Bathing an elephant in Kabini

The ripples of the Kabini River made it look like a muddy red skirt playing to the gentle breeze blowing about. As I walked the path to the river, I could hear indignant cawing and something that sounded like “Did you do it?”

The cawing and “did-you-do-its” got louder as I moved ahead, only to look up and find at least a dozen birds hovering in a closed circle formation 10 feet above my head. The resort naturalist later told me that they were red-wattled lapwings, and their call sounded like “Did-you-do-it”. They go into a frenzy when humans or other animals stray close to their eggs on the ground, and make that formation ready defend their offsprings

Mighty yet gentle

A little further down the banks, and I could see Meenakshi — The Majestic. She lay in the shallow part of the river, with her mahout beside her, both patiently waiting for me to sit on her back. I entered the water, strutting, queen-like. At least until the water became too cold and deep for comfortable strutting.

About three feet from her, I stopped and looked at the mahout for guidance. “Hatra banni, parvaagilla (Come close, It's alright)”, he assured me. Hesitantly, I approached Meenakshi and stretched a hand to pat her back and my, was she warm! It was quite a delightful comfort to touch her warm body in the cool breeze.

The resort’s elephant she might be, nature's own, but Meenakshi is a humble lady who greeted me with her ears flapping gracefully. Her face looked calm and gentle. Her mouth seemed to be curved in a smile, her trunk resting in the water. The light spots on her ears and trunk were a sign of her age and wisdom, and she was completely at ease with the river, the breeze, the mahout, people and animals watching her.

The mahout asked me to sit on Meenakshi’s back for “a bath” and I hastily replied, “No, that’s fine. I'm comfortable just petting her, see?” patting her hairy and warm back to prove it. “Illa, illa. Thumba mugdha jeevi ivalu. Banni banni. (No, no. She is a gentle being. Come, come)” the mahout insisted, lifting me off  the riverbed and placing me on Meenakshi. For half a heart beat, I thought I would hear her trumpet indignantly. Instead she simply flapped her ears more graciously.

“Madam, ready?”, the mahout asked. But before I could so much as nod or open my mouth in answer, I heard him utter something at Meenakshi. Some tiny part of my brain guessed it was perhaps Malayalam as the elephant hailed from Kerala.

(Interestingly, the pet elephants of Kabini all hail from Kerala, for elephant catching is illegal in Karnataka, and all it takes to wade our way out of that law is to cross this red river.)

At his request, she sucked in a trunkful of the muddy - red Kabini water, threw her trunk backward and splashed a huge amount, enough to soak me wet in an instant. I squealed in delight. Meenakshi too seemed to be enjoying it, for she flapped her ears vigorously in acknowledgement and splashed another trunkful at me. And she kept going until her mahout requested her to stop.

With some difficulty, I jumped off her back and happily went on to pet her forehead. I thought I should return the favour of her bathing me, and scooped up handfuls of the river and started splashing at her sides.

Needless to say, she hardly felt a thing! As if to show this pea-brain how to give an elephant a real bath, she sucked in a trunkful of the river and splashed it real hard across her own back, and then she went silent. It was her time to get a real pampering bath now, and her mahout obliged. I pet her one last time and then it was time for me to warm up quickly.

I smiled to myself at the spa-like treatment I had received in all its natural goodness, with the Kabini red clay in the river. But that was only until I passed by the red-wattled lapwings again.

Kabini is located 250 km from Bangalore (via Mysore) and 100 km from Mysore.

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