By Smita Prakash, Jaisalmer (Rajasthan) , Oct.27 : A relatively small temple tucked away near the India-Pakistan border is considered the protector of the region. The Tanotmata Temple is 153 kilometers from Jaisalmer and falls within the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF).
Getting here is a challenge, especially, when the International Border (IB) with Pakistan is on high alert. From Jodhpur, you have to drive a five hours to Jaisalmer because this tourist destination is not connected by air. A swanky airport constructed four years ago lies unused for security reasons. Another two hours drive from Jaisalmer on narrow roads through uninhabited sand dunes and you reach the Tanotmata Temple.
A desultory shopkeeper sells scarves for ten rupees outside the temple. "Ise mandir kay andar baandh deejiye aur mannat maangiye. Mannat poori honay par rumaal kholnay aayiga." (Tie this scarf inside the temple and make a wish. Once your wish is fulfilled, come back to untie the scarf). In my mind, I am wondering, should I just make a wild wild wish so that I don't need to make this arduous journey again?
We trudge into the temple to clanging of bells and drumbeats. It doesn't sound like regular prayers and those singing the bhajans are singing in gusto that I haven't seen in any temple. The prayers are the same but the energy and the tune is different. You could march to the beat. Since the 1965 war, when Pakistan shelled this area, the temple management is with the Border Security Force and, they conduct prayers here with very high energy and spirit. There are unexploded Pakistani shells kept in grimy show-windows with black and white photos of India-Pakistan wars. It is said that Pakistan dropped 3000 shells on this temple in 1965, but not even one exploded. The locals and even soldiers of the BSF believe that the Mother Goddess Tanotmata protects this region and will not allow the enemy to go further inland if it dares to cross the border.
The legend was further reinforced in the Battle of Longewala in 1971. Pakistani tanks entered Indian Territory and for four days they tried to go past the sand dunes but got stuck. Over 200 Pakistanis were killed and the rest ran back to save their lives.
It was a foolish military strategy of attacking India on a second front without knowing the terrain or having tactical support. "The defence of East Pakistan lies in the West" was the military strategy of Pakistan's defence that failed in 1965 and again in 1971.
Pakistan moved 65 tanks on night of 3rd December 1971 in a mission called 'Operation Changez Khan'. The Indian Army had not prepared the minefield to counter the attack. The 23rd Battalion of the Punjab Regiment led by Major K S Chandpuri gave a tough fight, even though, they were outnumbered.
In the film "Border" in which Sunny Deol played the role of Major K S Chandpuri, there are these famous lines he utters, "Woh kehte hai subah ka khana Jaiselmer mein karange dopahar ka khana Jodhpur mein karenge or raat ka khana Delhi mein karenge. Lekin aaj hum unka naashta karenge" (they, ie Pakistanis, say they will have breakfast in Jaisalmer, lunch in Jodhpur and dinner in Delhi. Today, we shall have them for breakfast). At the small war museum in the Longewala battlefield there are no pictures of the battle.
Yes, nobody asked for proof those days. There are pictures of the area after the battle and a captured Pakistani tank. It has got a fresh coat of paint. Those who come here, climb on top of it and get their pictures clicked.
Though, the small hamlets in this area are predominantly Muslim, they believe that Tanotmata prevented a Pakistani invasion in 1965 and 1971 and she will do that even now if the Pakistani Rangers or the Pakistan Army dare cross the IB.
At the border outpost, some women BSF soldiers smartly guard the fenced up area. They don't allow us to take pictures, but they guide us helpfully to the camp located a few miles away. There is a recreational area for women soldiers, a volleball court and very basic living quarters. They have satellite TV but no time to watch. I asked the senior most officer there (who did not wish to be quoted) if he sensed war clouds on the horizon. He replied, "Maybe in your TV studios, on the border here in Rajasthan, we haven't seen any activity. But we are alert. We know what is happening north of this area."
There is little or no contact with locals. For miles and miles on either side of the border, there is no habitation. Just the hot Thar Desert and the eagle eyed Indian soldiers. The Pakistanis don't patrol their side. Nobody is trying to infiltrate into Pakistan, you see. On our way back from the International Border, we stop by the temple again. It seems the BSF soldiers smear the sand near the temple on their foreheads, praying for the safe journey ahead.
Tanotmata keep my country safe is the prayer here.