Friday, September 17, 2010

Bikaner Camel Corps of Maharaja Ganga Singh

Maharaja Ganga Singh (1880-1943) ruled Bikaner princely state for 56 years, improving its amenities of education and medicine, modernizing its transport and communications network, and cutting the famous Gang Canal through the barren wastes (jangaldesh) in the north. Pictured above in military uniform, the Maharaja was trained in traditional Rajput military skills like riding and shooting, but also received modern military education with an Indian Army regiment at Deoli. The old military forces of Bikaner state were modernized by Ganga Singh, serving with distinction in several overseas military campaigns, and were the Bikaner princely state's contribution to the Indian Army after merger with India.

The order and training of the Bikaner army had not changed by much in 500 years of history; a centrally raised force of cavalry, artillery, infantry, camel cavalry and camel artillery, which was augmented from the quotas contributed by the Rajput chieftains of Bikaner. Under Ganga Singh this force was standardised in rank and pay structure, it's training and equipment was improved, the system of feudal quotas was ended, and each unit was given formal uniforms and designations. In 1933 the Bikaner army included:

  1. The Dungar Lancers, numbering 342 horsemen and including the Maharaja's bodyguard unit. This cavalry force was named after the previous Maharaja Dungar Singh, Ganga Singh's elder brother.
  2. The Ganga Risala, which the British came to call the Bikaner Camel Corps, numbering 466 and named after the Maharaja.
  3. The Sadul Light Infantry of 619 men, named after Ganga Singh's elder son Sadul Singh.
  4. The Bijay Battery, a mounted camel pack with 4 BL 2.75" guns, manned by 236 men and named after the Maharaja's younger son Bijay Singh. There was in addition a second camel battery unit with smaller guns.
  5. Motorised Machine Gun section of 22 Lewis and 8 Hotchkiss guns, manned by 100 men.
  6. State Band.

The men of this new army continued to be recruited from within Bikaner state. For the Ganga Risala, which was formally raised in 1889 as six companies of 500 men marked as Imperial Service Troops, the composition of soldiers was:
1)75% Rajputs of the ruling Rathod clan of Bikaner.
2)25% Rajputs of other clans, and a few Sikhs and Kaimkhani Muslims.

The first major use of this new army was in the Great Famine of 1899 which afflicted a large part of British and Princely India. Organising famine relief is a measure of an efficient administration, and while using the army to transport grain to relief centers, Ganga Singh also launched public works to give employment and income to his people for the successful disbursement of relief material.

The 20-year old Maharaja led the Ganga Risala to China for service in the Boxer Rebellion from September 1900 to May 1901. The Camel Corps saw action as a dismounted unit in that theater. The most shining moment for the Ganga Risala came in the Somaliland expedition where it operated till 1904, and was deemed most useful in that waterless tract. According to Colonel Yeilding "the Indian camel saved the situation." While the local Somali camels could go longer without grain or water, they were found to be more timid and weaker than the Bikaner camels. The training of the Ganga Risala also helped in its utilization for action, while other camels were used primarily as transport.

Ganga Singh was not permitted to join the Somaliland campaign, but he led the camel corps to Egypt during World War I. It was the only camel corps available and was utilized for patrol and reconnaissance along the Suez Canal, which was under attack from the Turks. In one engagement the Maharaja himself fired many rounds at the enemy, and after their defeat led the Ganga Risala in pursuit. Ganga Singh also fought on the French front and represented India at the Paris Peace Conference after the war. When India's membership in the proposed League of Nations was being denied, on the grounds that it was not a self-governing state, the Bikaner Maharaja successfully stated India's case: "Where it is a question of securing the peace of the world, the important fact must be borne in mind that India represents one fifth of the entire human race."

The Bikaner Camel Corps, along with the Bijay Battery, was again deployed in the Middle East during the Second World War. Other units like the Dungar Lancers, the machine gun section, and the Sadul Light Infantry were also utilized in different theaters of that global conflict.

Camel Corps of other Indian Kingdoms

The improved administration had increased the revenue of the Bikaner state from 4 lakh to 17 lakh, which kept rising after the construction of the Gang canal, enabling the state to train, equip, and maintain it's 2000 man army till the merger of the state in India. The other desert states like Jaisalmer and Kutch also had traditional camel cavalry. Colonel James Tod, author of the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, states that Jaisalmer state had a 200 strong camel cavalry, 80 of which belonged to the ruler, while the rest were contributions of the Rajput chieftains. Describing the Jaisalmer camel cavalry in action, Tod writes: "Two men are mounted on each camel, one facing the head, the other the rear, and they are famous in a retreating action; but when compelled to come to close quarters, they make the camel kneel known, tie his legs, and retiring behind, make a breastwork of his body, resting the matchlock over the pack-saddle."

Previously a large state strong on the finances of the old land trade, Jaisalmer state was hit hard by the transformation in global trade by the European domination of the seas. It's low revenues meant that till the end the state troops numbered just 220 of all arms: namely, 39 horse cavalry, 168 infantry, and 13 artillerymen. There was an irregular force of camels, which were also used by the police force (152 men, of whom 72 were mounted, chiefly on camels). During the Sindh war of 1838-39, Rawal Gaj Singh supplied camels to the British for transport, and was rewarded by the restoration to him of Shahgarh, Gkursia, and Gatuda, from Sindh. In the subsequent Anglo-Afghan Wars also both Jaisalmer and Bikaner supplied camels for transport. In 1948 after the creation of Pakistan, irregular camel cavalry was raised in Jaisalmer to patrol the border with that country, and was later merged with the Ganga Risala of Bikaner.

Kutch and Saurashtra (now in Gujarat) also had small camel units in their armies, but low revenues ruled out the creation of formal camel corps in these states. Jodhpur and Mewar were comparatively large and rich states, but while they had organised horse cavalry, infantry and artillery units, the camel cavalry was left as part of their irregular forces. While the other military units of these states were merged into the Indian Army, the irregular camel troops dwindled away into the twilight of history.

Bikaner Camel Corps legacy

A rider of the Bikaner Camel Corps demonstrates a dangerous camel jump at the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Maharaja Ganga Singh's reign. The camel is not built for jumping hurdles because its spindly legs are not meant for such exercise; but the centuries of using camels in warfare gave the Bikaner soldiers the ability of training camels to jump. It still remained a dangerous stunt, despite the training, because a badly timed jump can mean certain death for the camel and rider.

The Bikaner Camel Corps, along with the irregular troops of the Jaisalmer Risala, became the 13 Grenadiers of the Indian Army and saw action during the 1965 and 1971 wars. Subsequently this unit was converted into regular infantry while the camels became part of the Border Security Force (BSF). The BSF continues to use camels for patrolling the desert portions of the border with Pakistan.

The BSF camel contingent marching down Rajpath on Republic Day, wearing the same gorgeous uniforms as the old Ganga Risala, with the logos and insignia of the Bikaner state being replaced by those of the BSF. Deputy commandant Amol Singh Rathore says, "When we march, we carry our legacy and tradition with us. It is a mix of heritage and modernity. The dress we wear is royal and has not changed since the camel contingent was raised by then king of Bikaner Ganga Singh before 1900. The same camels are used for transport and war."
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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Camels in Indian Warfare

Camel mounted units of the Indian Army (13 and 17 Grenadiers) carried out cross-border raids and captured Pakistani territory along the international border in Rajasthan during the 1965 and 1971 wars. The 13 Grenadiers were the Bikaner and Jaisalmer Princely States' contribution to the Indian Army, and further traced their ancestry to the medieval armies of those Rajput States which had been using camels in warfare for centuries. The above miniature painting portrays a medieval Rajput camel rider bearing arms like the bow and arrow, as well as sword and shield on his camel, which is accoutered in traditional gorbandh and has a double-seated saddle.

In the ancient Vedic texts of India the Sanskrit word for camels is ushtra, which over the centuries evolved into uttra (Prakrit) and unta (Apabhramsa). Camel bone remains have been found in the Bronze Age civilization spread across the plains from the Sindhu to the Saraswati River in North India. Daimabad in Maharashtra has a camel depicted on a pottery fragment from the chalcolithic Jorwe culture (1300 BCE).

The Markandeya Purana says that the camel is born out of the feet of Brahma and the only God with a camel as his mount is Virupaksha. The Goraksha Samhita says that Goddess Kalakarni has a camel as her vehicle, and Hemadari assigns a camel mount to Vikata Gauri. This latter Goddess has been mentioned in the Harsanatha temple at Sikar (Rajasthan) built by the Chauhan Vigraharaja II (973 CE). In later times Ustravahini Devi or Unta Devi, is the family deity (Kula Devi) of the Pushkarna Brahmins. Images of Unta Devi are also found in Orissa. The Goddess Mahamaya, Kula Devi of the Jadeja Rajputs who ruled Kutch for centuries, also has a camel as her mount.

Camel cavalry and artillery

A Rajput miniature painting depicts camels with mounted lancers in the background of a hunting scene. A depiction of camels in warfare occurs at Nadol (South Rajasthan) where a memorial tablet shows a camel-rider with sword (1673 CE). A 9th century Pratihara panel from Mandor (West Rajasthan) shows a cart drawn by a camel, and a force of camels formed part of the Pratihara army. Sculptural representations of the camel are found in the Rajasthani temples of Merta, Kiradu, Badoli, Chittor, and Eklingaji. Camels in the Dhola-Maru romance theme are represented in many other temples and forts across Rajasthan.

From the ancient period, a camel rider is depicted in one of the friezes of the Sanchi stupa (Sunga period). Panini in Ashtadhyayi calls camel riders Ushtra-sadi, while mule and camel corps in ancient Indian armies were called Ushtra-Vami and used for transport. It becomes apparent that camels generally were used for transport, but in the regions where they were bred, particularly Rajasthan, camel cavalry was known from early times. The local Raika pastoral community bred and maintained camel herds.

Both horses and camels have to be trained extensively before they can be used in battle. Camels can bear greater loads than horses, are much hardier, cover long distances without water, and can be as fast. Camels of the Jaisalmer breed are trained to race and can cover 100 miles in a single night. But in general camels are considered less intelligent and cannot do certain vital tasks. For example, a well-trained horse will charge and trample over infantry, disregarding sword cuts, spear thrusts, and flights of arrows, but a camel will not. Horses were trained to stand firmly before artillery fire and charge into armies wielding firearms, while camels would shy away even from distant fire.

Horses are also easier to group together into formations. The Rajputs prized horses above all, particularly when their utility became apparent in resisting the Turk invaders. However a Rajput warrior from the 14th century, named Pabuji Rathod, is worshiped as a deity by rural Rajputs, camel herders, and shepherds; he was said to have made improvements in the use of camels, protected cows, and to have slain in battle the Muslim governor of Patan (Gujarat). Pabuji's story reflects the growing power of the Rathod clan in Western India during the late 14th century when the Delhi Sultanate had fragmented and the Rathods had formed a large independent Hindu Kingdom in Marwar.

The development of firearms gave a boost to the deployment of camels in warfare. With their ability to bear loads, camels in addition provided an elevated and mobile platform for delivering artillery fire. A kind of swivel-gun shown above was first used in Asian armies and was alternatively called zamburak or shutarnal (shutar is the Persian term for camel derived from the Avestan and Sanskrit Ushtra). When firing, the camels were made to kneel and their legs were tied together. These served as a kind of mobile light artillery till the early decades of the 19th century when horse-drawn galloper guns, with greater range and firepower, came into use.

In the Kingdoms of Rajasthan and Gujarat, camel mounted troops continued to be used for patrolling and policing down to the 20th century, and each state maintained camel breeding herds (tolas). The most famous of the active war camel units was the Bikaner Camel Corps, named the Ganga Risala, after Maharaja Ganga Singh who was its founder. Rajasthani camels were utilized for transport service in the 19th century Sindh and Afghan campaigns of the British.

Camel breeds and the camel trade

An illustrated folio of the Akbarnamah depicting the 16th century Mughal siege of Champaner in Gujarat. The two camels are probably the twin-humped Bactrian breed and are carrying naggada beaters. Such foreign breeds were less resistant to heat and Indian camel breeds from Baluchistan westwards began to be used by Mughal armies primarily for transport. Baloch camel traders are shown as forming the long tail of Aurangzeb's army that caused so much devastation in the Deccan Wars late in the 17th Century. Jadunath Sarkar wrote in his History of Aurangzib: "The worst oppressors of the peasants, however, were the tail of the army......Particularly the Beluchi camel-owners who hired out their animals to the army, and unattached Afghans searching for employment, plundered and beat the country people most mercilessly."

Across many parts of India, particularly the west and northwest, and in the interiors of the peninsula, the dry conditions make the use of camels for transport and as fast couriers essential. Such conditions worsen in the countries on India's western borders, and camels were the only means to carry the annual burden of the extensive medieval trade to and from India; until the European domination of the sea trade ended the importance of those land routes. While different breeds of Indian and foreign camels were traded and utilized in the armies of Indian Kingdoms, the purity and distinct characteristics of Indian breeds were maintained at least in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Camels of the Mewar breed are noted for their ability to carry loads across the hilly terrain. In this miniature painting Mewari camels bear Rajput nobles out on a hunt in the forested Aravalli range. In the past camels were bred in many states, but today the National Research Center on Camel recognizes four distinct breeds: Bikaneri, Jaisalmeri, Kutchi, and Mewari. Camels of the Marwar breed were considered distinct in the past and the state of Jodhpur had camel sowars in its army, but today northern Marwar is included in the breeding ground of the Bikaneri breed while camels bred in southern Marwar are considered part of the Jaisalmeri breed.

One unique facet of camel breeding in India is that communities associated with this task, like the Raika and Rabari, do not eat its flesh which is common for camel pastorals in other parts of the world. Camel meat in general is not acceptable to most other communities in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The Raika grooms come seated on a camel for their weddings, and the community has accumulated a vast pool of knowledge on camel characteristics, training, and disease treatment. Camels are used for ploughing and drawing water in Jaisalmer, and camel products like milk, hair, bones, intestine, and leather, are an important part of the local economy. Camel grazing is also more environmentally friendly than in other livestock.
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