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Desert stormed

Desert stormed

Author: Rohit Parihar
Publication: India Today
Date: April 27, 2009
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/index.php?option=com_content&issueid=36&task=view&id=37189&sectionid=24&Itemid=1

Introduction: A gruelling equestrian expedition in Rajasthan builds bridges between villagers and armymen and turns into a unique learning experience.

When 12 riders galloped past villages in the deep desert of Rajasthan, their horses excited children, were surprised by camels and had people worshipping them. The 1,000-mile expedition, organised by the Indian Army's Directorate-General of Mechanised Forces and the Adventure Wing, covered 200 villages in 60 days and was the first to be organised after Independence.

The aim was adventure as much as to familiarise the armymen with the terrain. Led by Lt-Colonel P.S. Grewal and his second in command Lt-Colonel Sanjeev Bhalla, a veterinary doctor, the 10 jawans are now fondly called 'Desert Centaurs'. "The expedition reminds me of the historical progression from cavalry to armour," says Lt-General S.N. Handa, chief of staff, headquarters, South West Command.

The horses and men underwent rigorous training which helped them cover up to 64 km a day. The riders lost weight during the expedition till their meals were augmented with desi ghee and mutton. To escape the heat, they would often begin their journey at 4 am and reach a village at midnight, surprising villagers. The locals in turn worshipped the horses, recreating scenes depicted in village paintings. But the biggest shock was reserved for a village that saw 12 horses stay there and live as the villagers believed that they were cursed and no horse could survive there. The journey had its escapes too.

Once Grewal's stallion suddenly stopped and turned back while racing down a slope which had a deep and invisible gorge. At times, potable water was a problem. Also, what put their plans in disarray was the fact that maps would show a much shorter distance than what they would actually cover. A major military advantage of the expedition was that it updated their knowledge about the desert terrain after a long gap.

The soldiers were taken aback by rural progress. "Most villages had power, roads and schools," Grewal says. They also saw antelopes, lizards, snakes and even a pair of desert wolves, and hope to undertake a longer journey in the future. As part of their preparations, they had gone through Colonel James Todd's Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan but decided to make their own way. Next time, it could just be in Todd's footsteps.

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