A House of Peace

Dateline: January 2010, India

Some dear friends of ours from Delhi we have known for many years invited my wife and I to stay with them. During our visit there, I met a retired general from the Indian army

He was an uncle of one of our friends: a distinguished-looking man with a wealth of stories, a bushy grey beard and an impish sense of humour. This former military figure told me a tale of being posted some years previously to the Ladakh region of India by Pangong Lake (the local name meaning long enchanted lake) on the northern frontier with China as commanding officer (CO) of a contingent of soldiers on border guard duty in this far-away place

This elderly army man described the dramatic landscape he and his men found themselves in surrounded by high mountains and rocky ground. There were no signs of civilisation for many miles where the men were planning to set up camp save for a small roofed dwelling in their midst. It was unlived in, empty, abandoned

The junior officers suggested the general should take this one isolated building as his residence for his comfort to reflect his high rank – the rest of the rank and file would be happy to sleep in their tents but the CO declined

Instead, he proposed that this small building should be used as a divine place of worship and he too would sleep with his men under canvas

While his junior officers welcomed his proposal they politely reminded him that there might be a problem with his suggestion: among all the personnel serving in this group, there were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians – how could they share this building at prayer? It seemed out of the question with four religions sharing the same space and all under the same roof. It had never been done before

“No problem,” said the practically-minded general unfazed by this apparent impasse when he gathered his subalterns around him to give them guidance in how to use this isolated house as a proposed shared place of worship. Following him they all trooped inside and with confident gestures the general responded to their hesitancy. “In this corner, we will have the Hindus” as he indicated one corner of the interior. He turned saying “And in this adjoining corner, we will have the Muslims praying.” His officers exchanged puzzled glances but the CO carried on unhindered by these received ideas turning around to point out the other two corners which would be occupied by the Sikhs and Christians respectively

At this point, the junior officers overcame their understandable reticence in not wishing to appear insubordinate to their CO as they felt that this was pushing social cohesion among the troops too far given the unhappy and bloody history of religions occupying the same space and they made their feelings plainly known. Much discussion ensued. Well-articulated stumbling blocks were raised

The general listened patiently to what they had to say. He demonstrated sympathy to the many points of view expressed. Then, calmly but firmly he overruled their stoutly-voiced objections and his command was put into effect. The dwelling was modified to accommodate these four persuasions and holy books of the faithful and other necessary holy accoutrements were gathered in the four corners assigned to each belief and all preparations were carefully rendered sensitive to each tradition

Life carried on in this army base camp in this beautiful but remote mountainous region

A few days later, the general visited this unique place of worship where two thirds of the nearby enormous Pangong Lake lies within China and the remainder of this stretch of water is Indian territory. The CO went into the small house and he observed that some of the soldiers were inside utilising each of the four corners assigned to their respective religions and all praying simultaneously

All was well, there was harmony. The general confessed he was moved at the display of unity as he joined his fellow men under the roof of this special place

And so it came to pass that I was told a story about a house of peace high in the Karakorum of India

(First appeared on Red Room website, Dec. 2013)

 

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