Were It Not For Its Imposing Rifle and helmet memorial—honouring the “Brave Soldiers Who Gave Their Lives During the Operations and the Wars”—and the backstory behind it, Madhavaram would be a relatively unremarkable village, with people working in paddy fields and tending cattle. The memorial emerges from a large cement block, and stands there like a sentinel, saluting the services of the 1,100 men from the village who fought in World War II, and the 19 who died in World War I.
Almost every household in ‘Military Madhavaram’, as this village in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district is popularly called, has at least one member serving in the Indian armed forces. Some have two or three—some even four.
On an afternoon in late February, a few young men on vacation from the Indian Army were sitting on a bench by the memorial, all of them in jeans and T-shirts. “Our elders encourage us to join armed forces. Our family members are there,” said P Babi, an army driver posted in Jammu. Kankaraju, who sat next to Babi, serves in the engineering division of the army in Punjab. When they’re back in the village, he said, “we enjoy meeting friends and relatives. Some of our people get married.”
Military history is not to be taken lightly in Madhavaram—it stretches back to the 17th-century Gajapati dynasty under the rule of King Pusapati Madhava Varma Brahma who presided over present day Orissa and the Deccan Plateau. To protect the area under his kingdom, Brahma ordered a garrison town to be established in Arugollu village, six kilometres from Madhavaram, where a dilapidated fort still stands. Soldiers were brought from places as culturally and linguistically disparate as Orissa and Vijayanagaram in northern Andhra, and awarded farming land and housing sites. Surnames in the village like Vempalli, Chityala and Somalanka reveal these mixed antecedents. Over the years, these men and their sons and grandsons fought for the rulers of Bobbili, Pithapuram, Palnadu, Warangal and Kakatiya (where they battled along with Rani Rudrama Devi of the Kakatiya dynasty as she defended the kingdom from the Cholas and the Yadavas).
The village accords great respect to local heroes from history such as Chtyala Chityala Venkatachalam, who was awarded titles like Rao Bahadur (issued during the British rule to individuals who had performed great service to the nation), Pallaki Subedar (awarded by royalty and entitling the recipient to a palanquin), and Victoria Cross medal (the highest prize for gallantry in territories under British Empire).
Most of the men living in Madhavaram are retired servicemen who have moved on to civilian life—they run small businesses, take care of their farms or have joined private security firms. But each one has vivid recollections of the time they were in the army.
Ex-subedar Major N Seshavataram, 72, who spent 28 and a half years in the army, spoke of the struggles of his father and uncles during World War II—“They were caught by Germans and imprisoned in Singapore”—and relates them to his own memories from India’s wars with China and Pakistan: “We used lie down among corpses of our soldiers. It was tough time, the war opened up our eyes.” Three of Seshavataram’s four sons are now in the army and his daughters are married to army men.
On the topic of China, his eyes fired up: “Now China cannot take us lightly. We are not weak. Training, weaponry, including nuclear weapons, have prepared us well. We have the wherewithal to land them in a real hell if they venture towards us again.” An indication of the imprint war makes on a soldier’s psyche, his words expose jingoistic fervour.
Another ex-subedar, Batreddy Raja Rao, 54, who served in far-flung army outposts like Kashmir, Nagaland, Kargil and Siachen for most of his service, remarked that “high altitude, frost bites, depression and snow really trouble you most, but, you’re a soldier, after all”.
Military service, as Seshavataram, had explained, is as much a career choice as it is a way to keep a long tradition alive. “Whatever be the difficulty, you have put your life in the line to protect the country.”