The elephants of Mysuru Dasara: Dhananjaya the debutante and Bhaskara his mahout

The writer visits the Mysore Palace to see the elephants preparing for Dasara.
The elephants of Mysuru Dasara: Dhananjaya the debutante and Bhaskara his mahout
The elephants of Mysuru Dasara: Dhananjaya the debutante and Bhaskara his mahout
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I am standing in front of Dhananjaya. Bhaskara the mahout tells me that I can move closer if I want to. I hesitate, in awe of the enormity of this elephant, the quiet dignity and intelligence that he exudes. I am aware of myself as a human standing next to this creature, with cliche and fear passing through me. I am captivated by those tusks, the toughness of the skin, the eyes, and that chain that binds his foot - all telling me that I do not belong so close. My mother, dauntless as she is, brushes me aside, unmoved by the moment I'm having, to go up close. She gazes up at Dhananjaya with a look of childlike delight.

We are at the northern corner of the Mysore Palace, thanks to my mother’s fascination and love for aanays (elephants) and her desire to meet Dhananjaya, the newest in the contingent of Dasara elephants who stay here for three months a year.

Supplied with news of elephant lives in the Kannada dailies, she is often found crying or smiling depending on what she reads: Sometimes, the incredible tragedy of the death of elephants by trains or electrocution; on other days, the odd story of tame elephants in camps playing football, eating sugarcane and jaggery in competition, and performing tricks; a few years ago, the case of an aanay christened Sidda, who spent days in Manchanabele dam in Magadi with an injured leg with villagers grouping together with a rare empathy for his care until he died.

The elephants of Dasara live in makeshift tin-stables on the palace grounds and prepare to participate in the centrepiece of the ten-day festival on Vijaydashami, as part of the 400-year-old tradition of jamboo savari. The mahouts, kawadis (assistant mahouts) and their families stay here alongside their aanays, preparing them for the fanfare and incredible amounts of noise and crowds that will ensue (thousands of people, a 21-gun salute and heavy adornment on their backs). There are twelve of them and they come from the Dubare, Mattigodu and Balle elephant camps. They are a curated set, vetted for ‘compliance’ and ‘temperament’ and physical demeanour ('guna-lakshana' in Kannada).

Dhananjaya’s debut

It is a hot day. The Chamundi hills glimmer in the distance, the sun is sharp, and the manicured gardens of Mysore Palace smell mildly of manure. The aanays eat grass and banyan leaves laid before them, slinging mud onto their heads with their long trunks. Dozens of visitors like us are here to see them. Dhananjaya, now 38 years old, is slated to replace Arjuna as the next elephant to carry the 'chinnada ambari' (a howdah of gold) which weighs over 750 kg.

Bhaskara the mahout is roughly as old as Dhananjaya, and has a brightly lit face with dark, warm eyes. He sits down with us, giving us insight into this ancient and complex relationship between mahout and elephant. A few feet away from where we stand, are a group of mahouts laughing and chatting, deeply involved in a game of carrom. Vijaya the elephant hovers quite close to them, almost like she’s curious in the outcome of this never-ending game.

This is Bhaskara's first Mysuru Dasara as a mahout, and he is excited. Dhananjaya is adjusting to his new assignment. It involves the 5-kilometre constitutional twice a day through Mysuru, via Sayaji Rao Road, all the way to Bannimantap. The elephants, no matter how expert, need to adjust to the sounds and sights and smells of human activity each year and train for the incredible weights they will carry on their backs.

They start their day at 6 am, eating a special diet of several dals, wheat, boiled rice and vegetables (beetroot, carrots, radishes, cucumber and onions) that is made under the careful eye of the veterinarian (to avoid digestive trouble). This is in addition to the constant snack of banyan leaves and dry grass and the "supplements" of paddy, jaggery, coconut, groundnut and salt for what is called their "weight gain programme". They then walk in single-file on the designated route, carrying incrementally heavier weights on their backs each day.

Bhaskara has lived around and worked with elephants since he was a young boy with his father and other mahouts. His first stint as kawadi was at the age of 18 with Ranjana aaney and then with Kaveri, Indra, and Sandra. Training as a kawadi involves being with elephants all the time, feeding them, bathing them, talking to them. It is a very deep commitment: "We play with them all day", says Bhaskara.

For a long time, Bhaskara hoped to be a mahout with his own elephant, one that he trained from the very beginning and is now thrilled to have Dhananjaya in his care. They have now spent five years together at Dubare elephant camp, where the elephants are not entirely deracinated since they can range into the forest.

Bhaskara says that he knew that their bond was sealed when he was able to go into the forest with Dhananjaya alone: sitting on top, but with Dhananjaya doing what he pleased. When Dhananjaya made his way back to camp in the evening without being instructed to do so, the training was, in effect, complete. This is known as 'onti bidodu' or 'going solo'. In the tradition of his father and grandfather and the jenu kurumba community, he took a vow with the goddess Ammaladure before he began his work with Dhananjaya: “How else can we go near such big elephants otherwise?” he asks.

This is, of course, an important question. This complex relationship of dependence between man (since there are no women mahouts in this region) and elephant is based on a foundational violence, a kind of primal wound: it is by snatching the elephant from its habitat that we have this human being here to control the elephant and offer companionship. What the animal loses is a herd, the freedom to roam the wild, and the forest. Dhananjaya is one of 22 elephants captured in 2014, in a khedda operation near Hasan. He was what is known as a ‘punda-aaney’, or ‘rogue’ elephant, which is human speak for wild elephant considered berserk (depending on how many fields the animal destroys, or human lives s/he hurts). He is a tusker of prodigious strength. Bhaskara was part of the khedda that captured Dhananjaya and has been with him since the moment the elephant was driven into a kraal or bamboo enclosure. Their lives and fates are now inextricably linked.

The taming of the elephant

In the Mysore State well before Independence, the operation to capture elephants was revised by an Englishman named George P Sanderson near the BR Hills. The khedda, the enclosure into which the elephant is driven (and the activity that makes this happen), was fine-tuned during his work for the irrigation department with the British government. Elephants would earlier be driven into pits and sometimes it would break their legs; here, it was an enclosure near a water body. The captive and tamed elephants would be sent in the service of the Mysore state or other places and kingdoms for logging, heavy labour or temple work, and would be trained to capture other wild elephants. The tame elephants that participate in the khedda are known as kumkis.

The khedda is now only conducted by the Forest Department for the resolution of situations where human-animal conflict is, for one reason or other, unmanageable. But all elephants that participate in the Dasara celebrations in Mysuru have been captured from the wild in the last century, before or after the outlawing of the khedda as a royal pastime by The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, and many of them are now effective kumkis. Documented with incredible empathy by wildlife photojournalist Kalyan Verma, this activity is a disturbing one.  

The kingdom of the Wadiyars kept elephants for the five centuries, like many such kingdoms in the Indian subcontinent. In the words of environmental historian Thomas R Trautman in his book Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History:

'…in the kingdoms of India and Southeast Asia, the number of elephants a king held was the measure of his wealth and power. . . only kings could undertake the capturing of wild elephants in their tens or hundreds at a time.'

The jamboo savari in Mysuru Dasara is a parade of this wealth and power and show of grandeur, now conducted by the state government. The procession ends at Banni Mantap, large grounds with a banni tree. It is said that the Pandavas in The Mahabharata hid their weapons in the tree before their exile into the forest. Even until a decade after Independence, a Wadiyar king would sit atop the lead elephant in the procession to this tree, with no war to fight but plenty of wealth to show-off.

Bhaskara and Dhananjaya - The bond

"What is Dhananjaya like?" we ask Bhaskara.

"He is like me, sadhu (soft). The story of the elephant is the story of my life.” Bhaskara is now custodian and extension of the elephant, and they are bound together in complete dependency.

Dhananjaya listens and responds only to Bhaskara's voice or the kawadi Shoonya's – they talk to the elephant all day and give him the security he needs to be around the other elephants in a strange city. "La math" ("come forward") he says to show us how it works, and Dhananjaya steps forward in response to this pidgin dialect that is as much word as sound and smell. (I can shout "la math" all I want without this or any tamed elephant giving a damn).

We head to the bathing area that doubles up as the place where the wives and daughters of mahouts and kawadis wash their family's clothes. Balarama is being given a long and what appears to be a happy bath by four men; "he loves water" someone says, and the mahouts mutter "arre-arre-arre" to tell Balarama to relax and stay put. His inch-thick skin is being scrubbed with what looks like a floor brush after a massage with essential elephant oils (of neem and castor), and his trunk has been twirled around his tusk and he looks like he is smiling contentedly. Dhananjaya and Chaitra arrive for their baths as well. Young men of mahout families of various ages clamber between the elephant's backs like children in a jungle-gym, saying "ala" (let me up!) to which the elephants give them useful leg-ups. "Baith" they are told, and the elephants sigh and sit down as they are splashed with water. In this hot day with a very blue sky, the mahouts and the elephants look magnificent and perfect in their moments to themselves.

The mahouts

The next morning, we join the throngs of people waiting for the elephants to set off for their rehearsal walk at 7.30 am. Near the northern gate of the Kote Anjaneya temple, there are as many selfie-sticks as people. We hear the tinkle of the bells tied around the elephant's necks as they walk out in a languorous pace with a police car pulling out in front of them. It takes a brisk walk to walk alongside them even though they look like they are sauntering. A female elephant walks between the tuskers; it is said that they keep the peace, just like the mahout himself.

I think of Colonel Hathi of The Jungle Book, and wonder if this procession of elephants is ludicrous or wondrous. People are out to catch sight of the march and stop to take selfies, and bus conductors salute the mahouts as buses drive past them. The children of Mysuru are familiar with the names of elephants and mahouts. A clump of 10-year olds is marching determinedly in a furious discussion: "Nodo! Balarama naditiddane!" "Illa kano goobe, adu Drona….nodu!" "Arjunan baala nodu, awane yetthodu ambarina" (Look ya, Balarama is walking"; "No dumbo, that’s Drona"; "Look at Arjuna's tail! He carries the howdah now!").

Dogs on the roadsides have a distinctive look of 'there's something really wrong here' and their ears are twitching in a mild panic. Every time an elephant needs it, the whole line stops for an aanay to pee or poo. Flower sellers near the market garland them, and at a 2 km stop, the elephants line up near under a rain tree so the mahouts can have their coffee break.

Bhaskara waves at me, drinking his coffee sitting atop Dhananjaya. The other mahouts have recognised my mother's enthusiasm and smile a little when they see us. We soon tire from this brisk walk and head back home. We discuss the mahouts, who are the intercession between the world and the elephant. I have been thinking about the cruelty of taking freedom away from the elephants, but the work it takes for the mahouts which is much more than a livelihood and the care they give. The mahouts are aware of the incredible strength and will of the elephants they spend their days and nights with, and the trust they build with them is why we can walk alongside twelve elephants on a tarred city road without worry.  

Though it is meant to be an honour for the mahout to come with his elephant to Mysuru, we don't treat them as well as we treat the elephants. Those tin shed homes are not optimal, and though they come here every year, the government will not build them permanent structures since the Palace is listed under the Archaeological Survey of India as a monument. There is an anganwaadi for the children, but only one source of water for whole families.  As Group D Employees under the Ministry of Environment, the wages mahouts earn are scant, and the elephants' lives are better insured than theirs. The mahouts, mostly adivasis who know the wilderness and animals with an ease none of us could dream of, are given a makeshift honour, like those stables on the grounds.

We discuss Dhananjaya, his size and compliance and how he is so quiet and malleable; This strange relationship of complicity and consent between the animal and us, the cruelty and love in equal measure. Dasara has now begun, and Mysuru is lit up and full of people. A tusker called Rowdy Ranga was meant to head to join the procession on Vijaydashami, but was killed by a speeding bus as he roamed across a road in the forest at night earlier this week. The elephants may be cared for, but just like our relationship with nature, it is bittersweet.

To me, weeks after meeting Dhananjaya and Bhaskara, looking at a picture of Ranga lying dead, my wonder is tending on the very bitter.

RIP Ranga.

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