Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Elephant memories

Elephants appear to be frequently in the news these days. Not real live elephants. But current happenings, described with links to elephants.

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link off Mumbai's coastline is supposed to weigh as much as 50,000 elephants. One of the Chief Ministers of our biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, has a statue addiction, and her idea of being immortalized is to have huge parks designed with statues of herself and her mentors, along with 60 elephant statues , all in marble, the said animal being the election symbol for her party. Which did very badly in the recent elections.

If I were an elephant, (opinions differ on the tense used), I would be mortified with all this wild expenditure.

My earliest acquaintance with elephants, dates back to 52 years ago.

My parental house was within shouting and running distance of Peshwe Park in Pune. This was then considered to be an area very much on the outskirts of the city. Traffic would kind of disappear after dark, there were rumors of a ghost living on a tamarind tree opposite the park, and at night, you could often hear the screeching sounds of peacocks and roars of the tigers.

The park soon acquired an elephant, and she was called
Sumitra. They built a wonderful huge garage/hangar type thing for her, with a huge open space outside. Weekend mornings would see us standing on the fence railings, and enjoying ,watching the bath, she was being given. Once in a while the trunk would move through a huge bucket, and there would be a spitting shower of water in one direction, that kept us enthralled. Occasionally, on a very hot day, she would be inside her "garage" and the keeper would importantly shoo us away saying ,"she is sleeping". Later on , in the evening, they fitted her with a contraption that allowed her to give rides to people across the park, as a mahout sat at the head. I have great memories ,
seated on her back, of ambling through the park, with what can be only described as a definitive low frequency wavy simple harmonic movement of her posterior, which had all of us swaying in unison with her.

Elephants were also part of my cultural life.

Young Hindu Brahmin boys, go through a ceremony called
Munja or Upanayan when they are around 8 years. My younger brother and 2 cousins were about to have their Munja, and because we all lived in the same premises , albeit separately, there was huge excitement as the preparations got under way.

Traditionally, in the old days, boys went to residential camps where sages presided over their education, physically, mentally, and spiritually. There was a celebratory depiction of the child leaving his mothers fold to become a student disciple. Amidst various religious ceremonies, that involved learning of some ancient Sanskrit verses, prayers, rituals
, this ceremony was performed to celebrate the initiation of the child into the "learning stage".

There is one ritual that has the boy standing at his mothers doorstep with a bowl, saying a certain Sanskrit phrase and the mother putting food , as alms, into the bowl.
It implies having to work for what he needs. Many mothers are in tears when this ritual happens. In today's world, no one really goes anywhere after the Munja, but it tells the child that babyhood is over, its time to get serious about school. This ceremony is called "Bhikshaawal". (= giving of food as alms) .

The then (n my childhood), modern tradition was , that , in he evening, the boys be taken in a procession accompanied by bands and lights, and celebrating relatives decked in their finest, to pray to at the generic city temple dedicated to your family deity. After returning from this visit, the ritual of Bhikshawal was done. Sisters of these boys , had a role to play during the day too, standing with pots of water and mango blossoms etc, and since my cousin sister was very young, I had a sort of key position there, with fancy new clothes, and aunts oohing and aahing about the constant changes of clothes, and lots of other cousins kind of trailing me around.

Normally , the procession in the evening was done in a highly decorated (with flowers) open car (like you see in pictures of Lord Mountbatten etc), in which the boys and their sister(s) sat, along with some semi invisible elder, to ensure there were no fights and mischief.

However, someone in their wonderful wisdom, had arranged to hire Sumitra for the event.
The cost was not earth shattering , but this was a first, and maybe the Park was looking to hire her out for short distances like this to earn some much valued revenue, , since we lived next to the park.

At 7 pm that evening, Sumitra arrived , with her mahout in his special ceremonial dress. The boys climbed in, with the expected tussle for seats. A stern look from the mahout, and a swish of Sumitra's tail made the fellows fall in line. I was about to climb in, given my special "maid-of-honor"type status, when some folks (who I consider jealous ladies to this day), wondered why my baby cousin sister wasn't part of the group. She was sent for, lifted to the top, and she sat on my lap. The band struck up some popular song, and the procession began, the musicians ahead, some kids trying to run ahead of Sumitra, followed by sauntering men and ladies in their finery, jewellery sparkling, some carrying their kids on their shoulders, some of whom simply fell asleep in the din.

You couldn't really go fast given Sumatra's ambling style
. But that gave us a lot of time to wave to people standing in their balconies , and we even saw some of our schoolmates there. This was something new for them, different from the usual decorated cars. There was huge excitement at the temple, where we got off to worship, and someone came and anointed Sumitra with vermilion and rice and fed her jaggery, and sugarcane , as she waited .

On the way back from the temple, we climbed back on to Sumitra's back, as if this was a routine thing for us. Half way home, and my little cousin sister decided she wanted to go to the loo. Immediately. There were frantic messages and gesturing, she started crying, and amidst the band, and people running back and forth, she was handed down to her uncle (one of the taller chaps). I am unaware of what happened later, but I was basically the queen of all I surveyed , as we ambled back to the house, along a different path now, again waving to folks we knew.

Back home , tired , after a day of intense activity and excitement, the boys went through their rituals, and the ceremony slowly reached a natural end.

I have great memories of the elephant Sumitra. Even after I left Pune and settled elsewhere, every time I took my children to the park on a visit to my parents, we would go see Sumitra. The rides had now stopped. The park was crowded. They weren't taking good care of the park. There was more emphasis on snacks and games. , slides, swings, seesaws, mazes etc, and the animals were slowly vanishing.

The last time I heard about an outing of Sumitra's, was in 1983, when India won the Cricket World Cup at Lords, the people stayed awake all night to know the result (because of the UK-India time difference), and someone came out riding Sumitra at dawn, ambling down the main thoroughfare, royally distributing sugar to the population on the roads, celebrating a wonderful win.

One fine day Sumitra passed away, after a lifetime spent entertaining generations of children in the Peshwe Park. Come to think of it, she spent most of her life away from her natural habitat. Never had to forage for food, like other elephants, never had the freedom to run wild in the forest, and fight with other animals, but wherever she lived , she brought great joy to an entire generation of children.

The newspapers featured the event.

Unfortunately, today elephants are remembered in connection with the concrete-marble-monstrosities of an over ambitious chief minister lady, a 1600 crore Rs ( 1 crore = 10 million) Sea Link bridge that caters to the automobile-enabled, even as others fight for their one square feet of standing space in the suburban train, as they strive to earn a daily living travelling to their place of work.

And I just found that GWB's political party in the US, has the elephant as their mascot animal.

It cant get any worse than that
. Sumitra would have shed tears through those heavily lidded artful eyes.......


  1. What a lovely post, Suranga. Brought back a lot of memories, although my memory is anything but elephantine. Feeding elephants at zoos, running away at their trumpeting noise, watching awed as one lumbered down the roads in Barrackpore....
    And now, the rather large-sized CM of UP with her elephantine ego and penchant for marble and mortar...

  2. The southern types still sport them in the temples and processions & i guess we take great pride in it ! :)

    The like of Sumitra are not rare in the memories of people who got to experience an olden day land !

    The modern day kids have to be content with watching them on National Geographic or go by and see those Marble monoliths !

    Superbly written. Brought back many memories.

  3. Beautiful post UK! Makes me wish I belonged to a small town or at least an earlier generation to experience such little pleasures in life which make wonderful memories!

  4. I really don't understand how they are allowing her to spend that much of money and put up her own statue. Enough is enough..why can't the central Govt intervene and put their foot down.

    I can picture you sitting like a princess on top of the elephant in all your glory and waving at your people.. hee hee

  5. There's a festical you should visit then:

    Trissur pooram, in kerala

  6. I could picture you ~ the ride must have given a sense of magic. At least, that's how it looked in my mind's eye. I would love to be able to ride an elephant. (Sorry that our politics have the imagine of one though..)

    When I was a little girl, my Mom collected elephant figurines. She's always loved them.

  7. Suranga, what an evocative post. But what really resonated with me is your line that Sumitra never enjoyed her natural habitat. What a sad fact that is-- someone who brought so much joy to others never had a chance to find out what being a real elephant is all about.
    I lived in Pune for a year when I went to Ranade College for my journalism degree. I remember Peshwe Park. It used to be such a quiet, peaceful city.

  8. Elephants are such huge creatures it makes me sad when they are confined to small spaces.

    I love the image of you swaying and waving on the back of Sumitra. You must have felt quite regal.

    Yes, the Republicans have the Elephant image and we poor Democrats are stuck with the Donkey. Arrrgh!

  9. I can just imagine how you felt that day. Once when I was about 14 a restaurant in my town hired someone with an elephant to give rides for a grand opening celebration and I got to ride on the elephant. I will never forget how it felt to be up there on that great creature. This brought back those memories.

  10. Elephants were a status symbol for for my great grand father who was a Zamindaar. The housing for elephant is still worshipped on the Punnah day(coronation). I myself was hiring elephants for tranporation of camps about 15 years back. A lovely post by you.

  11. Brought back memories of my time recently in Trissur - Kerala where we went for the famous Trissur Pooram. Decorations of elephants, and competition on which of them are best dressed. I clicked a lot of photographs including those of elephants bathing etc.

  12. Sucharita,Kavi,G,Vinita,WM?WC,Aleta,Vaishali,Darlene,Judy,Pradipda,NSIyer..

    Thank you for sharing my memories. And Mr Iyer, maybe you can post some pictures of Thrissur Pooram festival.....!

  13. Thank you for sharing your memories of Sumitra :)

  14. Namaskar, mi tumachya nantarchya pidhitla. Tyaamule, mi jewha Peshwe Park madhye lahaanpani gelo hoto, tewha paahileli ek paati mala aathavate..."Yethe Sumitra hattin chirvishranti ghet aahe..."