One-woman tusk force: A Wknd interview with Parbati Barua - Hindustan Times
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One-woman tusk force: A Wknd interview with Parbati Barua

ByRudraneil Sengupta
Feb 23, 2024 06:14 PM IST

She grew up taming wild elephants in the forests. Now 70, she is the first Indian woman mahout to be awarded a Padma Shri.

When she first opened her eyes to the world, she saw an elephant.

Parbati Barua with one of her elephants in Chhattisgarh in 2003. Even today, she prefers to spend time with her long-time elephant companion Lakshmimala.‘I visit her almost every week,’ she says. (Getty Images) PREMIUM
Parbati Barua with one of her elephants in Chhattisgarh in 2003. Even today, she prefers to spend time with her long-time elephant companion Lakshmimala.‘I visit her almost every week,’ she says. (Getty Images)

For most people, that would seem apocryphal, but when Parbati Barua says it, it rings true. It’s a tale that her father, the last prince of Gauripur, told her often. “When I was born, on the family estate, there were 45 elephants living there too,” she says. “There was more or less always one in sight.”

There are other stories, like the one about how she learnt to sit astride a baby elephant before she could walk. How she helped feed and bathe them when she only stood as tall as their knees.

No matter what stage of Barua’s audacious life one looks at, one finds an elephant present.

‘I am now in Manas (National Park in Assam), helping with an elephant calf who is not well,” says the wildlife conservationist, speaking over the telephone.

By 15, Barua would grow to be the first woman mahout or elephant trainer on record in India. She would be the subject of a book and BBC documentary, Queen of the Elephants (1995), written by Mark Shand (incidentally the brother of Camilla Parker Bowles).

Barua, 70, is now the first Indian woman mahout to be awarded a Padma Shri.

Her family didn’t just own elephants, and that’s probably where it all began. For generations, the Baruas of Gauripur ran an elephant-trapping business. They captured and tamed wild elephants and sold them to other royal families, to wealthy Indian landowners, and to the British.

Her father, Prakritish Chandra Barua, had a reputation for understanding these animals more deeply than most mahouts, and being able to develop strong bonds with them.

Parbati remembers spending large parts of her childhood deep in forests in Assam, Bengal and Bihar, where he would set up camp for six months at a time, with his four wives and a large retinue of staff, including a private tutor for his nine children.

Then, in 1970, the privy purse was abolished, the family lost its royal status and its income, and Barua Sr turned his focus on the elephant business as a livelihood. He began to train Parbati as his apprentice. Like him, she had shown a rare ability to connect with the lumbering giants.

“I learnt everything from my father, he was my guru,” she says.

One of the things she learnt was the ancient, dangerous skill of mela shikar (hunting in the open, without a stockade). Here, the only tool available to the mahout is a lasso.

Less than 5 ft tall, thin and wiry, Barua would sit astride her elephant, stalking a wild herd for days as she chose her target — typically any young calf with a propensity to stray — and waited for her moment. As soon as the calf had wandered out of sight of its mother, she would signal her elephant, with the pressure of her toes behind its ears, to silently rush up to it. She would then aim her lasso around its neck and lead it away. Speed was vital; she had to do all this and be gone before the wild elephants noticed and charged.

In this way, she captured 14 calves.

“During the capture, time would stop, I had no sense of anything else,” she says. “Afterwards, I would feel sad about taking a child away from its mother.”

***

In 1977, the capture and sale of elephants was banned in India, and Barua’s focus shifted, to “rescuing elephants from people, and people from elephants,” as she puts it.

Long before wildlife conservation was defined, she points out, trappers had worked to maintain healthy populations of the animal that was their livelihood, and worked to mitigate conflict. “Some of what I was doing was already conservation, it just wasn’t called that,” she says. “I knew what the elephants wanted, understood their behaviour, and I could communicate with them. The shift came naturally.”

There has been plenty to do, as elephants become increasingly cornered, losing land area, access to food and to traditional migratory routes. And as the endangered species — there are only 28,000 left in the wild in India — was brought into conflict with humans.

On average, 500 people and 100 wild elephants are killed each year in face-offs in farms and villages.

“Despite the odds, things are getting better,” Barua says. “There has been a slight improvement in the quality of forests, more awareness of the need to protect migration routes. There is also more empathy in people about the elephant’s plight, and more awareness about how things can be done to help both humans and elephants in a non-violent way.”

Through the worst of the conflict, in the ’80s and ’90s, when new laws were still taking effect and enforcement methods were being framed, she was often called upon to help ease herds away from human settlements in Assam, West Bengal, Bihar.

“The situation then was dire,” she says. “Man is very aggressive, very badly behaved. We see only our losses, but not the losses we inflict. We destroy without a thought. Animals never break the law of nature. A tiger kills a deer only because he has to eat. We kill for no reason.”

Riding on her long-time companion Lakshmimala, she and other mahout-elephant duos would guide the animals back into forests, or past disruptions and back onto migratory routes. Sometimes she would spend weeks allowing a herd of up to 50 to familiarise themselves with her and her fellow mahouts and their elephants, so they would trust her to guide them to safety

At 70, Barua has slowed down a bit. She doesn’t intervene directly any more, but trains mahouts and other conservationists in the ways of the elephant, often in association with the wildlife departments of West Bengal and Assam.

She shies away from human company, she says, preferring the company of Lakshmimala, whom she captured 50 years ago. They have lived apart lately, ever since Barua settled in Guwahati in 2010. Lakshmimala now lives on the outskirts of Manas National Park, about 130 km away.

“I visit her almost every week,” Barua says. “We have given each other all our time, summer, monsoon and winter. I love her more than any other being. There is no language for this attachment. It is all love.”

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