The waters of the Tunga gleam as the sun rises to greater heights with every passing minute. Birds stoop trying to snatch an early morning catch from the gurgling river. The ringing of a bell breaks the silence of the surroundings. It heralds the arrival of the first elephant. Accompanied by their mahouts, 15 more elephants follow soon.
I was at the Sakrebayalu Elephant Camp which is home to sixteen elephants. Visitors to the camp can get a close look at the elephants and the enduring work of their dedicated mahouts. While some elephants born and bred at the camp, the others were sent there to curb their erratic behavior.
For most of the mahouts, the profession has been a family tradition. They have taken up this risky and challenging job after learning the ‘tricks of the trade’ from their ancestors.
A typical work day begins before the break of dawn and ends long after the sun sets. The routine does not change despite the scorching summer heat or the incessant monsoons. Each elephant is looked after by two mahouts who are on the job round the clock. The elephants are housed at the camp until midday after which they are left free in the forest. In the wee hours of the morning, the mahouts head out to the forest in search of their elephants. The dung, the trails of the elephants footprints, and the knowledge of their favourite spots in the forest provides clues for the mahouts to locate their elephants.
The entire operation involves walking for several kilometers in the rugged terrain each day, every day of the year. Among other things, the job demands physical fitness. Jalil, an experienced mahout narrated some of his experiences with the pachyderms. “Although we are Muslims, we don’t wear slippers because the elephant is a God of the Hindus”, he remarked, emphasizing the fact the mahouts walk bare foot in the forest. “We respect the elephant as our God too and pray to it every day”, he said referring to the custom where the elephant is taken to the house of the mahout and fed with freshly steamed rice every morning.
Between 8am and 9am every morning, the elephants are brought to the river for a wash. Once their thirst is satiated, the elephants lie down in the river ready for to be scrubbed and bathed by their respective mahouts. 11am is the time to treat the elephants with some goodies. They are initially fed with twigs and leaves, followed by hay bundled with a mixture of rice, chunks of coconut, jaggery and salt. A prescribed dose of vitamins and tonics are given for wellness. This is followed by a head massage with castor oil to keep their body cool in the hot summer months. It’s then time for another dip in the river to quench their thirst before they are taken back to their natural habitat. According to the mahouts, the elephants feast on the bamboo shoots growing abundantly in the neighbouring forest. The mahouts return home for lunch and then head back into the forest to oversee the activities of the elephants. The mahouts keep a stringent vigil on the elephants until nightfall to ensure that they do not wreck havoc in the neighbouring villages.
Each elephant has a specific schedule and is given an extensive training at the camp. In a unique language which is a concoction of Bengali and Urdu, the mahouts can make the elephants do a lot of things including greeting visitors, blessing them and walking with a bucket of water. The stunts like standing on two feet and hopping on three feet are astounding.
Elephants’ Day which is an initiative by the Wildlife Division of the Forest Department, is a unique annual event held in October. The elephants of the Sakrebayalu Camp are adorned with colourful embellishments and perform various feats. They vie with each other in races and play games of volleyball and football.
The verdant landscape of the Shimoga District makes it a popular tourist destination in Karnataka. It is resplendent with plush hills, picturesque valleys and splendid waterfalls. The Sakrebayalu Elephant Camp is one of the many attractions on offer to the visitors to Shimoga.
Set in a quaint village which is bereft of any commercialization, the camp is a refreshing change from usual tourist hotspots. The charming elephants, their friendly mahouts and the serene surroundings will make a visit to Sakrebayalu a memorable one.
If you are driving to Shimoga from Bangalore, drive along NH4 to towards Tumkur. Take the Tumkur bypass and follow SH 206 (Gubbi Road) to reach Shimoga via Tiptur and Arasikere.
Buses and trains ply between Shimoga and Bangalore. Sakrebayalu is about 12Kms from Shivamogga on the way to Tirthahalli. Auto rickshaws can be hired for a round trip from Shivamogga town.
Shimoga town has accommodation to suit all pockets. There are many hotels near the bus stand. Hotel Jewel Rock is one of the better known hotels. With clean rooms, a good vegetarian restaurant and ample parking space it is a good choice for simple accommodation. The room tariff ranges from Rs 600/- to Rs 1000/-.
At the Sakrebayalu Elephant Camp visitors can get an elephant ride at Rs 75/- per person. A boat ride in the Tunga River can be a good way to spot the many winged visitors.
The Gajanur Dam which is at a distance of about 2Kms from the camp is another tourist attraction. The Tavarekoppa Lion and Tiger Safari and the Shivappa Nayaka Palace are places of interest in Shimoga. The Mandegadde Bird Sanctuary is at a distance of 15Kms from the camp. Jog Falls is the most popular tourist spot in the Shimoga District.
This article was published in The Hindu on the 9th of August 2009. Below is the link to the online version of the article.