Clad in a dhoti and kurta and sporting a long tilak on his forehead, BSF soldier Dinesh Sharma recites shlokas in chaste Sanskrit, his voice reverberating inside the sprawling courtyard of Ghantiyali Mata temple in Rajasthan’s border district of Jaisalmer.
Sharma is one of the Border Security Force personnel responsible for the day to day administration of the Ghantiyali Mata temple and Tanot temple, nestled in the heart of the Thar desert and very close to the India-Pakistan border.
The temples are dedicated to two sister goddesses regarded as the protectors of the international border by locals.
Devotees who visit the Ghantiyali Mata temple, barely 30 kilometres from the border, during Navratri -- nine nights during which nine forms of Goddess Durga are worshipped -- witness soldiers performing religious rituals in the temples that are traditionally done by Brahmins.
“People come here from far and wide to worship the goddess during Navratri. However, this year the crowd is comparatively less because many are hesitant owing to the tension between India and Pakistan. We are trying to assure them that there’s no danger here and the BSF is fully prepared for any situation,” Shambhu Nath Sarkar, another BSF jawan, said.
Sarkar was pointing to the recent strain in India-Pakistan ties after a strike by the Indian Army on militant bases along the Line of Control (LoC) following an attack on an army base in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir that killed 19 soldiers.
India blames Pakistan for sponsoring those who carried out the Uri attack and other anti-India activities. Islamabad has denied the military operation and said any attempt to infiltrate its territorial integrity will be rebuffed.
Sarkar, a native of West Bengal, was posted at the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir before he was sent to Rajasthan. “My battalion shared quarters with that of lance naik Hemraj Singh, who was killed and beheaded by Pakistani soldiers in 2013,” Sarkar said.
Over the years, many legends have sprouted around these two temples that are considered as two of the holiest places in Rajasthan.
“Pakistani soldiers entered inside the temple during the war of 1965 and broke some of the idols. The consequences were devastating for them as at the end not a single one of them survived and most of them died after fighting among each other because the goddess had cursed them,” jawan RP Sharma from Madhya Pradesh said, pointing towards desecrated idols kept at the temple compound.
Currently, 10 BSF personnel are posted in the temple and carry out all the day-to-day errands.
Jawan Jothi Murugan from Tamil Nadu stands guard at the gates and helps elderly people to get to the place where the aarti is conducted and his colleague Bhawani Shankar, a native of Orissa’s Sambalpur, distributes prasad to devotees.
The scene is similar at the Tanot Mata temple with devotees from all over the state coming to visit it during Navratri.
“I have come from Pali district to seek blessings from the mata. I believe that as long as the two goddesses are guarding the border, we are safe from Pakistani intrusion,” Ladu Ram, a devotee, said.
Gun shells fired by the Pakistani army during the war of 1971 are kept inside a glass cabinet at the temple for display. Devotees say that the Pakistan fired a substantial chunk of their ammunition at the temple but couldn’t damage even a single brick.
Last Thursday, chief minister Vasundhara Raje offered prayers at the Tanot temple “to protect our soldiers and for their energy and power”.
The yagna at the temple came a day before Union home minister chaired a meeting over the security of the four states that share a border with Pakistan and decided India will “completely seal” the India-Pakistan border by December 2018.
The meeting took place at the BSF headquarters and was attended by Raje, Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, home ministers of Rajasthan and Gujarat -- Gulab Chand Kataria and Pradeep Kumar Jadeja-- respectively.
Parallels with 1971 war
Memories of the 1971 India-Pakistan war is fresh in the mind of 75-year-old Sartan Singh a resident of Renao village, 10km from the Ghantiyali Mata temple.
“Our entire village had to be evacuated and we walked all the way to reach Ramgarh, which is several miles away. Even women and children had no choice but to walk in the searing heat and carry all our belongings including the livestock. We would occasionally hear the ear-splitting sound of artillery fire,” said Singh.
He added that ever since tension between India and Pakistan increased following the September 29 surgical strike, villagers have been drawing parallels with the 1971 war.
“There hasn’t been any order to evacuate the villages near border although the BSF personnel have told us to stay alert. But this time, if the necessity comes, we are ready to go to the frontline to fight. We are not afraid of war,” Shaitan Singh, another resident of Renao, said.