The Sakrebayalu Elephant camp in Shimoga is a refreshing change from the regular tourist hotspot.
The waters of the Tunga gleam as the sun rises to greater heights with every passing minute. Birds stoop trying to snatch an early morning catch from the gurgling river. The ringing of a bell breaks the silence of the surroundings. It heralds the arr ival of the first elephant. Accompanied by their mahouts, 15 more elephants follow soon.
I was at the Sakrebayalu Elephant Camp, which is home to 16 elephants. Visitors can get a close look at the elephants and the work of their dedicated mahouts. While some elephants are born and bred at the camp, the others were sent there to curb their erratic behaviour.
For most mahouts, the profession has been a family tradition. They have taken up this risky and challenging job after learning the “tricks of the trade” from their ancestors. A typical day begins before break of dawn and ends long after the sun sets. The routine does not change in the scorching summer or the incessant monsoon.
Each elephant is looked after by two mahouts who are on the job round the clock. The elephants are housed at the camp until midday after which they are left free in the forest. In the wee hours of the morning, the mahouts head out to the forest in search of their elephants. The dung, the trails of footprints, and the knowledge of their favourite spots in the forest provides clues to their location.
The entire operation involves walking for several kilometres in the rugged terrain each day, every day of the year. Among other things, the job demands physical fitness. Jalil, an experienced mahout, says, “Although we are Muslims, we don’t wear slippers because the elephant is a God of the Hindus.” “We respect the elephant as our God too and pray to it every day,” he added.
Between 8.00 a.m. and 9.00 a.m., the elephants are brought to the river for a wash. Once their thirst is quenched, the elephants lie down in the river ready to be scrubbed and bathed by their respective mahouts. 11.00 a.m. is goodies time. This is followed by a head massage with castor oil to keep their body cool in the summer. It’s time for another dip in the river to quench their thirst before being taken back to their natural habitat. According to the mahouts, the elephants feast on the bamboo shoots growing abundantly in the neighbouring forest. The mahouts return home for lunch and then head back into the forest to keep a stringent vigil until nightfall to ensure that their charges do not wreak havoc in the neighbouring villages.
Each elephant has a specific schedule and is given an extensive training. In a unique language, a mix of Bengali and Urdu, the mahouts can make the elephants do a lot of things including greeting visitors, blessing them and walking with a bucket of water. The stunts like standing on two feet and hopping on three feet are astounding.
Elephants’ Day, which is an initiative of the Wildlife Division of the Forest Department, is a unique annual event held in October. The elephants of the Sakrebayalu Camp are adorned with colourful embellishments and perform various feats. They vie with each other in races and play volleyball and football.
Shimoga’s verdant landscape make the area a popular tourist destination. The Sakrebayalu Elephant Camp is one of the many attractions on offer. Set in a quaint village, bereft of any commercialisation, the camp is a refreshing change from the usual tourist hotspots.
By road: From Bangalore, drive along NH4 to towards Tumkur. Take the Tumkur bypass and follow SH 206 (Gubbi Road) to reach Shimoga via Tiptur and Arasikere. Buses and trains ply between Shimoga and Bangalore. Sakrebayalu is about 12 km from Shivamogga on the way to Tirthahalli. Auto rickshaws can be hired for a round trip from Shivamogga town.
Shimoga town has accommodation to suit all pockets. There are many hotels near the bus stand.
Hotel Jewel Rock is one of the better known. With clean rooms, a good vegetarian restaurant and ample parking space, the room tariff ranges from Rs 600-1000.
At the Sakrebayalu Elephant Camp visitors can get an elephant ride at Rs 75 per person.
A boat ride in the Tunga is a good way to spot winged visitors.
Gajanur Dam, 2 km away, is another popular destination
Don’t miss the Tavarekoppa Lion and Tiger Safari and the Shivappa Nayaka Palace and Mandegadde Bird Sanctuary.
Jog Falls are the most popular tourist spot in Shimoga District.