India is a land of castes and sub-castes. But have you heard of Sapper caste?
In Bangalore last week I came across a well-produced and touching book, The Madras Sappers – An Enduring Legacy edited by Madhavi Mahadevan. It is the story of the Madras Engineering Group (MEG).
From the many true stories narrated in the book: Once an inspecting officer asked a Madras Sapper what his caste was. The answer cam promptly, “Sapper caste, sir”. Even for a marriage alliance a Sapper family would seek similar background.
It is incredible how Hindu, Muslim and Christian Sappers worked and lived together eating food from the same cauldron. One instance mentioned in the book is how a Muslim, Abdul Karim, officiated as company pundit in the absence of Krishnaswamy, the regular one.
Lt. Gen. DSR Sahni (Retd) has the following comment on this “…our Thambis have only one religion. Thy are all Madras Sappers”. (Thambi is an affectionate term used for South Indian soldiers.)
The official raising day of the unit is September 30, 1780. It has seen action meritoriously on three continents and including the two World Wars. It has won several individual and group battle honors.
In the 1843 Meanee War in Sind, the Sappers with their paltry weapons spontaneously charged against the enemy in support of the Cheshire Regiment. In appreciation of the brave act, the British soldiers exchanged their caps, ‘doopta’ with the Thambis. With some modifications, it is still the headdress of the Sappers. The officers of the 22 Cheshire Regiment are, even today, honorary members of the Madras Sappers’ Officer’s Mess.
The Sappers have made commendable contributions during peacetime as well. Col. Sir Arthur Cotton (1803 – 1899) who was Chief Engineer of the Madras Presidency was distressed at the repeated famines in the Godavari District. To provide irrigation he decided to build a 5000 yards long anicut across the river.
The Sappers who were then stationed in Coorg were moved to the site and they did the job to perfection. The Chief Engineer came to be known reverently as ‘Cotton Maha Prabhu (Cotton Great Lord).
The book contains much more about the great achievements of the Madras Sappers in various fields. It is fascinating. The photos, paintings and drawings are also excellent.
A personal note: The MEG has been the cause of a disappointment to me. During my days in St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore (1951-1955) our dream of beating the MEG in hockey was never realized.
Also see: Hockey days in Bangalore