my last evening in India

Oh, what a night! It started with a 60-minute walk-about with two elephants dressed to the nines and hundreds of devotees. It was like being in a pageant. Lakshmi is mature beyond her years. She wore a jeweled headpiece and matching blanket and carried three costumed riders. Even though she is still just a kid, she never once fidgeted or acted her age, unlike her little sister Bishnu who showed her boredom after the first few minutes.

The procession made a complete round of the temple compound, stopping four times — or was it five? — I really can’t remember. The hordes of chanting devotees were mesmerized by the bejeweled elephants. Security guards held a rope to keep the crowd, which resembled a school of fish moving in unison around Lakshmi and Bishnu, back. All I can say is that the elephants did not hurt anyone and the devotees were impressed.

As soon as the procession was over I was off to the Kolkata airport. The three-hour drive was a bit of a nail biter because the driver could hardly stay awake. Each time he nearly drove into oncoming traffic or slowed to a snail’s pace with drivers frantically honking behind, I suggested he stop. We did stop…three times. The last time I thought I must be dreaming because three old men rushed the car and tried to open the doors. I was a lot of help — all I could say was ”Hey, what’s going on?” – and apparently my driver was as surprised as me because he quickly reached over to the passenger side and locked the door. As it turns out, the men were hitchhiking and thought we had stopped to pick them up. The men walked away with puzzled looks on their faces. But I was thankful because the surprise woke my driver up a bit.

I have never been happier to see an airport in my life but the night was young as far as adventures were concerned. I had not printed out my plane tickets because…well, because I don’t carry a printer around with me. I had made the reservation online and had no access to a printer. When I approached the airport entrance marked “departures,” the security guard would not let me pass. I needed to present a printout of my ticket. He directed me to the outside ticket counter, which unfortunately had just closed and would not open again for another five hours. I really did not want to wait outside the terminal along with the seedy looking cab drivers, diesel fumes and stares.

After seeing that the security guard was not swayed by my entreaties, I did what any red-blooded American woman would do: I asked to see the manager. I don’t know if it was the traditional Indian dress I was wearing or the fact that several of the before-mentioned cab drivers had gathered around us staring, but the manager listened to my situation and instructed the security guard to allow me inside.
Feeling triumphant, I pulled my luggage through the door and found a comfortable seat along with many other weary travelers. I was enthusiastically greeted by the billions of mosquitoes that apparently call the departure lounge at the Kolkata Airport home. One should always maintain a sense of humor when traveling.

Lakshmipriya and Bishnu

I have spent the past several days observing Lakshmipriya and Bishnupriya, two young temple elephants living at an ashram in Mayapur, India. Thanks to the dedication of Hrimati Dasi, a lifetime devotee of the temple, these two elephants are living a relatively good life. Few facilities worldwide meet the standard held here.

The area is fenced, mahouts are mature and experienced, a variety of quality foods are grown on-grounds and bought from local farmers, there is access to good vets and, most important, a welfare committee exists to deal with problems and ensure the well-being of the elephants.

Being the only elephants in the area makes them somewhat local celebrities. Word spreads quickly when they are on their daily walk. “Hati, Hati” echoes through the village as children come from all directions hoping to get a glimpse of these revered animals.

The younger elephant Bishnupriya is around four years old and quite spunky. I bet the fresh cut oat hay she is given each day contributes to her feistiness. Lakshmipriya, her older “sister,” has a calming effect on her and never strays far from her side. Together they walk without urgency down the roads and dirt paths that stretch out into the countryside, sampling a variety of trees, shrubs and grass.

Today Bishnu’s mahout teased her when she failed to sample the fruit of a tree he had led her to. “What kind of elephant are you?” he asked. “I brought you to this tree and you don’t want the fruit?” Bishnu expresses herself enthusiastically with a short trumpet blast whenever any opportunity arises. Both she and Lakshmipriya are quick-witted and very curious.

The mahouts for the most part are patient but they expect full compliance. They exert their dominance over the elephants using a small bamboo stick instead of an elephant hook, while Hrimati continues to work with them to soften their ways. When not out on a walk or in their pool, the elephants are secured on a long chain in their forest.

If I could make only one change for Lakshmipriya and Bishnu, it would be to add an electric fence inside the security fence (which is not elephant proof) so the girls can be off chains during the day. With that improvement, I would say this is one of the better elephant facilities that I have seen.