Wildbuzz: Soldiers rose to the occasion
But fell like petals before their time, young blood staining white ice.
Where soldiers rest in eternal sleep, flowers grow in memory’s bright glow. All along river valleys and tumbling water courses of the Ladakh war theatre are found sprawling bushes of xerophytic wild roses. The roses not only bestow upon the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen glacier, its enigmatic name but their omnipresence lends them the status of the poet’s flower of remembrance for soldiers and airmen who laid down their lives battling two inimical neighbours since 1947.
The roses, which go by the botanical nomenclature of Rosa webbiana, ornament battle sites from the Tololing nallah to Drass river to the Yaldor-Junk Lungpa nallahs in Batalik and Galwan river in eastern Ladakh. The abundance of roses in Ladakh is like that of Red poppies blooming in gay abandon across ravaged WWI battlefields of Western Europe. Derided once as a weed, the peerage of poppies was elevated after the Great War to assume grace in an official role: as an evocative and powerful symbol of remembrance for Commonwealth soldiers gone raging into the night.
For long, two inimical neighbours have coveted Ladakh’s rich water resources and India has fought many a war over the water roses. “Wild roses at Siachen base camp were gorgeous. As I would fly in helicopter sorties from Sassoma and along the Nubra river valley to Siachen, I could see rose bushes coming alive along flowing water. But one could not stop thinking: here was a place of such beauty and out of the world roses and yet so many of our people were dying here,” Air Vice-Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), who flew in supplies to High Altitude Warfare School soldiers in the first ever landing on the glacier on September 20, 1978, in a Chetak, told this writer.
A wee short of six years later, on Baisakhi 1984, the Army launched its finest super high-altitude operation capturing passes of Saltoro ridge that guard the glacier’s western flank. The officer in the vanguard of Op Meghdoot was Capt Sanjay Kulkarni of 4 Kumaon along with 29 soldiers. That small, indomitable platoon held on to Bilafond la for 90 days securing India the glacier. Having retired as director general, Infantry, Lt Gen Kulkarni shared a poignant aside from his finest hour. “Roses were all over the base camp and snout of Siachen. Each rose had precisely five petals. They were like buttercup roses and not the conventional roses we find in gardens,” Kulkarni told this writer.
Currently additional DG, Centre for Air Power Studies, Delhi, Bahadur piloted helicopters of the Siachen Pioneers in two stints totalling 700 hours of flying in the highest theatre. “Had I been married at that time, I would have picked some charming Siachen roses for my wife, Vinita,” quipped Bahadur.
“Siachen means the Place of Roses (in the Balti language, sia is rose and chen is place of). The threat they face at the Siachen snout is that they come in the way of Army activities, so they were uprooted, stems used as tent pegs or even as extravagant decorative pieces. The Army assured me they would protect the roses. Hopefully someday, there will be peace on Siachen. Roses (sias) will grow wild, ibexes will roam and mountaineers will explore and climb freely,” legendary mountaineer and author of Siachen Glacier: The Battle of Roses, Harish Kapadia, told this writer.
When winters render food scarce, birds such as Yellow-billed choughs nibble at seeds of the benign rose bush. Petals yield ethnomedicinal cures for nasal bleeding, nose swelling, hepatitis, jaundice and liver diseases.