The Indians saw them and were paralysed with fear.

The weather that day had been unforgiving. Icy winds howled in chorus with bursts of thunder and rain. The men of the 17 Mountain Division braced themselves for the worst as sleet hit their faces like bullets.

At a height of 14,000 feet, the plateau of Doklam lay on the border between the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and its superpower neighbour China. The loftiest points of the plateau lay on its western shoulder, between Batang La and Mount Gipmochi. From there, the plateau sloped down towards the southeast, eventually meeting the Amo Chu River. The entire expanse of thirty-four-plus square miles between the highest and lowest points was boulder-strewn, hence the name Doklam – “rocky path”.

The Chinese called it by a different name: Donglang. In fact, they claimed it as their own. But their efforts to build a road through the plateau had triggered a flashpoint with India, Bhutan’s longstanding friend and ally. India knew that a road through Doklam would give China the ability to enter Indian territory with little effort. Halting the Chinese initiative was not an option – it was an imperative.

The first encounter with the Chinese had been largely peaceful.

After weeks of posturing and negotiations, both sides had agreed to withdraw their men and machines beyond the buffer zone. But this latest Chinese move was altogether different. There was no pretence of innocence. The dragon was on the move.

The men from the Indian contingent, supported by the Royal Bhutan Army Corps, cautiously calculated their own strength. There weren’t too many of them to defend Doklam. The number of soldiers was limited because of the time it took them to acclimatise. Any soldier coming to the plateau needed at least five days to adjust to the altitude. It was impossible to rush in reinforcements at short notice.

The commander of the Indian side looked through his binoculars with bated breath. All he could see was desolate, rock-covered land. He wondered why they were fighting at all. There seemed so little to be gained by acquiring vast expanses of barren stone. He could not discern any movement through his binoculars. But they were there. Every soldierly instinct told him they were there.

And then he saw them. And found himself utterly and helplessly afraid. A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer, he reminded himself, not for the first time in his life.

Wave after wave of soldiers streamed into Doklam from the Chinese side. Even steep cliffs and deep ravines could not stop them. They leapt over these effortlessly. Not of the average Chinese build, these soldiers were extraordinarily tall and muscular. Their muscles strained against their armour. Like Greek gods on steroids. The Indians and the Bhutanese trembled as the Chinese troops shouted, “Sha! Sha! Sha!”

Everyone knew what it meant. Kill! Kill! Kill!

The Chinese fighters were also astonishingly outfitted. All of them sported radar-equipped helmets, lightweight yet lethal assault rifles, wrist-mounted computer-navigation systems, night vision goggles and omniphobic full-body armour. The Indian and Bhutanese contingents were in their military fatigues, armed with only standard-issue rifles.

Three field cameras that had been installed on rock surfaces were silently capturing all the action and relaying them via satellite to the Indian control room a few hundred yards away.

The defenders mustered their courage and yelled a war cry of their own. “Bharat mata ki jai!” Long live Mother India! They were no pushovers. The 17 Mountain Division that guarded the area was also known as the Black Cat Division. They had fought in all the battles in which Indians had participated since World War II. They had played an instrumental role in the 1944 Burma Campaign and in the 1961 Liberation of Goa.

They usually lived by the words of the American war hero George S Patton: “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country.”

But the odds were stacked against them today.

What followed was brutal.

The first few kills were not by snipers or grenades or shells. The soldiers of the 17 Mountain Division were bludgeoned or stabbed to death. The Chinese soldiers wielded Ka-Bar fighting knives with razor-sharp blades. They had been trained to cut upward. That was the most effective option – to simply drive the point of the blade into a man’s lower belly and rip upward. It meant getting soaked in the victim’s gore, but that only added to their bloodlust.

The Indo-Bhutanese soldiers pulled together and fought back. Their first ploy was to gun down the Chinese who were suspended from ropes anchored to the cliffs surrounding the plateau. The attackers were leaping from one rope to another like trapeze artists, providing protective fire to their comrades and creating mayhem.

The Indians fired indiscriminately into the spider web of ropes hanging from the cliffs, but to no avail. A few Chinese combatants were injured by Indian fire, but they simply used specialised field tourniquets to stanch the bleeding and carried on as though nothing could come in their way.

The commander of the Indian forces was awestruck by the agility and speed of his opponents but had little time to think about it, as a Chinese soldier swung his Ka-Bar knife at him. The commander deftly sidestepped the arc of his opponent’s knife and let loose a volley of fire. His attacker leapt several feet into the air, expertly dodging the stream of bullets. He took aim from an aerial vantage position and fired cleanly into the commander’s skull. The Indian fell to the ground, his brain splattered across Doklam’s rocky ground.

It was nothing short of a massacre that day.

But strangely, the Chinese appeared uninterested in holding the territory they had just captured. Exactly ninety minutes after the attack started, a clarion call announced the cessation of hostilities for the day. Almost as quickly as they had entered Doklam, the Chinese forces exited the plateau, hooting and thumping their chests in caveman-like glee, and stomping their feet in unison. The ground reverberated with their coordinated and sinister exit march.

The surviving Indian and Bhutanese soldiers watched the retreating forces in bewildered frustration. What was the point of killing over a hundred men if there was no intention of acquiring territory? Or was the main attack yet to come? They began collecting the remains of their fallen comrades, their bodies drooping with weariness. It was a day that would go down as one of the worst in the history of the 17 Mountain Division.

Or was it?

Excerpted with permission from The Vault of Vishnu, Ashwin Sanghi, Westland.