Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Balarama in a book

The Dasara elephants had never had it so good. Even as they are being fed royally and taken excellent care of, animal lovers and environmentalists have raised a hue and cry about the huge weight in the form of the 750 kilogram golden howdah  that the main elephant has to carry on Vijayadashami during the Dasara celebrations in Mysore.
The obvious choice of the Dasara committee would be to permit Balarama, the veteran 52-year-old elephant to carry the magnificent howdah.  
Few know that apart from being a celebrity, Balarama is one of the few elephants to have an entire book written about him. He is also one of the few animals having an active fan following in Mysore and even a Wikipedia entry.
Balarama now is kept in the stables behind the Mysore Palace and he is being readied to carry the howdah. Balarama is also the star of the book, “Balarama: A Royal elephant”, written by Ted and Betsy Lewin.
The book is also illustrated by the authors who are from America. The story of how the book came to be written makes for interesting reading.
Ted and Betsy Lewin visited Mysore in 1990s before and after Balarama became the “howdah elephant” to create this children’s book that was first published in 2009.
When the Lewins first came to Mysore, they were told that the howdah would be carried by Drona. They visited the elephant camp in the Karapur, where they were told about royal elephants, one of whom, Drona, the Ambari elephant, who carries the statue of the goddess Chamundeshwari in a procession during Vijayadashami to signal the end of Dasara. After meeting  imposing Drona, the Lewins decide to return to India  to see the festival for themselves and write about it.
When they returned, they were told that Drona had died and that Balarama would carry the howdah. Though Balarama became part of the Dasara procession since 1994, he started carrying the howdah in 1999. That was the year Drina, who had carried the howdah for 18 years, died of electrocution.
The Lewins then wrote and illustrated the children’s book. The narrative is in story form, and people and readers can learn about Dasara and elephants. There is enough background information about elephants, the royal elephants during the Dasara and a section on glossary and pronunciation guide.
Balarama weighed 4,900 kilograms last year at the time of the procession. This year, when he arrived in Mysore from his Nagarhole forest camp on September 16, his weight was 4,550 kgs. Not many noticed that Balarama stopped several times during the procession last year and had to be fed repeatedly and coaxed into finishing the walk.
Balarama’s mahout is Thimma, and he has been with pachyderm for 15 years and its mahout for an year. In case Balarama is unfit, Arjuna, who too is 52-years-old, will carry the howdah.
Apart from Balarama and Arjuna, two other elephants-Gajendra and Abhimanyu- are also being trained to carry the howdah. How? By making each elephant carry sandbags weighing 750 kgs and walking them through the streets of Mysore.   
However, the decision on which elephant will carry the howdah is taken just thirty minutes before the start of the procession.
On Vijayadashami, the procession starts at 4 p.m.,  and this is two hours after the Chief Minister participates in the puja. While the elephants manage the  five km route in about one-and-a-half hours during their practice marches, on the day of the procession, it will take them more than three hours.
The team stashes food at intervals on the route to allow the elephants to replenish themselves. The food packets are prepared on Ayudha puja day (a day before the procession) and they are  kept at four stops on the Dasara route. The stash comprises of  jaggery, dry grass, green grass, coconut and sugar cane.
The howdah elephant’s packet has glucose added to it, while a jeep that follows the elephant is also stocked with food.
The diet of the elephants is strictly monitored. Every morning and evening they are fed a special meal of lentils, boiled rice, wheat and butter apart from the grass, jaggery and coconut which they  are fed during the day.


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