The War-Shrine Of Tanot Mata [Incredible Indo-European Holy Sites Series Part III]

One of my criteria for judging whether a culture is spiritually healthy, is how it treats its religion. Is it something that is actively integrated? Into the culture, into the state, into daily life? Or is it merely something that is wheeled out in the manner of Easter in much of the West – a symbol, that has little to do with what’s ostensibly being observed, and is ultimately a chocolate shell concealing a void, to be consumed where we can all see it and forgotten about for much of the rest of the year. 

In India, it should come as no surprise to find that this is truly a ‘spiritually healthy’ culture – indeed, it is the last actively and overtly healthy Indo-European, literally Aryan, culture upon this earth of ours. Others are making admirable endeavours to revive and to revitalize their own Indo-European descendant-faiths and re-integrate them into the life of the state, community, and country around them … but we are all quite literally millennia behind Bharat. A land where Gods and Rivers have legal standing – and where having a Cleric as Chief Minister does not mean one happens to be standing in the Vatican. Nepal, too, deserves active commendation in this regard – and as we saw in GHOST DIVISION, the Nepali Army takes point of emphatic pride in convening itself as Lord Rudra’s Retinue or Household Guard (Huscarla, we may fairly say) in particular upon MahaShivRatri each year. 

But it is another military infused Indo-European religious space that I wish to speak of today. Namely, a small Hindu Mandir [Temple] in Rajasthan known as Tanot Mata; near the border of both the Thar Desert and perfidious Pakistan. Here, the Warrior Goddess is worshipped in earnest , by soldiers as they make their way to the front lines of the still-simmering conflict with the adversary across the sands. Once, it was a Temple of Rajputs – those famed warriors of the eponymous state who had fought successive waves of invaders and still, to this day, maintain their fierce clan traditions as Hinduism’s NorthWest Shield. Today, it is a Temple of the Border Security Force (indeed, with a Pandit that is also a soldier) – actively administered by the Indian BSF , who are in some ways a modern (if ostensibly paramilitary) equivalent. Due to its sacredness and significant history with them, it has become something of a place of pilgrimage for Indian military personnel being deployed to the border – who come either independently, or in convoy with their comrades in official vehicles, to pray and reflect, marvel at the deeds and history of the site and their forebears in uniform, and to receive the blessing-mark upon their forehead of sand from Tanot Mata … the native earth, Indian earth, of which they are sworn to defend. 

Now, the way in which it became a BSF temple is interesting. For it dates to the 1965 War with Pakistan, and the battle that took place around this site. Then, three Indian platoons (one Army, from the 13th Grenadiers; two Border Security Force) stood in the Temple’s defence against a large-scale Pakistani assault. Cut off and pinned down, the men made ready to sell their lives dearly in a heroic last stand. And yet … 

Despite heavy bombardment (approximately 3,000 shells are supposed to have been fired, with several hundred directly hitting the Temple and Mandir’s grounds itself), multi-directional assault from three sides, and a significant numerical disadvantage, the Indians held fast and repulsed the invaders. It would have been a remarkable enough occurrence for that fact alone – but the story got weirder [in the old Germanic sense of the term]. 

For as it turned out, not a single shell fired nor bomb dropped at the Temple had exploded. Literally hundreds of munitions had all somehow either failed to detonate, or had mysteriously flown off-course; with some Pakistani air force personnel reportedly claiming that during their attack-runs, instead of being able to see the Temple … they could only see a small girl sitting beside a lake. When we place this in context along with the belief that the Goddess had appeared in the dreams of the Indian soldiers arrayed in Her Defence [and I mean this both in terms of the Temple, as well as the ‘Her’ in question being Bharat Mata – Mother India] and Told them that She would protect them … it becomes clear what has occurred. 

This, then, is the exemplar of the other sign of a spiritually healthy culture – not only that the religion has been actively ‘integrated’ into the fabric of the culture and the state: but that just as the bearers of said culture, the inhabitants of said state move to defend the religion … so, too, does the religion defend its defenders. Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitaha, we would say in Sanskrit – Dharma, Protected, Protects. 

Following the conclusion of the 1965 War with Pakistan, the Indian Border Security Force took over the Temple – they now run it, administer it, and have established a small dedicated base on the grounds. This is partially due to the proximity of the site to the border with Pakistan – meaning that it is quite naturally within the BSF’s aegis of operations simply due to that fact. Yet it is also, and much more significantly, due to the events aforementioned. And to continue to uphold and protect the Goddess and Her Mandir that did likewise for their forebears now some fifty five years afore. 

And while all of that is both remarkable and stirring, there is not where the tale of Tanot Mata amidst conflict and strife ends. For six years later, when Pakistan again invaded India – this time in a bid to prevent India from stopping a genocide – there was again a dramatic clash around the site. I would say that the course of this combat was so remarkable that it would only be believable in the movies … but as it happens, the actual Bollywood production based upon the events there (entitled ‘Border’) actually significantly toned down the course of events (including by massively increasing the number of Indian casualties taken at the battle). 

The engagement in question is known as the Battle of Longewala, and it commenced upon this day some 49 years afore. It is – entirely deservedly – one of the most storied of India’s modern military history; where 120 Indian Army and Border Security Force soldiers stood against a force of around two and a half thousand Pakistanis and at least 40 tanks as well as numerous other vehicles. Lacking time to carry out serious entrenchment, lacking more than a single anti-tank weapon of any significant range, and seemingly lacking in everything other than sheer courage, ingenuity, duty, honour, and faith … the company was given a choice by battalion command – make a desperate retreat back across the sixteen kilometers or so to the nearest significant concentration of friendly forces, or stay and fight on alone. The Indian commander, Major Chandpuri, assessed the risks of both propositions and chose the latter. Partially because it almost seemed to be no choice at all. An orderly retreat across such a distance whilst being pursued by a much larger motorized force would almost certainly end in an encounter of annihilation for his command rather than successful escape; and in any case would mean ceding the only point of resistance between the oncoming Pakistanis and the Ramgarh staging point – or, worse, the Jaisalmer airbase that was responsible for providing aircover to much of this entire section of front. 

And so it was that, once more, a small force of India’s defenders made ready to sell their lives dearly; carefully positioning their assets in the little time available to them to make the most of their severely limited resources of both material and manpower. And so it was that, once more, things became Wyrd. For Fate once again curiously congealed around the site of Tanot – and the onrushing wave of Pakistan seemed to break thereupon. 

It started with the little things. The main Indian anti-tank weapon at Longewala was a jeep-mounted recoilless rifle. It had been supposed to be withdrawn and re-assigned the day before the engagement; yet due to mysterious happenstance had been significantly delayed and unable to leave afore the reports came in of the impending Pakistani armoured thrust. It was to prove vital in the ensuing defence. As were the Indian artillery-pieces nearby that had only just managed to be deployed scant hours before the commencement of the assault. 

Other peculiar, if perhaps not entirely inexplicable occurrences also helped to shape the ground and tip the scales in favour of the defenders; adding to the soon-to-be massive weight of the heroism and martial valour of the aforementioned thereupon. The Pakistanis made an escalating pile-up of errors both before and during their push on Longewala that helped to negate their otherwise imposing sets of advantages.

At first, the Pakistanis attempted a direct assault in the hours after midnight, preceded by heavy artillery bombardment (which killed half of the Border Security Force unit’s camels, unfortunately), while the Indians made a desperate attempt to finish laying an anti-tank minefield (during the course of which, one Indian soldier was killed), plugging gaps in the line with three lengths of barbed wire hastily repurposed from the perimeter fencing designed to keep camels out of the post. Engaging almost entirely at ranges of less than thirty meters, the Indians wrought a heavy toll upon the Pakistani armour and supporting infantry – a situation not helped for the invader by their otherwise bizarre decision to attempt an armoured assault over un-reconnoitered sandy ground and sans proper combat engineering support, leading to a number of tanks bogging down amidst the unfavourable conditions. [Although it is interesting to note that the localized reconnaissance failure may have partially resulted from the mysterious disappearance of the vehicles of the Pakistani recon troupe supposedly dispatched into this area ahead of the main force] 

The Pakistani armour had also been fitted with exterior fuel-tanks in order to facilitate its intended deep-thrust across the Indian countryside … which proved useful for the Indians, when these proceeded to detonate under fire, providing handy illumination of the Pakistani advance – along with a heavy and cloying smokescreen that significantly obscured the defensive positions of Longewala from any Pakistani forces not in immediate (and well-lit) engagement range. Such was the opposition put up by the Indians that their adversary thought them to be a considerably, a much larger force in terms of both men and munitions – rather than the hastily prepared and underequipped reinforced company that actually held the ground in question. 

And while a sustained and direct follow-up of the thrust may have delivered different results even despite the incredible tenacity of the defenders, this did not eventuate. The sudden discovery of the aforementioned three lengths of barbed wife convinced the Pakistanis that the area under them was mined (an irony – as the barbed wire was specifically only in the areas that were not mined), leading to a breaking off of the attack and substantial delay while engineers were brought up to clear the non-existent hazard upon these paths. Meanwhile, Pakistani armour and infantry were called back in order to regroup and assault from other directions – which, again, lead to further losses amidst the former as they attempted to negotiate the sandy terrain and burning wrecks of their peers without bogging. 

With these subsequent assaults also having failed to produce measurable impact upon the Indian position, the Pakistanis now found themselves with a new enemy to contend with – the ascent of the Sun into the Sky, bringing with it a different kind of illumination to the battle-field .. and followed on swiftly by the Indian Air Force with vengeful intent upon their minds. 

Guided by an airborne observer flying in a rather rustic propeller-plane (and who was, uncoincidentally, also the man – Major Atma Singh – who’d provided the air-recon confirmation of the initial Pakistani thrust to Major Chandpuri et co) at not insignificant risk to himself, Indian Air Force Hunters and Maruts from Jaisalmer, the airbase that Longewala had stopped the Pakistani advance towards, began an unimpeded utter devastation of the still-attacking Pakistani grounders. Due to poor Pakistani operational planning, Pakistani air assets (or, for that matter, significant and dedicated ground anti-air elements) were unavailable to counter this sudden appearance of the IAF – and what had already begun to look like an overt failure for the Pakistanis swiftly turned into an out-and-out debacle of a rout with the subsequent arrival of Indian reinforcements from both the Rajputana Rifles and 20th Lancers (the latter being an Indian armour formation).

I must say, there is something somewhat poetic in the symbolism of all of this. Whether the ‘Night of Destruction’ (‘KaalRatri’ – a situation also of Mahabharat resonancy, perhaps), or the Solar Chariot taking to the sky and being followed first by Maruts and thence by Rajputs to finish the foe … it seems almost a case of symbolic saliency and semi-deliberate ‘echoing’ of the ancient scriptural accounts. Although deliberate on the part of Whom is, perhaps, another matter. Myth may be called up, called upon, and invoked as we invoke ourselves into its recurrence … but it is rarely at our sole command nor direction. It has a logic whose symbols occasionally manifest obliquely in the process even though the outcome may remain instantly apparent. 

However one chooses to analyze it, there can be little doubt that the outcome to the battle of Longewala was nothing short of legendary. Of the 120 Indian personnel (and ten camels) present at Longewala at the start of the engagement, only two (and five camels) had been killed. Of the two and a half thousand Pakistanis who had dared to approach the post, hundreds now lay dead; the incredible vast majority of the armour they had brought with them (thirty six out of at least 40) had also been either destroyed or captured.

Given the colossal scale of operations on both fronts in 1971, it would be inaccurate to claim that the outcome of Longewala changed the entire course of the war. However, it most certainly did help – especially by halting the Pakistani advance toward Jaisalmer … and, indeed, the Pakistani advance in that sector all up. It was one of those defining moments in the emotively resonant sense – the “Here, But No Further” (Or, to reference Lord of the Rings, the “You Shall Not Pass”). That place where the onrushing wave encounters the stern headland of resistance, breaks, and thence begins to slink back. 

It would be tempting to directly compare this combat to that most indelible of military engagements upon the Western psyche – Thermopylae. And certainly, in media reporting of the engagement in the broader Anglosphere at the time, just such observations were made. However, I don’t think that’s the most appropriate rendering – even if it’s about the right period to be looking towards.

For while Thermopylae was unquestionably heroic – something of the ur-template for the Glorious Last Stand – it was also, in most measures except the narrative, a failure. Leonidas and his brave Three Hundred may loom large across our collective imaginations today … yet this is so long a shadow that it obscures the fact that their defensive position was turned; and that they were, ultimately, unable to stop the crushing press of tens of thousands of Persian fighting men on through the Pass and into the rest of Greece. It is an immense story – and it was very nearly a holding action capable of providing a strategically useful delay in the Persianate advance – but it was, by just about every measure, a resounding (if gloriously memorable to the point that it is still resounding, even today some two and a half thousand years later) defeat. 

Not so, at Longewala. 

No, I think the more correct Ancient Greek parallel to the heroic stand at Longewala is that of Salamis – fought the same year as Thermopylae, and somewhat less prominent today by comparison even despite its potentially greater reputation during the course of antiquity. 

Now, why I suggest this is not merely for the obvious reason – that it was a much smaller force acting in defence of their homeland who successfully, through superior training, tactics, and ingenuity, managed to overcome the larger. But rather, for another reason as well: the role of a certain Indo-European Goddess in delivering the victory.

You see, various Greek peoples who fought at Salamis have traditions around this fact. The Athenians say that they saw Owls in flight above their forces on the day of the battle, signifying Athena was with them. Herodotus also records the Aeginetians as receiving another such Divine apparition – saying that when the Greek fleet was reversing furiously from the Persian into the bay of Salamis, immediately following the arrival of the Aeginetian ship bringing the cult-statues of the heroic Sons of Aeacus (their nation’s founding king, later to enjoy a storied career as one of the Greek Judges of the Dead; it is not coincidental that His Name means ‘The Roarer’) – there appeared the ‘phantom’ shape of a Woman, Who roared a reproach at the Greeks at sufficient volume that the entire fleet heard it – “Gentlemen, just how long are you going to keep on backing water?” [variant translations: “Men possessed, how long will you still be backing water?”; “Madmen, how far will ye yet back your ships?”] 

She then ordered the attack to commence – and the rest, as they say, is quite literally history. 

Now there are numerous other emblematic instances that I could draw from, when it comes to such circumstances from the ancient Indo-European world. One that I often find favourable to mention is that of Cybele being welcomed into Rome at the Sibylline Oracle’s command so that Rome might triumph ‘gainst Carthage during the darkest days of the Second Punic War. Another that I have just recently written upon concerns the extended saliency of Mother Aditi (and often Mother Earth) in the ancient Vedic Hymnals, called upon to protect and defend the invoker and their sovereign polity in just the manner we should expect of the Great Goddess: 

RV IV 55:
“1 WHO of you, Vasus, saveth? who protecteth? O Heaven [Dyaus] and Earth and Aditi, preserve us,
[…]
7 May Goddess Aditi with Gods defend us, save us the saviour God with care unceasing.

AV VII 6:
“We call for help the Queen of Law and Order, great mother of
   all those whose ways are righteous,
  Far-spread, unwasting strong in her dominion, Aditi wisely lead-
   ing, well protecting.
[…]
Earth, our strong guard, incomparable Heaven, Aditi wisely lead-
   ing, well protecting.
Let us bring hither, in pursuit of riches, Aditi with our word,
   the mighty mother,
  Her in whose lap the spacious air is lying: may she afford us
   triply-guarding shelter!”

RV VIII 18:
“4 With Gods come thou whose fostering care none checks, O Goddesss Aditi:
Come, dear to many, with the Lords who guard us well.
5 For well these Sons of Aditi know to keep enmities aloof,
Unrivalled, giving ample room, they save from woe.
6 Aditi guard our herd by day, Aditi, free from guile, by night,
Aditi, ever strengthening, save us from grief!
7 And in the day our hymn is this: May Aditi come nigh to help,
With loving-kindness bring us weal and chase our foes.”

RV X 63:
“10 Mightily-saving Earth, incomparable Heaven the good guide Aditi who gives secure defence”

RV VIII 47:
“8 Resting in you, O Gods, we are like men who fight in coats of mail.
Ye guard us from each great offence, ye guard us from each lighter fault.
9 May Aditi defend us, may Aditi guard and shelter us,
Mother of wealthy Mitra and of Aryaman and Varuṇa.
10 The shelter, Gods, that is secure, auspicious, free from malady,
A sure protection, triply strong, even that do ye extend to us.”

RV VIII 56:
“10 And thee too, O Great Aditi, thee also, Goddess, I address,
Thee very gracious to assist.
11 Save us in depth and shallow from the foe, thou Mother of Strong Sons
Let no one of our seed be harmed.”

RV X 66:
“3 May Indra with the Vasus keep our dwelling safe, and Aditi with Ādityas lend us sure defence.
May the God Rudra with the Rudras favour us, and Tvaṣṭar with the Dames further us to success.”

White YV 21:
“5 We call to succour us the mighty Mother of those whose
sway is just, the Queen of Order,
Strong-ruler, far-expanding, ne’er decaying, Aditi gracious
guide and good protectress.
6 Sinless may we ascend, for weal, this vessel rowed with
good oars, divine, that never leaketh,
Earth our strong guard, incomparable Heaven. Aditi gracious
guide and good protectress.”

AV VI 4
“May Tvashtar, Brāhmanaspati, Parjanya hear my holy prayer.
May Aditi with all her sons, the brothers, guard us, invincible, protecting power.
May Ansa, Bhaga, Varuna, and Mitra, Aryaman, Aditi, and Maruts guard us.
May we be freed from that oppressor’s hatred. May he keep off that foeman who is near us”

As we can see, the notion of Aditi (whether Herself, or Herself and accompanied by Her Husband And Sons) as Defender Goddess, War Goddess, Unstoppable (and UnBound – literally that which ‘Aditi’ means as a theonym) is quite an ancient Vedic concept. Finding expression also in the well-known DeviSukta RV X 125], wherein Vak (Saraswati) Devi is directly spoken of as both “rouse[ing] and order[ing] battle for the people” and empowering the warrior to “strike and slay the hater of devotion.” In addition, obviously, to taking to the field of combat Herself where the fighting is thickest and most insurmountable in various such wars against the iniquitous, the AnAryan, the demonic. Not for nothing is She also accorded that most impressive of Vedic hailings – Vritrahan , the Slayer of Vritra. [‘Vrtraghni’, per RV VI 61 7, if we are being more grammatically correct]

As we have long maintained, this notion of the Indo-European Warrior Goddess is an ancient and evidently almost pan-Indo-European understanding; matched, of course by the oft-strongly coterminous concept of the Earth Mother deific as Mountain Queen – and with said Mountain Queen, perhaps in the manner of the Queen piece upon the chessboard, being an incredibly mightily potent defender of Her Children and the Kingdom. And Who is it that is worshipped at Tanot Mata ? Just such the Goddess. 

We would more frequently know Her as Durga , Parvati [the ‘Invincible’/’Strong-point’/’Defensive Location’; The Mountain(ess), respectively] in a particular Aspect. 

Although there is also one further Hymnal that I should make reference to – and I think that it is worth quoting in full herein: 

RV X 77

“1 As with their voice from cloud they sprinkle treasure so are the wise man’s liberal sacrifices.
I praise their Company that merits worship as the good Maruts’ priest to pay them honour.
2 The youths have wrought their ornaments for glory through many nights,—this noble band of Maruts.
Like stags the Sons of Dyaus have striven onward, the Sons of Aditi grown strong like pillars.
3 They who extend beyond the earth and heaven, by their own mass, as from the cloud spreads Sūrya;
Like mighty Heroes covetous of glory, like heavenly gallants who destroy the wicked.
4 When ye come nigh, as in the depth of waters, the earth is loosened, as it were, and shaken.
This your all-feeding sacrifice approaches: come all united, fraught, as ’twere with viands.
5 Ye are like horses fastened to the chariot poles, luminous with your beams, with splendour as at dawn;
Like self-bright falcons, punishers of wicked men, like hovering birds urged forward, scattering rain around.
6 When ye come forth, O Maruts, from the distance, from the great treasury of rich possessions,
Knowing, O Vasus, boons that should be granted, even from afar drive back the men who hate us.
7 He who, engaged in the rite’s final duty brings, as a man, oblation to the Maruts,
Wins him life’s wealthy fulness, blest with heroes: he shall be present, too, where Gods drink Soma.
8 For these are helps adored at sacrifices, bringing good fortune by their name Ādityas.
Speeding on cars let them protect our praises, delighting in our sacrifice and worship.”

There are a few points of interest to this Hymnal in both a theological as well as a broader reconstructive sense, and I have already taken a brief look at some of these in a recent article (which looked, in particular, at the Scythian saliency for these concepts in understanding how they saw themselves – as Storm-Born(e) Host of the Sky Mother & Sky Father). But my purpose in quoting it here is much simpler. 

Various elements to it remind me quite poignantly of the occurrences of the Battle of Longewala – albeit with the Maruts in question referring more immediately to the infantry of Alpha Company, 23rd Battalion, Punjab Regiment and their Border Security Force comrades than the HF-24 Maruts (and Hunters, and for that matter the Spotter, Major Singh) that struck from the skies upon that day in early December, 1971. Even though the illustrative, evocative language of the Hymnal describing the Maruts in Their airborne assault from the clouds, raining destruction upon the foe and the wicked, certainly does seem to pre-sage the later Indian Air Force Maruts carrying out the annihilation of Pakistani formations with insurmountable force and an unrestrained capacity both at Longewala and elsewhere across the Fronts that year. 

They – and those who stood there also in 1965 – Heroes, All. 

Today, at Tanot Mata, there stands a Vijaya Sthambha [Vijaya – Victory; and a Stambha is a pillar or post, in archaic times, the designation for the sacral post that was at the heart of many Vedic rites, with a correlate in the Axis Mundi at the heat of the world or the Irminsul of the Norse/Germanics, and in modern times represented also by the ShivLing that is the Shaivite Altar in most Hindu Temples], erected to commemorate the stunning victory at Longewala nearby. It is accompanied in its commemoration via various of the unexploded (although I presume subsequently defused!) ordnance that was hurled against the Temple in 1965, on display in a BSF museum also located on the grounds of the modern site. 

It is a potent reminder, if any were needed, that the Past remains With Us – and I do not simply mean the relatively recent heroics of the Hindustani troops in the vicinity; but rather, that far more archaic, ancient, and indeed Timeless elements. That may have found their most clarion expression in the religious canons of ancient days, yet which are nevertheless to be found, still resonant and resonating, all around us even amidst the detritus of modernity today. 

Hence, the BSF and other Indian military personnel undertaking pilgrimages to Tanot Mata en route to their deployments along the border – the tangible re-engagement, continuously, of the Present with the Past. 

And hence, also, the mystic, downright mythic occurrences both in and around Tanot Mata in both the Wars of 1965 and 1971 – the tangible re-immanentization, when called for, when needed, of the Past, the Supernal, with the Present. 

And that situation – wherein the ‘Past’, or the ‘Mythic’, is NOT merely relegated to the proverbial side-cabinet of dim contemporary non-recollection (or, perhaps worse, recollection in consumer-convenient form that bears little authentic resemblance to its true and proper essence nor form) … that is what characterizes a ‘spiritually healthy’ culture.

One Whose essence is and remains, central, vital, living, defended. 

Heritage Protected … Protects. 

Jai Mata DI!

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