Memories of cantonment life

Speaking of thoroughfares, here’s a walk down a memory lane which cuts through a cantonment.

WrittenBy:Lt Gen H S Panag
Article image

Military cantonments have been in the news due to the opening of some roads which had been closed to civilian traffic for years, due to security concerns. Cantonments were established as composite military-civilian townships, beginning with Danapur (originally known as Bankipore) on the outskirts of Patna, Munger (abandoned), Allahabad and Barrackpore in the third quarter of the 18th century. There is a controversy as to which was the first cantonment to be established, Barrackpore or Danapur. Both claim to have been in continuous existence since August 1765. Within the Cantonments, the military areas were exclusively on Type-A land. These townships also had bazaars, civilian zones and other municipal infrastructure. As the population grew, the isolated cantonments were surrounded by new or expanding older townships. The civilian population within the cantonments also grew. This led to the demand for thoroughfares through the Cantonments both from within and without, which impinged upon the security of the military areas.

Common sense dictates that a balance needs to be struck. One cannot have an absolutist approach either way – unrestricted access to civilians or a complete denial of passage over security issues.

The Cantonment Board which manages a cantonment is an elected body. The president of the Cantonment Board is ex officio the station commander, known as the local military authority. However, the real executive authority lies with the Chief Executive Officer, who is appointed by the defence estates department, which is directly under the Defence Ministry. He is not in the military chain of command. For efficient functioning, the CEO must be placed under the direct command of the local military authority, as was the case a decade and a half ago.

To strike a balance, the control of the cantonment can be revised. Military stations can be created based on Type-A land. These areas should be exclusively military areas to be managed by the armed forces, with no thoroughfare allowed. The rest of the Cantonment can be managed as is being done now with the CEO being placed under the local military authority. Another alternative is to create cocooned flyovers and underground roads for movement of civilians.

As an army kid and as an army officer, I have lived in or visited almost all major cantonments in India. Let me sketch for the readers the life in a cantonment in the 1950s. Agra Cantonment was established in 1805 after the Bengal Army defeated the Marathas. It was a relatively small Cantonment laid out to the south-west of the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal. In 1950, Agra was much smaller, with a population 3,68,000, as compared to 17,60,300 in 2011 census. The population of the Cantonment was approximately 5 to 6 thousand concentrated around the railway station to the west and Sadar Bazar to the east. There was a distinct separation of the city from the Cantonment.

In 1952, my father was commanding 17 Sikh at Agra. From the age of four to six, 1952-1956, I along with the family stayed in a huge bungalow on The Mall, adjoining the Grand Hotel which still exists, a kilometre away from the Agra Cantonment railway station. The mall roads were an essential feature of all cantonments in the British era. Literally meaning a sheltered walk or promenade, but named to remind the British about ‘The Mall’, the tree-lined boulevard in St James Park, London. Most of the mall roads were renamed as Mahatma Gandhi roads after Independence, but in Agra, it is now called the Prithviraj Road.

The memories are still vivid and have been rejuvenated by a number of visits with the last being in 2008 as an Army Commander.

The Cantonment, like all others, was well laid-out with wide roads and state-of-the-art infrastructure. The drainage system was unique. It had huge underground open drains with a roof, running alongside the main roads. There were six-foot by three-foot entry/exit points every 200 yards, with steps for cleaning the drains. It was a great adventure to get into the tunnel from one entry/exit point and walk along the drain and come out of the next. Even today, I marvel at the engineering and the hygiene standards maintained. Dry sanitation was extremely well-managed by Cantonment Board workers in dungarees, wearing gloves and gumboots.

The Sadar Bazar at the eastern end was well planned and the army personnel enjoyed great respect. Credit was readily extended to us naughty children by the ice cream and confectionery shops as they knew that their dues will be cleared once the parents were presented the monthly bill. The bazaar was tailor-made for the needs of the garrison and kept spotlessly clean. Once, my father ordered a bicycle for my brother. We were amused to see the overweight Lala Ji (shop owner) huffing and puffing while carrying the bicycle on his shoulders from the Sadar Bazar to our house two kilometres away. To our naughty queries he replied, “Colonel Sahib ka cycle hai na, agar tyre gande ho jate toh main kahin ka na rehta (it is the Colonel’s cycle, if the tyres had got dirty, I would have lost face). Such was the prestige of the Army those days.

To the south were the military barracks with precise symmetry you find only in the Cantonments. On The Mall was also located the Military Hospital where the Military Nursing Officers still dressed in spotless white almost like Florence Nightingale did a 100 years before. Most officers lived in independent bungalows. A number of churches dotted the Cantonment. There were still a fair number of English folks who were yet to emigrate, as also a large Anglo-Indian community. The ladies still wore skirts with old-style stockings with a seam at the back. As children, we used to wonder how all the English and Anglo-Indian ladies had similar injuries and scars behind their calves.

The main mode of conveyance was the tonga and there were regular tonga stands like the taxi stands today. The cycle rickshaws were very few. The tonga stands had their own charm. Apart from two or three tongas that remained in readiness, others were parked in neat rows with untethered horses munching grain from buckets around their necks. It was the children’s duty to fetch the tongas when the family had to travel anywhere.

Officers generally commuted on bicycles. Soldiers could not afford to buy bicycles and hired them from the Sadar Bazar at the rate of four annas (25 paise) per day. The Cantonment Board had by today’s standards, draconian enforcement of rules with respect to hygiene and sanitation and other municipal functions. All cycles, rickshaws and tongas had to display municipal tax tokens prominently. Tonga and rickshaws also had to have dippers and kerosene lamps to ply at night. Stray dogs were ruthlessly culled with poison. All civilian bungalows and houses had to have a specific approved design and no modifications were allowed.

Sports were a major preoccupation of the military those days. Over the years, a large number of sports teams also emerged from the civilian population of the Cantonments. The great Dhyan Chand and his brother, Roop Chand were products of the Jhansi Cantonment. The inter-unit or open tournaments were held with great pageantry, complete with unit bands and cheering spectators.

Sunday was a day for picnics in the numerous gardens of Agra, of which the Company Bagh – named after the East India Company – another notable feature of all cantonments, was the most popular.

The Taj Mahal and the Red Fort stood in splendid isolation on the banks of the Yamuna. Barring a cluster of old buildings of Taj Gunj to the south, the Taj Mahal had no other construction in its vicinity. A fortnightly visit to the famous monuments of Agra was a ritual. I have visited the Taj Mahal at every time of the day and during the full moon. As children, we memorised the narrations of the tourist guides and at times literally replaced them to the amusement of the visitors. Times were liberal. Every three months or so, the officers of the entire garrison on full moon nights partied on the rooftop of one of the sarais just across the road from the main entrance of the Taj Mahal. The revelry continued until the wee hours of the morning with the white dome and minarets of the Taj Mahal providing the backdrop.

Shikaar or hunting was another preoccupation of the officers of that era. The countryside around Agra was full of wildlife. There was plenty of Black Buck and Chinkara deer. Gharial (Indian river crocodile) could still be shot on the banks of the Yamuna. Partridge-and Duck-hunting on the wing were extremely popular. Officers would venture out in pairs on their bicycles with their Cocker Spaniel hunting dogs sitting in the bicycle baskets, with saddle bags hanging from the rear carrier. They rendezvoused with an old village shikari who organised the day’s shoot. Sometimes, the unit officers hired a small military truck at the rate of four annas (25 paise) to a mile (1.6 kilometres) for a larger shikaar party. As children, we accompanied such shikaar parties and were taught the nuances of hunting. I learnt my shooting with my father’s.22 Rifle in the large compound of our bungalow. At the age of six, I became a marksman and remain one till date. In an earlier column, I had described the only recorded killing of a tigress with a bayonet by Sepoy Sucha Singh of 17 Sikh.

Apart from the shop owners of the Sadar Bazar and their staff, the rest of the population of the cantonment were either employers of the Cantonment Board or working as cooks, aayahs, maalis, dhobis and safaiwalas. Wages were low and for ₹140 one could employ a complete “set”, who stayed either in the servant quarters of the bungalows or in the nearby dedicated areas. The cantonment had a number of dhobi ghats with old-style, raised, cement-washing boards and bhatties (mud-based, improvised steaming ovens) for  “steam-washing” the white clothes which were the universal dress for summers – both for the rich and the poor. The good khansamas (cooks) who were paid ₹ 40 -50 per month would give a five-star chef the run for his money.

The entire cantonment functioned like a Utopian small town. Alas, nothing like this exists anywhere in India today. Even the modern-day, exclusive military station is a poor cousin of the vintage cantonment. Needless to say, all this was too good to last as India progressed. What we see today is a mere shadow of what the life in the cantonments was up till the Seventies. The cantonments have adapted and will continue to do so in the future. However, it would be a pity if these oases are subsumed by the advancing urban desert.

In 2008, as an Army Commander, I inspected Agra Cantonment. All I could say, at the end of the visit, with due apologies to John Milton, was – “paradise lost!”


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like