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Siachen’s spiritual guru

- Army priest on glacial outpost feels close to god

Hazaribagh, July 6: As dawn breaks, a priest comes to the Vaishno Devi temple and starts devout preparations for worship. Nothing unusual about it, right?

What’s unusual is that the temple is perched where the temperature can dip to – 50°C in its wintry depths or rise to 8°C on a summer’s day. Yes, Bisheshwar Nath Rai (42) officiates as the Indian Army priest on Siachen outpost, a mountainous glacier in the eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayas, one of the toughest army postings anywhere in the world.

Now at his Hazaribagh home at Okni Mohalla on his holiday, Rai is enjoying his vacations with his family and friends. And he is proud to be that rare armyman who is an officially recruited priest.

“I am a moral soldier. My job is to conduct daily religious services, give motivational speeches and organise weekly bhajans and kirtans, all to spiritually boost the morale of the troops. And yes, I give some amount of counselling too,” says this alumnus of SS High School Mandu, Ramgarh, and St Columba’s College, Hazaribagh, who graduated with history and Sanskrit as his subjects.

Indian Army invites applications for recruitment to the post of junior commissioned officer (religious teacher), Rai said, who are either pandits, granthis, maulvis, padres or Bodh monks.

“Right now, I also have a colleague who is a maulvi,” he said.

Rai gave the exam in 2000. “Back in our days, the exam break-up was 250 marks each on religion and general knowledge and 500 on viva voce. Now, they have included 100 marks on psychology also, I am told,” he said.

“I was thrilled when I learnt that I had qualified,” Rai said. “I joined the army in 2001. I have been posted at Kapurthala, Dras and Pune before, while last year I was sent to Siachen. No matter where I am, my work and routine largely stay the same. In Siachen, when it freezes, I just put on a jacket and warmers along with kurta pyjama during prayers, otherwise, it is the normal army uniform.”

Which aspects of his job does he like?

“Well, from boyhood, I had always been drawn to god. People go to temples to take a break from stress, my job starts and ends at the temple. I have never felt stress,” said the priest who starts his day at 4am and ends his evening prayers at 8.30pm.

This apart, he likes to organise bhajans and kirtans. “Thanks to my academic background in history and Sanskrit, I like to give references from our epics and purans in my motivational speeches. Sometimes, I also need to counsel young soldiers who are newly married and feeling pangs of separation,” he smiled.

“My father Jai Gopal Rai, who retired as deputy development commissioner, and now stays busy with social work, is my inspiration and moral compass,” says the dutiful son.

And he does not forget to thank his wife Anju.

“She’s my loyal friend and staunch armyman’s wife. She’s never bogged down by the harsh climatic conditions that prevail in my posting because she believes in my work. She’s bringing up our children Satyam and Shilpi with the right values. Satyam is in Class X and Shilpi in Class IV, both in Saraswati Shishu Vidya Mandir,” he said.

He likes his civilian life, but says there’s a strange tug that pulls him to his outpost duties. “I feel close to god in Siachen. When I pray before the divine mother, I feel I am serving my motherland differently,” Rai said.


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