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Updated: June 5, 2013 20:48 IST

On its last legs

Twesh Mishra
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Mahouts at work.
Mahouts at work.

With the city swallowing up the Yamuna, elephants and mahouts might soon be reduced to characters of folk tales

While crossing the bustling ITO Bridge if you get time to tilt your neck, chances are that you will get to see nature at its leisurely self. Dark-skinned men, with smiles on their faces, are wading in knee deep murky waters. They are headed towards a voluptuous Ajanta. Lying on her side, the 42-year-old female elephant is relishing a relaxed bath in Yamuna. It is a tedious task under the unforgiving summer sun, which the mahouts at Shakarpur, Yamuna Khadar gladly undertake.

As one gets down to the bank, the mahouts reveal that most of them hail from Bihar and Assam. Some like Shambhu have inherited this trade from their forefathers; others like Zakir and Ahmad are employed by the proprietors of the elephants.

There are no specialised courses for those who wish to take up this profession. Asked about the qualities that one needs to be an elephant handler, they reply that it comes with time. “There are no books that one can memorise to step into this trade. It is an art which one learns with experience,” says Shambhu.

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 taken to the desired location one hour prior to the designated time for arrival. Else, these splendid pachyderms 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, those in this part of the city take a well-deserved break. The elephants are chained in their shelters and mahouts rest nearby. Come evening, the Yamuna bed comes to life again, the murky waters are utilised to bathe the elephants. By the time the bathing ceremony subsides, 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 according to the tusk size, the health and the gender of the animal. Males are more versatile, hence cost more. It can take anything from 6 to 18 months to train the beast to obey human orders.

Transporting an elephant is a mammoth task in itself. The cost of transporting an elephant from the forests to the urban jungle is around Rs.50,000 and it depends on the animal’s ability to adapt to the means of transport. Else, the elephant covers the distance on foot.

Ajanta calls for an expenditure of Rs.20,000 per month. Her diet comprises sugarcane and other vegetation, most of which is easily available on the river bank. For those animals which are registered, medical facilities are provided for by the government authorities.

Those involved in this profession live in their own world and have little idea about modern means of livelihood. Most of the young belonging to families, who wish to carry on the family trade, are least interested in contemporary education.

Zakir is an exception. The 38-year-old mahout from West Bengal wishes that his offspring doesn’t step into the trade. He believes that the income is not commensurate with the input that the mahout puts in.

Gazing at industrial pollutants in the form of white froth floating in the Yamuna, Shambhu expresses an evident reality. “Owners are not interested in sustaining these elephants after this generation. But I will take up no other profession. My elephant is all that I need,” he swells with pride as the magnificent animal loiters about him and wraps her trunk around bunches of marshy grass.

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