Chai –My Favourite Brew


Recently I came across a video clip about TWG’s Yellow Gold Bud Tea.  This tea is believed to have been once the favourite of Chinese emperors and as precious and costly as gold.  In fact, each tea bud is lavished in 24-karat gold, which once infused, yields a delicately metallic and floral aftertaste.

In the Sixties, during our childhood days, back home in Kottayam, the regular morning brew was coffee.  Ripened red coffee beans were plucked from the coffee trees that grew in our homestead and after being sun dried their outer covering was removed.  The beans were then fried until they turned black and ground to a powder at the nearby mill, to be stored in airtight containers. The coffee powder was put into a copper vessel with boiling water and was left for a few minutes for the coffee to be infused and the thick powder settled at the bottom of the copper vessel.  The extract or decoction was now mixed with milk and sugar and then served to all. Just thinking about it makes one salivate.

The taste of that home-made coffee is now history.  With the advent of rubber plantations, all coffee trees were cut to make way for rubber. Thus, the end of home-made coffee powder. We now source our coffee powder from various commercially available brands in the market. Sad change.

Happy change. I took to drinking tea on joining Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, at the age of nine in 1971.  Tea was served to us early in the morning prior to Physical Training, at 11 o’ Clock between classes and in the evening prior to games.  Every cadet took a liking to this tea as everyone looked forward to it.  For many it served as a clock as none of us wore a wristwatch.  The tea had some magic in it as it had the innate quality to kick start all the important events in a cadet’s life!

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What was so special about this magical concoction?  The taste of this tea is beyond words, and could never be replicated.  We tried hard to analyse the secret of this addictive tea. What was special about it? It could be the special blend of the tea leaves or the way in which it was cured. Or perhaps it was the sublime effect of the Amaravathi River waters, the vessel in which it was brewed, or the cloth used to filter it – the possibilities were endless.  It remains a mystery to all of us, but it attracts most alumni to the school every year and they gleefully indulge in consuming steaming cups of this divine tea. Some Cadets even claimed that it was made with donkey’s milk.

Another most memorable cup of tea that I have had was the tea served by soldiers at the Sadhna Post at Nastachun Pass.  This pass is located at about 10,000 feet Above Sea Level at the entrance to the Thangdhar Valley on the Indo-Pak border.  The narrow one-way road from Chowkibal (about 100 km from Srinagar) was cut along the mountains to Nastachun Pass and then down into Thangdhar Valley.  The road being narrow could only accommodate one vehicle either way.  To ensure a smooth flow of vehicles, all traffic was regulated by a convoy system. The up and down convoys left from Thandhar and Chowkibal at about 8 in the morning and 2 in the Afternoon respectively.  The vehicles on reaching Nastachun Pass parked there, awaiting all vehicles to fetch up from either side.

During this wait, soldiers manning Sadhna Post served tea to all.  It was real refreshing cup of tea as one was both physically and mentally tired traversing up through the treacherous roads with many hairpin bends. It was a magic potion that invigorated tired limbs and ebbing spirits.


During winter, the road and the mountains got covered with over ten feet of snow.  The only way to cross over was by foot columns.  The foot columns operated at night, two days after a heavy snowstorm to avoid avalanches.  The foot column consisted mainly of soldiers proceeding or returning from leave from their homes, porters carrying essential supplies – fresh vegetables and milk, mail, etc.

It took about four hours of strenuous climb to Sadhna Post and was a sure test of anyone’s mental and physical abilities. It was a kind of surreal experience.  On reaching Sadhna Post, everyone was welcomed by the soldiers with a hot ‘cuppa,’ a cup of tea that was the most refreshing and tasty – it simply was the best . To my mind, it could very well be compared to Amrit – the nectar of immortality in Hindu mythology. The climb down from the Sadhna post appeared easier but was just as treacherous, if not more, due to the tendency to slip and fall.

I have never tasted the Yellow Gold Bud Tea, the specialty of the Chinese emperors. But I am certain that it will pale into insignificance when compared with the Amravathi Special or the Sadhna Post Amrit!

Hussainiwala – A Village on Indo-Pak Border


During our visit to India to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations of raising of our regiment – 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River) – we watched the Retreat Ceremony at Hussainiwala Border Post.


Railway line connecting Peshawar to Mumbai was built in 1885, passing through Hussianiwala.  During the Pre-Partition days, Punjab Mail connected the cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Ferozepur, Lahore and Peshawar. In those days, most British troops and businessmen arrived at Mumbai and made their way to their destinations in the North-West Frontier Province by train. The train track from Ferozepur to Hussainiwala was an engineering fete, with Qaiser-e-Hind bridge, which stood over several round pillars (all of them intact even today, as depicted in the image above).


When Pakistan was carved out of British India, the border was drawn along the Sutlej River in Punjab and it passed through Hussainiwala Village.  Now, Sutlej River has changed its course over the years, running further East in Indian territory.  This made Hussainiwala an enclave into Pakistan, with the Sutlej River behind it.


Hussainiwala is named after a Muslim Peer (Saint), Hussaini Baba, whose shrine is located at the entrance to the Border Post.  This small hamlet came into prominence on the evening of 23 March 1931 when British soldiers tried to cremate the bodies of three young Indian freedom fighters – Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Raj Guru – who were hanged at the Lahore Central Jail.  The hanging, scheduled for 24 March was rescheduled a day earlier as the British feared a revolt in Lahore as the situation had become very tense.  They  secretly transported their bodies to Hussainiwala and while cremating them on the banks of the Sutlej, the locals got wind of it.  They assembled near the cremation site.  Fearing repercussions, British soldiers fled the scene, leaving behind the dead bodies which were cremated by the villagers.  This site today is a memorial – aptly called ‘Prerana Sthal‘ (Motivation Site).


Later Bhagat Singh’s mother, Vidyawati, and freedom fighter BK Dutt were cremated at this site as per their wishes. The cremation site is called ‘Shaheedi Sthal’ (Martyrs’ Place).   This is where Indians from all over the country make an annual pilgrimage to honour the martyrs on March 23 as they observe ‘Shaheedi Diwas’ (Martyrs’ Day).


(Defences on the Indian side on Bund (wall) with a bunker as inset)

This enclave has witnessed three bloody battles between India and Pakistan,  with the very first one fought on 18 March 1956.  At that time, heavy floods had damaged Bela Bund and Sulaimanki Headworks at Hussainiwala and as the Indian engineers were repairing the damage, Pakistan Army launched an unprovoked attack at 9 PM.  4 JAK RIF was guarding the bund, and they fought  gallantly causing heavy causalities on the enemy.  This resulted in a hasty withdrawal by the attackers.


During partition of British India in 1947,  Hussainiwala, an enclave of 12 villages went to Pakistan. The railway line no more had trains running through Hussainiwala.  The railway station at Hussainiwala as it exists today is depicted in the image above.  Now Punjab Mail connects Mumbai to Ferozepur via Delhi.  Pakistan destroyed  Qaisere- Hind Bridge leaving behind the round pillars across the river. The Shaheedi Sthal was in a dilapidated state without any maintenance. In 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister, brokered an exchange deal and Hussainiwala came to India while Sulaimanki Headworks –  from where three major canals which supply irrigation water to a large area in Pakistan  Punjab originate –  went to Pakistan. India immediately restored Shaheedi Sthal to its due dignity and reverence.

During Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, 2 Maratha Light Infantry (Kali Panchwin) was deployed to defend Hussainiwala. The battalion fought valiantly to thwart a  frontal attack resulting in two enemy tanks destroyed and two captured, with several enemy killed. The Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Nolan was killed in enemy artillery shelling. The unit ensured that the Samadhi of Bhagat Singh was not desecrated by Pakistan Army. The battalion was visited by then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Defence Minister YB Chavan, Congress Party President  K Kamraj, the Chief of Army Staff and other senior officers. Kali Panchwin was awarded the battle honour ‘Hussainiwala’ for its role in the 1965 War. The citizens of Firozpur, in honour of the Battalion’s contribution in defending the bridge and Firozpur town, presented a silver replica of the Hussaniwala Bridge.

During the 1971 War, it was 15 PUNJAB defending Hussainiwala enclave and the Memorial.  On 03 December, Pakistan Army launched a heavy attack.  The valiant Punjabis withstood the attack gallantly despite suffering heavy casualties until withdrawing on 04 December night.


Did the three freedom fighters, who laid down their lives for Indian independence in their wildest dreams ever visualise that post independence, there would be a partition on religious lines and it would all end up in three bloody wars at the very same site their ‘Samadhi’ stood?

Legendary Lungi

For me, undoubtedly most comfortable evening home wear has always been the down to earth ‘Lungi’.  It is extremely comfortable and is an all season wear.  It is unisex – wearable by both men and women.  It is easy to wear without any hassles of zips, buttons or laces.  One got to  just tie at the waist.  Tying a Lungi at the waist is surely not any rocket science, but to ensure that it remains there is surely an art by itself.  Lungi surely provides free movement for the lower limbs and also air circulation, especially  ideal for the hot and humid climate of Kerala.

A Lungi is a cotton sheet about 2 meter in length and over a meter  in breadth and is characterised  by its plain, checkered, floral or window-curtain patterns.  By design, surely one-size-fits-all, both males and females and surely does not have any caste, creed or religion.  The only variation is that Muslims of Kerala wear it right to left, whereas others wear it  left to right.  It is very difficult for a normal eye to make out this subtle difference.  Lungi is worn in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Thailand. ‘Mundu’ is its white cousin and is worn mostly outdoors  in Kerala- to church, family functions and even to office.

While serving in the Indian Army, I wore a Lungi to bed, even in remote border posts – at altitudes above 10,000 feet when the mercury dipped to nearly 30 degrees below the freezing mark.  I wore it while serving in the North in Kashmir, in the West in the deserts of Rajasthan and in the humid jungles of Eastern India. It surely had no combat or camouflaged design or pattern as it was not an Army ‘issue’ item and surely did not figure in the ‘Dress Regulations for the Army.’

Once on my trip home on vacation from Sikkim, I called on Colonel Baby Mathew who was commanding an Artillery Regiment located near the airport from where I was to board the flight home.  On reaching the main gate of his regiment, the sentry on guard saluted me smartly and said “Our CO (Commanding Officer) is waiting at his residence for your arrival” and he then gave directions to the driver about the route.  On entering Colonel Mathew’s residence I heard his voice saying “Head straight to my bedroom.”  There was Colonel Mathew, sitting on his bed, adorned in his favourite Lungi.  He ordered me to change into my Lungi and join him for a hot lunch of Kappa (Kasava or Tapioca) and fish curry – a Kerala Christian favourite.  While partaking the meal, Colonel Mathew said “I have placed my residence out of bounds for all ranks for the next 24 hours” – meaning no one to come near his house until I was there.  Obviously the Commanding Officer did not want his command to see him and his friend in their Lungi.

In June 2002, I took over command of our Regiment in its operational location on the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan.  The Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve.  The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan.  The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were transported to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days.  The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.

The move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite.  An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war surely  had no priorities in anyone’s mind.  The Military Special trains stopped at every possible station, even to give way to the goods trains.  Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways.  The onward move executed in less than two days now was sure to take a week.

On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), the soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train.  After accomplishing the task, the Subedar Major (Master Warrant Officer) Thangaswamy had a roll-call to ensure everyone was present and also to brief the soldiers about the return journey.  As I looked out of my railway coach’s window, I saw the entire regiment standing.  I had a brain wave – Why carry all the soldiers on the train?  About a hundred of them is all what I require, mainly to ensure the security and safety of the train and the equipment.  Why not the rest of the soldiers be send on leave as many had not met their families for a prolonged time due to the operational commitments?  Also, less of a trouble for the chefs to cook meals on a running train and less of administrative issues.

I stepped out of my coach wearing my Lungi and a shirt and ordered Subedar Major Thangaswamy to only keep about a hundred soldiers and disperse the rest on leave for a week to rejoin at Devlali.  Everyone’s face suddenly brightened up but with that I was christened ‘Lungi CO.’

After moving to Canada, on a warm and sunny summer morning, I was watering the garden wearing my all time favourite Lungi.  There appeared our neighbour, Mr Win of Chinese descent and on seeing me wearing a colourful and comfortable costume enquired “Reji, what skirt are you wearing- looks really colourful.  Sometimes it is a full-skirt, sometimes half-skirt and sometimes mini-skirt.” –That was it! I discarded my favourite Lungi forever.