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Mysore: Balarama is a veteran of the stables behind the Mysore Palace, and a bit of a celebrity.

The elephant’s fame hasn’t come easy. This star of Mysore has carried the golden howdah that weighs 750kg in the yearly Dussehra procession for 13 years. Known for his gentle temperament and patience, Balarama has an active fan following in Mysore, a Wikipedia entry and even a book on him, titled Balarama: A Royal Elephant, which is written and illustrated by Ted and Betsy Lewin. The American writers and illustrators visited Mysore in 1990s before and after Balarama became the howdah elephant to create this children’s book that was published in 2009.

Part of the Dussehra procession since 1994, he started carrying the howdah in 1999, the year after Drona, the elephant who had been carrying the howdah for 18 years, died of electrocution. This year though, word has it that Balarama may not be fit enough to carry the howdah, and Mysore’s favourite elephant could be replaced by Arjuna on 24 October.

Balarama weighed 4,900kg last year at the time of the procession. This year, when he arrived in Mysore from his Nagarhole forest camp on 16 September, he was down to 4,550kg.

“He also stopped several times during the procession last year and had to be fed repeatedly and coaxed into finishing the walk," says D.N. Nagaraj, the veterinarian who is responsible for the upkeep of the 12 elephants—eight male, four female—that will take part in the procession.

Thimma, who’s been Balarama’s mahout for a year and has worked with the elephant for more than 15 years, has faith in his charge though. Balarama can do it this year as well, he says.

“He lost weight in the forest last year as well, but gained it here," says Thimma, who will be the mahout of the howdah elephant this year, too.

Arjuna, who is 52-years-old, was to have originally taken over Drona’s role, but was passed over after he trampled a mahout to death in 1997. Forest officials say the elephant is much calmer now.

He’s not the only alternative that will be available. “At any given point, we train four elephants with 750kg sandbags, which is the weight of the howdah," says Dr Nagaraj.

The final call can be taken as late as half an hour before the procession begins. Apart from Arjuna, the others being trained for the responsibility are Gajendra and Abhimanyu, who has been pulling the musical cart, another key element in the procession, for more than 15 years. Arjuna, from the Balle camp in Nagarhole, currently weighs 5,500kg and is 2.8m tall. The extra tonne of weight over Balarama makes him that much stronger in the reckoning.

Assuming he continues in his role, what does Balarama have to do on 24 October, Vijayadasami day? The elephant is decorated with flowers and jewels, and carries the golden howdah in which an idol of Chamundeshwari is placed. A convoy of elephants, horses and camels is preceded by dance troupes and musical bands. The procession starts from Mysore Palace and ends at Bannimantap, where the Banni tree is worshipped. Chamundeshwari is the family goddess of the Wodeyars, rulers of the erstwhile kingdom of Mysore.

For a month-and-a-half before the procession on the 10th day of Dussehra, all the elephants walk the 5km route every day, the hot and dry weather only making things more difficult. “This weather is tough even for us with our shoes. Elephants are black and have thick skin with no sweat glands," says the vet.

On the day itself, the procession starts at 4pm, 2 hours after the chief minister starts the puja. While the elephants hit the 5km mark in about one-and-a-half hours during their practice marches, on the day of the procession, it will take them more than three hours because they follow the dancers and other entertainment, including a tableau pageant.

The team stashes food at intervals to allow the elephants to replenish themselves.

“We make food packets on Ayudha puja day (a day before the procession) that are kept at four stops on the way," says Dr Nagaraj. This consists of green grass, dry grass, jaggery, coconut and sugar cane, the last of which is meant to keep the elephants from getting thirsty. The howdah elephant’s packet has glucose added to it, while a trailing jeep is also stocked with food.

The elephants’ diet, starting the day they reach Mysore from their forest camps, is monitored strictly. Every morning and evening they are fed a special meal of lentils, boiled rice, wheat and butter. This is apart from the grass, jaggery and coconut they are fed during the day.

Forest officials may not have decided whether Balarama will carry the howdah, but he evokes great affection among the people of Mysore as they watch him plodding through the streets along with his fellow elephants on their practice marches. “He follows the idea of slow and steady wins the race," says local resident M.N. Narayana Murthy with a smile as he watches the elephants walk past.

Dr Nagaraj says: “Even when Drona was here, they loved him. That is how it is with long-standing associations." He looks at Balarama and pays tribute to his fortitude and grace. “Maybe he deserves a year of rest... He is a soft elephant."

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