gallantry during the battle.


Veteran Colonel Mohan Krishnan  has this to say about his Commanding Officer.   “During my very first meeting with our new Commanding Officer, I realised that here is a leader who would stand by his command come hell or high water.  I soon realised that he encouraged his subordinates to take initiative and most importantly he taught us the value of morale.

His innovative thinking during the actual operations and his directions to us as – Forward Observation Officers (FOO) was instrumental in  our Regiment being conferred with the Battle Honour ‘BASANTAR RIVER.’

During the war I was attached to 47 Infantry Brigade of 54 Infantry Division as the  OP Officer.   On 4th Dec 1971, I was instructed to link up with 16 DOGRAS. While I was making preparations along with our soldiers, I decided to carry the wireless set, the heaviest equipment on my back and was trying it on and walking around to adjust to its weight.  In those days the radio sets were powered by a super-heavy Lead-Acid battery.  That was when Colonel Thadani landed up with a huge smile and handed over two newly introduced, much lighter ANPRC radio sets, batteries, ammunition and a few grenades. We heaved a great sigh of relief because carrying a heavy radio set and  moving about during the thick of battle was going to be extremely cumbersome to say the least. He then shook hands with all of us and bid us God speed and watched us go off into the night.  His timely action of handing us the lighter radio sets  and personal words of encouragement and advice really boosted our morale. It speaks volumes about this leader and his dedication and support for his subordinates.

Col Thadani initiated a novel method of counter bombardment. He instructed OP Officers who were up front, facing the enemy, to take bearings of the gun flashes whenever the enemy artillery opened up  and to record the time interval between the detection of the flash and the sound of the guns. With this data,  by triangulation, the  Gun Batteries of our Regiment were given fire orders which resulted in accurate and rapid engagement  of the enemy gun positions.  After the cease fire, during one of the flag meetings with the Pakistani officers they acknowledged that our Artillery fire was very effective. I am absolutely certain that this acknowledgement by our adversary was a result of our CO’s initiative, clear, precise instructions and outstanding  coordination of our Artillery fire.

Just before the Battle for Jarpal, I was with C Company of 3 Grenadiers as  their Forward Observation Officer.  Our CO came in person to bid farewell to me and my team as we launched into battle.  I was surprised as to how he could manage to locate us in the midst of the hectic activities and frantic troop movement that preceded the launch of such a major offensive.

He again had a wonderful and encouraging smile for all of us and said ‘Son, this battle that you are going into will be written in the annals of coordinated assaults by infantry and artillery and will also be written in our Regimental History. I wish you and your team all the best!’  He then shook our hands and watched us disappear into the night along with our Infantry comrades who were moving into the Assembly Area prior to the launch of the attack. This gesture of his made all of us very proud of him and our Regiment. It also brought a lump in my throat.

There was no need for our CO  to come personally to see us off. He could have wished us good luck over the radio net, but he chose to meet us in person negotiating  mine fields and braving enemy shelling.    HE WAS A TRUE WARRIOR.”


Lieutenant Colonel KN Thadani (extreme right) with Brigadier Ujagar Singh (Commander 74 Infantry Brigade), Major General WAG Pinto (General Officer Commanding 54 Infantry Division) and Brigadier AS Vaidya (Commander 16 Independent Armoured Brigade) during the war.

Then Lieutenant Colonel KN Thadani was the Artillery Advisor to Brigadier AS Vaidya, Maha Veer Chakra (later General and Chief of the Army Staff), Commander 16 Independent Armoured Brigade.  For his professional acumen in providing artillery fire support, planning of the operations, leadership and courage, Lieutenant Colonel KN Thadani was awarded the Vishishta Seva Medal.


Honorary Captain Mohinder Singh, our then Subedar Major  was also Mentioned-in-Dispatches for his dedication to duty and ensuring high morale of the Regiment during the war.  Gunner Premachandran, our Despatch Rider also laid down his life fighting for the motherland.

I joined our Regiment in January 1983 just after the Regiment was conferred the Honour Title ‘BASANTAR RIVER’ for the efforts of all officers and soldiers of this great Regiment during the war. It took over a decade of persistent effort by our Regiment and due to seven years of toil of our then Commanding Officer, Lt Col A N Suryanarayanan (now Veteran Brigadier), that it fructified and our Regiment was bestowed the Honour Title it aptly deserved.

Best Wishes to all readers on the occasion of  ‘VIJAY DIVAS’ and ‘BASANTAR DAY’.

Brigadier KN Thadani, VSM : An Accomplished Mountaineer follows

US Exports Oil


United States has joined the elite club of major oil exporting nations with nearly $22 billion worth of oil exports.  The US Congress lifted a 40-year-old ban on the export of crude oil following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. The ban restricted crude oil exports from the US to all countries besides Canada.  The last time the US exported more oil than it imported was 1953.

The International Energy Agency estimates that American oil production between 2015 and 2025 would grow at a rate unparalleled by any country in history, with far-reaching consequences for the US and the world.

Technological advancements in drilling and fracking (hydraulic fracturing) helped US to extract huge reserves of gas and oil trapped in shale rocks.  Main contributor to shale oil production is from the Bakken Shale Formation in North Dakota and the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas. The oil that is being produced from these shale formations is sometimes incorrectly referred to as ‘shale oil.’

The oil in the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations actually exists as oil, but the shale does not allow the oil to flow very well. This oil is called ‘tight oil’ and advances in hydraulic fracking technology have allowed some of this oil to be economically extracted.


‘Tight oil’ refers to hydrocarbons that are trapped in formations that are not very porous.  This oil and gas cannot flow out into the pipe as easily as with traditional wells. This oil is extracted by drilling horizontally across the deposit, and then fracking to open up the rock and allow the oil to flow.

The price of oil is political and is set by the big players, particularly by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by Saudi Arabia.  New fracking technology has resulted in flooding the oil market.   Oil prices had been above $100 per barrel up to 2014 and is now about $50 per barrel, all because of US shale oil.  The shale revolution has transformed oil tycoons into billionaires and the US into the world’s largest petroleum producer, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia.

As the oil market got flooded, Saudi Arabia initiated an economic oil war against the US by refusing to cut production in November of 2014 –  an attempt to drive US shale oil producers bankrupt.  The increased OPEC oil production drove oil prices down even more, eventually dropping to about $30/bbl in 2016, a price at which shale producers can’t break-even.

The oil wells used to flare out natural gas and was burned off as an unwanted by-product.  Now the gas is cooled to minus 162 degrees Celsius, to be condensed into a liquid – Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) -to be used as a clean alternative to coal.  US is now a top producer of LNG, selling shiploads of the commodity to countries such as China.

Even though LNG is not a very ‘clean fuel’, US under President Trump has been exporting LNG from 2017.  US is expected to overtake Qatar and become the world’s biggest LNG exporter by the mid-2020s.

US may claim today that it is energy independent, but will still be exposed to global energy prices and still be affected by the geopolitics of the Middle East.  Though US sells more petroleum than it buys, American refiners continue to import  more than 7 million barrels a day of crude from all over the globe to feed its refineries, which consume more than 17 million barrels each day.  Thus the US has become the world’s top fuel supplier.

Why this sudden multi-fold increase in oil production?  Is it the re-emergence of US under President Trump?  Is it an attempt to control the world through the oil market?   These questions will find answers in days to come.

It could also be that US is exploiting all its oil reserves to be sold in the world oil market as some new engine  technology is in the offing with minimum dependence on fossil fuels.  You may soon find such a technology emerging in the market and what it could be is anyone’s guess.

Let us wait and watch.

The Last Evening in Heraklion


As the night set in, we walked from our hotel to the 25th August Street.  It is now a paved pedestrian street, and boasts the most beautiful Neoclassical buildings that house banks, travel agencies and tourist shops.   This street may have been first cut by the Arabs in the 9th or 10th century, the main thoroughfare of Heraklion, linking the town centre to the harbour. During the Venetian period it was called the Ruga Maistra (Main Street), while in Ottoman times it was known as Vezir Tsarsi (Vizir’s Market) after the Vezir Mosque. The modern name of the street relates to a tragic event. On the 25th of August 1898, during the feast of St Titus, fanatic Muslim mob slaughtered many Christians, including 17 British soldiers and the British Consul.


Walking down the street, we came to the Lions Square.  It holds the ornate Venetian fountain of four lions with water gushing from their mouths. The fountain is officially in ‘Eleftheriou Venizelou’ Square in the centre of Heraklion, but the inhabitants of the city never use the official name, usually referring to it as the Lions Square or the Lions for short. The Venetians built it in 1629 as a solution to the problem of supplying Heraklion with water, providing 1,000 barrels of water a day.


Opposite the Lions Square is one of the first and most important works of the Venetian settlers, the St Mark Church.    Next to the church on the South-West corner was a high bell tower with a clock. During the long Turkish siege of the city, the bell was used as a bomb alarm, resulting in the bell tower becoming the target of the Turkish cannons. When the Turks took over the city, the church was converted into a mosque.  The bell tower was demolished and in its place they built a minaret.  Restoration of the building commenced in 1956 and today it houses the Municipal Art Gallery.


Down the street is the Loggia (noblemen’s club), constructed in 1626-28 AD by Francesco Morosini, the same man who built the Lions Fountain. This is the fourth and final Loggia built during the period of Venetian rule. Very little information is available on the first three.  Venetian political and social customs demanded the construction of a public building in Heraklion, as a meeting-place for the nobles, rulers and feudal lords, where economic and commercial decisions were made. It was also a place for them to relax.   The building is a faithful reproduction of Palladio’s famous Basilica in Vincenza, demonstrating the significance the Venetians attached to the city of Heraklion.  . Today the Loggia has been restored to its former glory and houses the Town Hall.


In 961 AD, the Arabs were driven out from Crete, bringing the island back under Byzantine Empire. This is when the first Orthodox church of St Titus (Agios Titos in Greek) must have been built, to rekindle the Christian faith and tradition in Crete, which had declined due to the Arab conquest of the island.  Saint Titus was a disciple of the Apostle Paul and the first Bishop of Crete.  At the fall of Heraklion to the Turks, all relics were removed to Venice, where they still remain today. The single exception is the skull of St Titus, which was returned to Heraklion in 1966 and is now kept in a silver reliquary in the church.  During the Turkish rule, the church was converted into a mosque known as the Vezir Mosque.  The great earthquake of 1856 totally destroyed the church. It was rebuilt in its present form as an Ottoman mosque.  The minaret of the church was demolished in the 1920s, when the last Muslims left Heraklion   The church was further modified in 1925.


Heraklion, a city well known for its intense and vibrant nightlife, offers many a chance for a night out.  The night entertainment consists of modern and traditional spots to choose from. There is an interesting variety of bars and clubs and they stay open till 3 o’clock in the morning. These bars play lounge or loud music and on some live bands perform.   Many taverns host bands which play live traditional music, with dancing.  One can enjoy a dinner at the many taverns which offer delicious local Cretan delicacies, local wine and salads.


We observed that almost all restaurants had many tables outside, especially after the sunset.  Taverns and bars serve traditional local drinks like ‘tsikoudia’ and ‘ouzo’ and special snacks.


The beautiful narrow streets with its narrower lanes and by-lanes, are brimming with tourists and locals all through the night.  It may well be the most ‘fashion oriented’ city in the Greek islands.


Crete has one of the oldest and perhaps the most delicious gastronomic traditions in the world with Cretan olive oil as one of the basic ingredients of Cretan cuisine.  Archaeological excavations indicate that the ancient Cretans used to consume almost the same products as the contemporary islanders. Large jars for storing olive oil, cereals, pulses and honey we saw at Knossos palace possibly stand testimony to this tradition.   This storage habit would have helped them to survive many sieges the island experienced, mainly by the Arabs, the Venetians and the Ottomans.


We dined at a restaurant next to the Lions Square. The Menu was Greek Mussaka –  Oven baked Greek dish with layers of eggplant, zucchini, potato and minced meat; Shrimps Saganaki – shrimps with white Feta cheese cooked in spicy tomato sauce; slowly cooked goat with citrus fruits served with sautéed Cretan greens, carrot jello, Greek yogurt and tahini (a paste made from ground sesame seeds.)

On 17 June 2016, we took the Air Canada flight from Athens to return home. At the end of the journey I would like quote Douglas Noel Adams, an English author, humourist and satirist who said ” I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”

Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa (Lord Ayyappa is the Only Hope)


Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa
  – this is the chant every Lord Ayyappa devotee utters, especially on pilgrimage to Sabarimala, on the Western Ghats of Kerala, India, the abode of the  Lord Ayyappa.  He is revered by most Hindus of South India.  He is believed to be the son of Shiva (God of destruction) and Mohini – the female avatar of Vishnu (preserver and protector of the universe).  Any devotee undertaking pilgrimage to Sabarimala is expected wear a Rudraksha chain,  observe 40 days of fasting, penance and continence, walk barefoot, wear black dress, etc.

Another name of Lord Ayyappa is Sastha which means Buddha. Buddhism is believed to have entered in Kerala by 3rd Century BC.  The constant and repeated chants, especially the word Sharanam  is that of the Buddhists.  The chain the pilgrims wear comes from the Rudraksha chain of the Shaivites. The strict fasting, penance and continence is taken out of the beliefs of the Vaishnavites. Ahimsa is taken from the Jains.


Myth has it that the King of Pandalam, childless, got a baby from the forest and took him to his palace and called him Manikantan. Later, the Queen delivered a baby and the she wanted the adopted son to be thrown out. Conniving with the Minister, the Queen pretended to be ill with the royal doctor prescribing Tigress’ milk as cure.  Manikantan was tasked to procure Tigress’ milk from the forest.  Knowing the intent of Manikantan’s visit, the King of the Gods, Indra, transfigured into a Tigress.  Manikantan climbed on top of the tigress and led the way back to the Palace.  Manikantan pardoned everyone who plotted against him and nominated his younger brother to the throne.


He then took the King to the forest ,  blazed an arrow toward a hill and asked the King to construct a shrine for him where the arrow landed. He also requested his father to come annually to visit him at the shrine.

It is believed that the Pandalam Royal Family are descendants of the Pandya dynasty of Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The Pandya King fled to Kerala after losing the battle against Malik Khafer, General of Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji and settled in Pandalam in 1202 AD.


There is an Islamic angle also to the belief in Lord Ayyappa.  Vavar, a Muslim forest brigand was shown the path of righteousness by Lord Ayyappa and he became the trusted lieutenant of the Lord.  When Lord Ayyappa took to his abode at the hilltop of Sabarimala, Vavar took up his position at the foothills in a Mosque at Erumeli.  Ayyappa devotees on pilgrimage first pay their respects to Vavar at the mosque before undertaking the trek uphill to the Temple.

What is the significance of Lord Ayyappa to me, a Syrian Orthodox Christian and an Indian Army Veteran?


In December 1982, I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant to 75 Medium Regiment of Artillery.  A regiment in Artillery is divided into three gun Batteries.  A Battery operates six guns, manned by about 150 soldiers.  The Regiment then had an interesting class composition. One battery was of Brahmins (other than those from the Southern and Eastern States of India), the second had Jats and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States.  In those days, any Young Officer posted to the Regiment would serve with each of the batteries for one or two years in order to make them familiarise with the soldiers. I too went through this rotation beginning with the Brahmins, then with the South Indians and then with the Jats.  On promotion to the Rank of Major, I took over command of the Brahmin Battery with Major Joginder Singh, a Sikh, commanding the South Indian Battery.


The War Cry of the South Indian Battery was ‘Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa.’  It is believed to have been introduced by Captain AN Suryanarayanan, who was the Adjutant of the Regiment in the early days of the Regiment.  He later rose to command the Regiment and is now a Veteran Brigadier.

‘Sawmiye Sharanam Ayyappa’ reverberated on the battlefield when the Regiment saw action during 1971 Indo-Pak war during the Battle of Basantar River.  Our Regiment was honoured with the Honour Title ‘Basantar River’ based on the Regiment’s performance in war.

Lord Ayyappa is a warrior deity and is revered for his ascetic devotion to Dharma – the ethical and right way of living, to deploy his military genius and daring yogic war abilities to destroy those who are powerful but unethical, abusive and arbitrary.  Hence ‘Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa’ is an apt Regimental Battle Cry.  We said it loudly before we undertook any mission, before commencement of engaging the enemy with our guns, while on training, while on the playing fields, at any competitions, and so on; why it reverberated whenever we got together, while in service or post retirement.


Our Regiment might be the only Indian Army entity to have the War Cry ‘Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa.’  Hindus, Sikhs, Christians. Muslims, Jains, Parsis – irrespective of our religious faiths, we all cried out loud  ‘Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa.’

Island of Crete and City of Heraklion


The island of Crete in the past two thousand years has changed hands many times over.  The Romans arrived in Crete as mediators  in 67 BC and settled here as conquerors. After three years of fighting, Crete became a Roman province and enjoyed a period of prosperity.  During this period it is believed that Bishop Titus converted the population to Christianity by order of the Apostle Paul.  In 285 AD, with the division of Roman Empire into Roman and Byzantine Empires, Crete came under the Byzantine Empire.

From 824 to 961 AD Crete was occupied by the Arabs. After a struggle lasting for many years, Byzantines  succeeded in freeing Crete from the Arabs and the second Byzantine Period lasted from 961AD to 1204 AD.  During this period, Byzantium nobles, European merchants and Christians from eastern countries settled in Crete and attempts were made to destroy all traces of the Arabs.  Crete was then sold to the Venetians who occupied it for the next 450 years.

Turkish attempt to conquer the island started with a pirate raid against the coastal towns in 1645.   Turks captured Crete in 1669.  The entire Cretan population deserted the city  and settled on the neighbouring islands and in Venice.

Crete was ceded to the Egyptians in 1821 from whom the Turks took over again in 1840.  Crete was not part of Greece when Greece state was formed in 1832 as it was under Egyptian control. Crete became independent in 1898 after the ‘Great Cretan Revolt’.  Crete was  united with Greece in 1913.

With the outbreak of World War II, Germans occupied Crete in 1941 The Battle of Crete was the first airborne invasion using paratroopers in military history.  Commonwealth forces, mainly British and New Zealanders, supported by the local resistance, fought hard for a week before being forced to evacuate the island.  Germans used it as a naval base to control the sea lanes in the Mediterranean Sea.  It also served as a supply base in maintaining supplies to Rommel’s Afrikan Korps  fighting in North Africa, until vacated by the Germans in July 1945.


On June 16, we decided to familiarise with the city of Heraklion and the best method was to get on the ‘Hop on-Hop off’ open double-decker bus.  Onboard audio commentary available in English, Greek, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, and Turkish, gave out information about various sites enroute.


We boarded the bus at this seaside Venetian fortress situated at the entrance of the old harbour, built by the Venetians to protect the port  between 1523 to 1540.  This two-floored fortress was built with big blocks of stone.  The ground floor used to house captains of ships and also to store food and ammunition.  The upper floor had canon emplacements.  The upper parts of the castle are Turkish additions.


Driving along the coast road, we came to the ruins of the Dominican Church of Peter and Paul. It was built in the 13th century, during the Venetian period.


This ruins are of the second church, built on the site of the original building after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1508.  During the period of Turkish rule, this church  was converted into a mosque.  It is currently being restored by the Archaeological Service.


Opposite the church is the Natural History Museum, functioning under the University of Crete. It is aimed  to study, protect and promote diverse flora and fauna of the Eastern Mediterranean region.  The museum is based in a restored industrial building that housed an electric power plant.


The bus drove along the Venetian Walls  fortifying the city of Heraklion.  It is a series of defensive walls which surround the city with a perimeter of roughly 5 km, supplemented with a ditch without water and bastions.  The first city walls were built in the Middle Ages, but they were completely rebuilt by the Venetians.  The fortifications managed to withstand the longest siege in history for 21 years, before the city fell to the Ottomans in 1669.  The walls remain largely intact to this day, and they are considered to be among the best preserved Venetian fortifications in Europe.

The gate of St. George at the East of the city was demolished in 1917. The gate Jesus is at the South, the gate of Pantocrator (known and as gate of Chanias) was at the West.


St George gate on the wall connected the then Venetian town of Chandaka to Eastern Crete.   This gate was built in 1565. Its name comes from a relief decorative representation of St George, which is today exhibited in the historical museum of the city.


Gate of Jesus or New Gate (Kenourgia Porta) was built on the South side of the Venetian Walls in 1587.   The gate also hosted the pipeline which supplied water to the city.   An arched passage across the wall was constructed in the 1970s for cars.  On either side of the central doorway there are some openings corresponding to stairs, windows and secondary entrances to adjacent locations, and to rooms above and inside.  The rooms were used for storing weapons and for accommodating the guards of the gate.


We ‘hopped off’ the bus to visit the Tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, the famous Greek writer born in Heraklion in 1883.  Throughout his life he received many critics, particularly from the Church, as he was trying to explain the notion of God and humans.  When his book, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ presenting Jesus Christ as a tragic figure who had been fighting all his life between the duty and mission on one side and the human desire to live a normal life on the other side, was published in 1951, the Roman Catholic Church banned it.  He left for the United States  in 1911.  As the Church had excommunicated him, he was not allowed to be buried in a cemetery when he died in 1957.  He was buried  outside the walls of his hometown as per his will.  His tomb is plain stonework and surprisingly it has a wooden cross on it.  Epitaph on his tombstone in Greek, when translated reads ‘I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.’

We hopped on to the next bus and got off to visit the Palace of Knossos built around 1900 BC.