The old Indian soldier, his medals gleaming on his chest, stood stiff and proud before his former commanding officer, now a retired British general.

"My old subedar," said Maj. Gen. D. C. T. Swan, emotion welling in his voice. "Sometimes I don't know if I am crying, it's so moving."

Swan, who last saw Sudebar (the rank equivalent to sergeant) M. P. Thangavelu when they struggled out of Burma together with the Japanese at their heels during the early days of World War II, returned to India for the first time in nearly 33 years for the 200th birthday celebration of the Indian Army unit he had served with for 20 years, the Madras Sappers and Miners.

The sappers are the second oldest unit in the Indian Army and the birthday celebration here last month provided a glimpse into the workings of that Army, the third largest in the world and by far the most powerful on the South Asian subcontinent.

It is an Army born out of the British Raj that sometimes appears to be more British than the British themselves as its officers walk around with swagger sticks under their arms.

The birthday celebration vividly illustrated the strong ties that still remain between India and Great Britain, its former colonial master.

Sappers, for instance, appeared to be as proud of the role they had played in extending Britain's colonial empire throughout the Indian subcontinent and around the world as they were of the wars they fought for an independent India during the last 33 years.

Yet the British officers who returned to visit their own command here were clearly impressed at the progress the sappers had made in the nearly 33 years they have been under Indian command and noted that the army here has a uniquely Indian overlay -- a special bond between officers and their men -- that rarely exists these days among the armies of the world.

The all-volunteer Indian Army is organized along regimentlal lines so that the unit becomes a recuit's family and its officers his father and mother. Moreover, all enlisted men -- called ORs for other ranks -- a drawn from the same area of the country, which adds to the unit's family atmosphere.

"The Indian Army has a tradition that came from the United Kingdom but now it has a tradition of its own -- one of loyalty and integrity that is unique to the Indian Army," said Lt. Gen. Hugh Cunningham, who served with the Madras Sappers but went on to head the Royal Engineers and to be deputy chief of staff of the British armed forces.

"We are trying to match a standard which had been set for us," said a retired sappers colonel, Ashok Rao.

The history of the sappers is so rich that its bicentennial accounts ommited that they built the strategic road through the rugged and rocky Khyber Pass in what now is Pakistan, surely one of the engineering feats of its time.

This road and fortifications -- also built by the sappers -- are once more considered a first line of defense against a Soviet invasion of the Indian subcontinent as they were in the past when the British fought in Afghanistan to prevent imperial Russian troops from sweeping south and east.

The sappers' historic past is reflected in its officers' mess here, which looks as if it comes straight out of a Rudyard Kipling novel.

Amid the tiger skins and antelope heads on the walls are momentos of past campaigns that carried the sappers across Asia into Europe and the Middle East in both world wars.

There are so manay vases, elaborately carved chests and chairs, bronzes and screens carried here from three expeditions to China that the late Chou En-lai expressed horror when he visited the officers' messs for lunch some years ago.

Bagpipers wearing tartan caps play in the sappers' band, another remnant of the unit's British past.

The Madras Sappers fought in many of Britain's colonial wars from the time the unit was founded in 1780 -- Egypt (where it first went to fight Napoleon but arrived too late so instead it cleared out various rebel groups and built roads); the taming of India to bring it into the British Empire; wars to conquer Burma, Java, Persia, and Abyssinia.

Sappers bridged the Tigris River, dug trenches and cleared barbed wire entanglements during world War Ii and built airfields for American planes in Burma as well as fighting alongside British troops around the world in Wrold War II.

Since India gained independence in 1947, the sappers have taken part in all three wars with Pakistan as well as fighting the Chinese.

Former sappers stretching back though the years, such as Subedar I Iyyanar, 87, a third generation member of the unit, attended the recent celebration.

A row of nine medals gleaming on his chest, Iyyanar recalled how his father fought with the sappers in Egypt in 1882 and how he fought there in 1940. In his 28 years with the sappers Iyyanar fought in both world wars. His grandfather, the original sapper in the family, joined the unit in the 1840s.

One of the greatest sapper heroes is not even a soldier. He is dhobi Ram Chander, a civilian (Dhobi means laundryman). He was awarded India's second highest medal for gallantry for carrying a wounded officer eight miles to an aid station after their truck was ambushed in 1947 during the war with Pakistan over Kashmir soon after the two countries were carved from British India.

Ram Chander, now a handyman with Indian Airlines in New Delhi, was brought here by the sappers for the birthday celebration.

Clearly a highlight of the celebration was the reunion of the men with their former British officers.

One officer was checking up on what happened to his men during the past 30-plus years while the old Indian soldiers peered at any white face on the grounds to see if it belonged to some officer they had known. There were often quite unmilitary embraces when an officer and one of his men got together.

"They nearly knocked me over they were so enthusiastic," said Cunningham, the retired British general.

"Seeing retired old men I knew as young men was almost too much. They remember things I don't," added Swan.