Raja Prabhat Chandra Barua’s basic idea of an ecofriendly approach led to his son Lalji, and later his granddaughter, Parbati to become legendary elephant tamers
When Pramathesh Barua’s film ‘Mukti’ released in 1937, people of Bengal were awed by a jungle scene where the protagonist (Barua himself) was seen moving around with a magnificent tusker.
In one scene, he steps up on its tusks holding the trunk while the elephant effortlessly hauls him on top of its head.
It was Jung Bahadur‑ one of the best elephants that the Baruas had in their stable.
Jung Bahadur was brave, kind hearted and friendly.
I heard in my childhood, that Jung Bahadur never budged an inch if an angry tiger charged towards him during the shikar(hunting) expeditions, with the hunters perched on his back on a howda (an wooden structure with seats).
It was the most unnerving thing in the world, to be looking at an angry charging tiger and yet keeping oneself composed!
But Jung Bahadur always remained rock solid, because he knew that there were people sitting on top of him. He cared for them!
When Raja Bahadur (Prabhat Chandra Barua) named his second son Prakritish (literally meaning the ‘God of Nature’) Barua, he could have never imagined that one day that son would become the legendary jungle man, or the ‘elephant man’ if we can call him.
Fondly known as ‘Lalji’, he took up an unusual profession – catching elephants.
As a family member, I had the privilege of visiting his elephant catching camps, not once, but twice. These were mostly arranged during winters, and on both those occasions, they coincided with our winter holidays in school.
So there we were, a bunch of excited cousins, spending the most exciting holidays of our life that one could think of!
The camps were laid deep inside the forest but always bordering a mountain river, primarily for the availability of water.
There were bamboo platforms, the size of a large room, and covered with a sloping tarpaulin or thatched roof.
The platforms would be topped with layers of soft hay with mattresses covering almost the whole area.
In my memory, those were the coziest beds and the most adventurous bedrooms that one can imagine.
Usually a camp consisted of a dozen or more such cottages in an open space inside the forest.
The sloping roof extended beyond the platform and almost touched the earth‑maybe with a gap of two feet from the ground.
This meant that any wild animal could sneak inside and grab one of us. It was, at least, within the realm of possibilities.
But strangely enough, that never happened. There were large logs that were lit up every evening after sundown.
We would sit encircling the burning logs while Lalji captivated us with anecdotes of his jungle adventures.
We waited hungrily for our share of roasted potatoes, pigeons or ducks, which were being prepared on the same log fire, while the older family members enjoyed their sips of the hard stuff, mostly Bhutanese rum.
Interspersed with Lalda’s (short form of Lal Dadu, as we called him) narrations, some mahouts would play the Dotara(a four-stringed musical instrument) and sing folk songs.
The darkness around would wake up the nocturnal life. We could hear the Nightjar (a nocturnal bird) or the occasional Barking Deer and the cacophony of the cicadas.
Children were not allowed to participate in the elephant catching expeditions.
There were two systems‑mainly Khedda or Mela-shikar, the second involved lassoing.
But lassoing was a dangerous game of capturing a single elephant by throwing the lasso around its neck (they would instinctively retract the trunk when the noose struck it) and eventually closing in from both sides with some already tamed elephants.
I was lucky to have witnessed how a captured wild elephant would be trained and tamed.
It’s truly intriguing how a beast that weighed more than a tonne (adults weigh between three to four tonnes), would eventually calm down and start responding within a month’s time!
Although there is a raging debate about the brutality and cruelty of this system of ‘breaking the mind of an elephant’, I would like to believe that the taming method we witnessed in Lalji’s camp was far more humane and responsible*.
My uncle Munindra Narayan Barua, had Bijoysingh, another handsome member of the species we were very fond of. Once we were crossing the Deosiri River on uncle’’s very capable 4WD American Willys Jeep and it got stuck on the sand beneath. Bijoysingh was summoned and he effortlessly pushed the loaded car to safety!
The mahouts would light a flaming torch, a mashal, and gently rub it on the skin of the elephant, at the same time singing songs to it.
The idea was to familiarize the animal with fire, which they were instinctively scared of.
Lalji’s elephants became family members, with their individual temperaments, whims and likes always taken care of by their keepers.
Like all other species, baby elephants are incredibly playful and loving. They would come running and nudge and sometimes push you down in a loving gesture, merrily oblivious of their tremendous weight and power!
We all knew that Lalji understood the language of elephants –well almost!
The most remarkable elephants that belonged to the Baruas were Jung Bahadur, Pratap Singh, Mayaloo, Indraprasad, Sibji and many others.
My uncle Munindra Narayan Barua, had Bijoysingh, another handsome member of the species we were very fond of.
Once we were crossing the Deosiri River on uncle’s very capable 4WD American Willys Jeep and it got stuck on the sand beneath.
Bijoysingh was summoned and he effortlessly pushed the loaded car to safety, without batting an eyelid!
Parbati Barua, daughter of Lalji, was born and brought up among elephants.
She continued to learn, live and love these gentle beasts and carry on her father’s passion, becoming a legend herself.
When Mark Shand (brother of Camilla Parker-Bowles, now Prince Charles’s wife) came to India and met Parbati, he was awestruck by this unassuming Indian lady, whose knowledge and empathy towards Asian elephants were unparalleled.
He wrote a volume ‘Queen of the Elephants’ and the BBC filmed it.
*Disclaimer – Elephant domestication is a highly debatable issue and the author’s intention is not to glorify or justify such acts, but to recount his own experience. These are incidents when such sport were entirely acceptable as part of the social life of royalty and did not carry any social stigma or violation of law. PETA was not even born then!
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Rishi Barua is an eminent sculptor, painter and photographer, currently teaching as a professor at Kala Bhavan, Vishva Bharati University, Shantiniketan, West Bengal. Rishi and his wife, Sheema Barua, also a renowned painter, live in Shantiniketan. Rishi is a scion of the illustrious Gauripur Barua princely family.