Stars of Dasara

An elephantine pageantry

It is that time of the year again, when a patch of land around the Kodi Someshwara Temple in the premises of Mysore Palace becomes a bustling temporary settlement of elephants, along with their mahouts,  kavadis , and their families. Roughly a month and a half before Dasara, several elephants from the various elephant camps of the Karnataka Forest Department arrive at the Palace, to prepare for the magnificent spectacle that is the Jamboo Savari (elephant procession) on Vijayadashami.

Tall sheds roofed with tin sheets shelter the elephants, while temporary housing for the families of the elephant keepers are also set up nearby. Throughout the day, the area is witness to frenzied activity, calling to mind an account by a visitor to the Palace in the 1940s, who reported on “the morning drill of these animals – being bathed, massaged and paraded around before being fed.”

Special diet

For the twelve elephants who are gathered here for the 2018 Dasara festivities, the daily routine is fairly well worked out. A march in the morning and evening on a route through the city to get used to the sights and sounds, after the relative calm of the forest camps; a massage with castor and neem oil; baths in the morning and evening; and, of course, the food. The regular diet of these elephants at their respective camps comprises ficus leaves and branch fodder, with paddy straw, green grass, coconuts and jaggery. At the Dasara camp, this is supplemented with paddy, sugarcane, groundnut oil cakes and a special feed to provide extra nutrition for the rigorous exercise that awaits them. In a shed nearby, an attendant stirs up this concoction — a mixture of black and green gram, wheat and boiled rice, with onions and salt. This is later spread out, mixed with vegetables and butter, rolled into balls and fed to the elephants twice a day. The larger male elephants get a bigger share, with the biggest share being reserved for Arjuna, who will carry the heavy golden howdah on the Vijayadashami day.

With such rich nutrition, it is not uncommon for the elephants to gain a few hundred kilograms in the duration of the camp. On an average, male elephants put on 500kg, while female elephants gain between 200 to 300kg. One of the mahouts recalls that, a few years ago, the tusker Gajendra had put on a whopping 900kg!

After the morning exercise of a round in the city, with the howdah elephant as well as the ones on standby duty carrying sandbags as load, the elephants rest in the shade of their sheds, or under trees during the heat of the day, lazily feeding from the stack of grass or branch fodder before them. This year, eight male and four female elephants have arrived from four of the elephant camps in the State — Balle, Bandipur, Dubare and Mattigodu. Of these, Balarama is the oldest, at 62 years and Dhananjaya is the youngest, at 35 years of age.

Balarama, veteran of 22 Dasara celebrations, and howdah elephant on 13 of those occasions, stands quietly in one of the sheds, eyes closed as if in contemplation, idly whisking away flies with a ficus branch occasionally. Is he reminiscing about his glory days as the celebrated ambaari aane, before he relinquished this strenuous duty to Arjuna? Or is he wistfully recalling his days of freedom in the forests of Kattepura, from where he was captured in 1978? These days, Balarama is the nishaani aane, walking at the head of the Dasara procession, bearing the flag with the standard of the Royal House of Mysore. This might be his last appearance at the Mysore Dasara, for he is slated to retire next year, to live out the rest of his years at the Mattigodu elephant camp, where he is stationed.

Arjuna, a 58-year-old male elephant from the Balle elephant camp, who took over as ambaari aane from Balarama in 2012, is tethered in a nearby shed, alongside Chaitra, a 47-year-old female elephant, who will be one of the two flanking elephants for Arjuna during the procession, with 62-year-old Varalakshmi.

The cynosure of the entire spectacle, the ambaari aane, is chosen carefully. Usually, elephants in the age group of 45-50 years are preferred, presumably because by then they have the necessary experience and temperament to face the Dasara crowds without panicking. Interestingly, in ancient Indian texts, a 60-year-old elephant is said to be at the height of its prowess, and therefore ideal for use as a war elephant. The howdah elephant needs to be well-built, too, weighing at least 3-4 tonnes, to be able to carry the golden howdah, which weighs 750 kg. Along with the various padding materials, and decorative drapery, the total load can come up to 1250 kg. A relatively level, rather than arched, back is desirable for a potential howdah elephant, so that the load can be balanced well. Long tusks, like the beautiful pair possessed by Balarama, are essential too, for the decorations to be fastened properly.

Unequal short tusks are what restrict Abhimanyu, otherwise a magnificent 52-year-old tusker from the Mattigodu camp, to the role of the naushat aane, second in the procession behind the nishaani aane. Abhimanyu is the workhorse of the Forest Department. A renowned kumki elephant, he travels with his devoted mahout Vasanta to areas with man-elephant conflict to either drive problem animals back into forests, or capture them.

On Vijayadashami, behind the nishaani and naushat elephants, will be the saalu aane – a row of three male and two female elephants. The ambaari aane and his flanking females will be paraded behind these. Vikrama, a 45-year-old tusker from the Dubare camp, is the pattada aane, or royal elephant. He is normally used only for rituals at the palace, but could participate in the procession, if permitted by the palace priest.

When Arjuna, Balarama, Abhimanyu and the rest of the elephants take to the streets of Mysore on Vijayadashami, they will be the latest in a line of majestic pachyderms which have been gracing the spectacle of Dasara procession for centuries. The practice of using elephants for the Dasara festivities came to the Mysore State from tradition followed in the Vijayanagara Empire. After the collapse of Vijayanagara, when Mysore became an independent kingdom, Dasara celebrations were initially conducted at Srirangapatna, the first capital, and later resumed in the new capital.

A bit of history

The use of elephants in the royal ceremony and festivities goes back to the early periods. A sculpted panel at the 2nd-century Buddhist stupa at Kanaganahalli shows elephants carrying the relics of the Buddha. The war elephant, a crucial component of many a medieval army, was a symbol of the might of a kingdom, and represented profusely in temple sculptures through history. This symbol of might gradually became an inseparable part of most Indian festivities.

In Mysore too, the practice of maintaining a large number of elephants was prevalent. 
P D Stracey, in his book Elephant Gold, mentions the royal elephant stables of the Mysore Maharaja, and the methods of capture employed. Apart from capture using concealed pits, and the daring method of noosing wild tuskers from the backs of female kumkis, the kheddah, where elephants are driven into a stockade, was also in use since 1874.

The Mysore kheddah, at Kakankote, is immortalised in the 1937 film Elephant Boy, based on Rudyard Kipling’s haunting story Toomai of the Elephants. The star of the movie, 13-year-old Sabu, was the son of a mahout at the Palace stables, and went on to have a Hollywood career. The royal elephant Iravatha was cast as Kala Nag, Toomai’s elephant, in the movie.

Names of illustrious predecessors of Arjuna and Balarama filter down to us through the pages of history – Chamundi Prasad the pattada aane, who was very well-built and almost perpetually in musth; Iravatha of Elephant Boy fame; Biligiriranga, said to have stood 12 feet tall; Hansa Raja, who used to throw flowers at the feet of the Maharaja; and in recent times, Drona the majestic tusker who was tragically electrocuted in 1998. After Independence, the Forest Department has taken the responsibility of the Jamboo Savari, and as celebrated veterans like Balarama and Arjuna move towards a retired life, young tuskers like Gopi, Dhananjaya, and even the youngster Bhima are in line to carry the tradition forward.

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An elephantine pageantry

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