An Elephantine Encounter

Speeding on the Noida Link road, one is seldom expecting the most primitive means of mass transport. With the metro rail on one side and an ultra-modern flyover to the other, a docile yet prominent soul accompanied by two of its handlers is a delight for the young and elderly alike.

This article attempts to provide an account into the lives of the handlers and their beasts.

Vikas Marg, ITO Bridge, is witness to a queer spectacle in this urban divide. Dark skinned men with a smile on their faces are wading in knee deep murky waters; laying on its side a forty year old female Indian elephant Ajanta is relishing the luxury of a bath. It’s a tedious task under the unforgiving sun which mahouts gladly undertake.

In a casual interaction the mahouts reveal that most of them hail from Bihar and Assam. Some like Shamboo have inherited this trade from their forefathers others like Zakir and Ahmed are employed by the proprietors of the elephants.
There are no placement cells for their jobs, nor are there any specialized courses.  When asked about the qualities that one needs to be an elephant handler, they replied that it comes with time, there are no books that one can memorize to step into their trade, it’s an art that develops with experience.

Though technology has caught up with their lives, it cannot coexist with the rugged conditions that the mahouts undergo each day. The day begins pre-sunrise with the mahouts checking on their elephants, followed by a prayer to Lord Ganesh. If an elephant is engaged for a task, it is headed to the desired location keeping a time gap of around an hour. Else these splendid beasts are left to feed and loiter under the watchful eyes of their caretakers in the vegetation rich Yamuna bed.
When the sun is at its’ peak, all in this part of the city take a well-deserved break, the elephants are chained in their shelters and mahouts nearby.  Come evening, the Yamuna bed comes to life again, the murky waters are utilized to bathe the elephants.  By the time the bathing ceremony concludes, dusk sets in and if there are no appointments, the elephants are chained to their shelters under their custodians.
The cost of an elephant calf starts at Rs 25 lakh and goes up to Rs 60 lakh, the price varies upon the tusk size, the health and the gender of the animal. Males are more versatile and hence cost more. It can take anything from 6 to 18 months to train the beast to obey human orders.
Those elephants which are not bought are caught from the jungles of Bihar and Assam, transporting an elephant is a mammoth task in itself.
The cost of transporting an elephant from the jungles to the urban jungle initiates at Rs 50,000 and that too upon the condition that the beast agrees to adopt the means of transport. Else no matter how much the distance the elephant travels to it’s destination on foot.
Ajanta, a healthy 40 year old female elephant calls for an expenditure of Rs 20,000 in a month. Her diet comprises of sugarcane and other vegetation, most of which is easily available of the river bank. For those animals which are registered, medical facilities are provided for by the government authorities.
Shambo referred to his grandparents and boasted of their relations with Jawaharlal Nehru. Politics has not left any untouched, and even these individuals have political inclinations. A fan following of Rajiv Gandhi and his idea of empowering the masses is still driving their political dispositions.
The displacement of these individuals due to the rising flood levels in the Yamuna River was a matter of great displeasure. The miscommunication of welfare schemes run by the government authorities is evident in their lives.
Those involved in this profession are in a realm of their own, they have not much regard for the 21st century and its needs for livelihood. The young belonging to families who wish to carry on the family trade are least interested in contemporary education.
Zakir wishes that his offspring don’t step into the trade that he is in; he believes that the income is not apt when considering the input that the mahout puts in.
The proprietors of the elephants have evolved into established business houses with the passage of time; the transfiguration is to such an extent that these houses would readily have discarded with this trade.
It is undying will of the mahouts that causes these houses to continue sustaining these beasts in this ruthless city.
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