It is official: the successor for Balarama, a 54-year-old tusker that carried the 750-kg golden howdah 12 times in a row since 1999 during the Jamboo Savari, the grand Dasara finale here, has been found. The tall and relatively stronger 52-year-old elephant Arjuna will take over the mantle from the master tusker to don the role of a show-stopper this year.
After successfully carrying the howdah with the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari for all these years, Balarama will be missed during the Vijayadasami procession this time as a team of forest officials and veterinarians decided to rest Balarama, which has lost weight and appeared slow in its movement during rehearsals.
There was speculation that Balarama may be replaced as there were concerns whether it could perform the job as it did in the past. No doubt, Balarama, from the K.Gudi camp, is the most obedient, well-behaved and cool-tempered among the Dasara elephants. It was never distracted by the crowds during the procession.
But, in view of concerns over its weight (it weighed 4,500 kg on arrival here) and slow movements during rehearsals on the 4-km procession route — from the Mysore Palace to Bannimantap, it was decided to replace Balarama with Arjuna, which weighs 5,500 kg.
Arjuna, from the Balle camp, is one of the longest-serving Dasara elephants. It had carried the golden howdah once before.
Sources in the Forest Department told The Hindu that a team of forest officials comprising Chief Conservator of Forests K.B. Markandaiah, Field Director (Project Elephant) Ajai Mishra, Deputy Conservators of Forests Devaraj and Goankar, Assistant Director, Veterinary, Chettiappa, senior veterinarian Umashankar and veterinarian Nagaraj examined the two tuskers during weight-carrying rehearsals.
“After a week-long observation, the team concluded to replace Balarama with Arjuna,” the sources added.
Mr. Markandaiah said that Arjuna is physically fit than Balarama. Based on the opinion of a panel of forest veterinarians closely associated with Dasara elephants, and also the “observation made by us, we decided to relieve Balarama,” he said.
He, however, said that Balarama will take part in the procession this year and perhaps, perform the job that Arjuna had been doing all these years.
Last year, the forest authorities had noticed problems in the movements of Balarama. Even during routine rehearsals this time, it appeared to be slow and used to pause during walking.
When contacted, Mr. Ajai Mishra said, “Balarama had problems in his movement. It had difficulty in walking. Therefore, its movements were closely observed this year and it was found that the problem persisted.”
Stating that Arjuna is physically stronger than Balarama, he said that the assessment was made based on the behaviour of the elephants, their health and physical fitness. In the end, Arjuna passed the test and therefore, it will lead the procession, he said.
Moreover, weight was another reason that forced the replacement. As far as behaviour is concerned, Mr. Mishra said, “Our veterinarians told us that Arjuna is perfectly all right and qualifies for the job.”
As a back-up, even Gajendra, the tallest and strongest of the lot and an expert in taming erratic elephants, is also being trained to carry the howdah.
Like Arjuna, it will be big day for the tusker’s mahout, Dodda Masti. He is leading the elephant for the first time with the howdah.
If Balarama is retiring this year, its longest-serving mahout Sannappa retired in 2010. Thimma, a kavadi for Balarama, replaced Sannappa in 2011. Among the elephants that have carried the howdah, Balarama is rated the best. Drona had carried the howdah for 17 years.