At 5.30 every morning, two cooks start preparing a special meal in a tin shed behind the Mysore Palace. Boiled lentils, a variety of vegetables, some onions, wheat, a dash of salt, and butter to top it all. This is the power-packed breakfast for the 12 elephants who will walk in the Dussehra procession on 24 October.
It’s a sight the people of Mysore wait for every year.
The cooks have been at it since 16 September. The elephants, from different forest camps in the state—essentially Nagarahole and Bandipur—had arrived in Mysore in two batches a little earlier.
They were brought from the camps in trucks, each accompanied by his/her mahout, a cleaner and their families. They all stay with the pachyderms at the specially created camp in the grounds behind the palace. Stables and temporary tin houses are set up for the nearly 40 days leading up to the final procession on the 10th day, Vijayadashami.
A strict routine is observed. The animals are fed breakfast by 6am, then taken for their first walk of the day—the 5km stretch from the palace to Bannimantap (where the Banni tree is worshipped on the day of the procession), the same route as the final day of the procession—with their mahouts atop, and a jeep with food packets for the elephants following. They are taken out for a walk again in the evening at 6pm. The practice sessions started on 16 September and will continue till the day before the procession.
“The elephants are not only fed well at the camps, where they have four feeding sessions daily, but we also make food packets with grass, jaggery, sugar-cane and coconut so they can be fed if they get exhausted when on the walk,” says D.N. Nagaraj, the veterinarian in charge of the elephants in Mysore.
Since the mahouts’ families shift base with them, a makeshift school, part of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, is set up for their children, aged 6-10, on the palace grounds. Midday meals are supplied from a government school nearby. For the last four years, Noor Fathima, a government schoolteacher, has been posted at the camp.
Classes start at 9am and go on till 1pm. “When these children come here, they miss two months of class back home, so this school serves as a way for them to not miss out on studies. We give them letters so that they can go back and join the same class,” says Fathima, who teaches English, math and Kannada. Volunteers from different organizations teach the children yoga and dance.
The preparations gather steam as the days roll by. On 17 October, the elephants were exposed to gunfire during the trial walk, to ensure that the 21-gun salute on the day of the procession doesn’t startle them. They were also exposed to the smell of gunpowder and the smoke that results from firing. “When there are animals involved, we are additionally cautious,” says K.L. Sudheer, police commissioner, Mysore, who is also deputy special officer for the Dussehra celebrations.
During the daily practice walks, the elephants are accompanied by 32 horses from the Mysore Mounted Police. Several tableaus, dancers and performers will join them on the day of the procession.
This time, the honour of carrying the golden howdah, which weighs 750kg and has an idol of the goddess Chamundeshwari inside it, may not go to 54-year-old Balarama, who has carried it for 13 years. He’s lost weight—and may have to cede the honour to Arjuna, the 52-year-old male elephant, from the Balle elephant camp at Nagarahole National Park who has been taking part in the procession for 20 years.
Its mahout, Dodda Masti, says the two months they spend in Mysore have come to seem like the culmination of his work throughout the year. It will seem even more so if Arjuna is chosen to carry the howdah.