Life in the woods is bliss
Feature Articles, Mysore Dasara 2018

Life in the woods is bliss

October 7, 2018

Caught between humdrum of city life and forest serenity, mahouts and kavadis yearn to return to the jungles

By M.T. Yogesh Kumar

Naavu Kaadina Makkalu…Kaade namma jeeva…Kaade namma Prapancha…

These are the lines sung by women and children of Mahouts and Kavadis. And as they sing the song, elders nod their head in unison. Roughly translated to English, these lines mean “We are the children of forests, forest is our life and forest is our world.

Yes. Life of these forest dwellers fully depends on woods and elephants. A mahout’s and a kavadi’s life revolves around their elephants as they eat sleep and wake up with elephants, and even plan their day according to the elephant’s need. Deep inside the jungles they develop a strong bond with each other and there are many instances where they have saved each other’s lives when in distress.

A couple of mahout and kavadi families have come to Mysuru as part of Dasara 2018 as elephants are the festival’s major attraction. There are 12 elephants — Arjuna, Gopi, Vikrama, Dhananjaya, Varalakshmi, Chaitra, Balarama, Abhimanyu, Kaveri, Vijaya, Drona and Prashantha — housed inside the Mysore Palace and they are pampered to the hilt, in the run up to the Vijayadashami festival.

While mahouts and kavadis work closely with the elephants, their wives and other family members do the silent work cooking for their husbands and taking care of their children. The daily routine of mahouts and kavadis involve feeding the elephant, cleaning nails and feet, giving a bath and a scrub with copra and coconut shells.

The job of their wives is to ensure that their husbands are not hungry while performing their duties. The breakfast they cook is typically rice gruel along with spicy chutney made out of leaves, tubers and roots, burnt chilli and tomatoes. Over 50 families have arrived from Dubare, Moorkal in Kodagu district and other forest areas. They have been housed in makeshift tents in the Palace premises and have been provided with nutritious food items including meat, fish and vegetables.

NOT A CHILD’S PLAY THIS: A child feeding green grass to a tusker.

Most of mahouts and kavadis belong to Jenu Kuruba tribes, who eke out living by honey gathering and other small-time odd jobs. However, of late, their age-old profession of honey gathering is threatened by mites that invade beehives. They also sell small forest produces and practice agriculture.

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Jenu Kuruba community members are forest inhabitants since ages. From the days of Maharajas, the community members are largely skilled in training elephants. Their talent was widely utilised for elephant taming operations and capturing rogue elephants that stray into human habitats.  Other than tribals, some Muslim community families are also working as mahouts and kavadis. As most of them are attached to the Forest Department, they are involved in timber works and clearing roads of tree branches. Mahouts and Kavadis wake up at 5 am regularly and they take care of elephants round-the-clock, while their wives cook for their husbands and take care of their children.

TIME TO UNWIND AFTER A DAY’S HARD WORK: Mahouts and kavadis play cricket and volleyball for some relaxation and socialising.

Humdrum of city life

Sharing their city experiences with Star of Mysore, mahouts and kavadis say that life inside a jungle is comfortable amidst serene and lush green environment when compared to humdrum of city life. The glitter and glamour of city life does not enthuse them and they are experiencing homesickness and are desperately waiting for the Dasara to get over so that they can once again be amidst green environs.

The sound of vehicles and their shrill horns are deafening and scorching heat has made their city life difficult. “There is nothing to beat the wild sounds of jungle and the musical chirping of birds,” they say.

Vinu, a mahout who is taking care of Howdah Elephant Arjuna said that that his life always revolves around elephant as he eats, sleeps and wakes up with it and even plans his day according to the elephant’s routine whenever he comes to Mysuru for Dasara.

“There is no problem for mahouts and kavadis when the elephants are in forest but we have to take extra care and caution whenever the elephants come to city. Our job and life will be at risk if Dasara elephants go out of control in city which is usually flooded by visitors and people,” he said.

PHOTO OP: Future mahouts try on uniforms.

Restricted living

Vasanth, who is taking care of elephant Abhimanyu, said that he has been in this profession since 20 years. The Department had arranged a training programme for him at Indonesia. He said that he was involved in various rogue elephant capturing operation in Maharashtra and across Karnataka. “It is always a tough task to take care of Abhimanyu as it is very arrogant and gets angry frequently,” he said.

FUTURE CHAMPS: Children play shuttle near the tent school.

“In forests, there is nothing to fear. Here we go out to the city as our children force us. We return immediately as we do not know which vehicle will hit us and when,” another mahout adds. Restricted living inside the Palace premises for those who have always enjoyed free movement inside the forests have made them restless.

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Comforts by District Administration 

The District Administration has taken a lot of measures to keep mahouts, kavadis and their family members in good humour providing them with nutritious food, opening tent school, Panchakarma Unit, library for children during their stay in Palace. Children are allowed to play volleyball, carom and other games during their leisure.

DOLL HOUSE: Children of forest dwellers treated with doll performance.

Tent and library school

As part of the educational promotion activities for mahouts, kavadis and their families, the Department of Public Instruction is running Tent and Library School and this is the 13th year of such an initiative. As many as 30 students are studying in this school from class 1 to 8 this year and the government is providing free textbooks and uniforms to them.

A tent library has also been set up to inculcate the habit of reading among children. The Department of Public Libraries and City Central Library have set up tent school. The library is reaching out to children and enlightening them on various subjects. Over 2,000 books, mostly containing attractive illustrations, story books, and biographies are made available. Even newspapers and children’s magazines can be borrowed free of cost.

READING TIME: Children spend some quality time at tent library.

Focus on Health  

Taking care of the health, the authorities are conducting yoga classes for mahouts, kavadis and their children. The practice of teaching yoga began three years ago as most mahouts and kavadis were suffering from back pain, rheumatic pain and mental pressure. Simple tips are being given to them for a better health and enabling them to come out of addictions like smoking and drinking.

AIMING FOR THE QUEEN: Tribal youth play carrom – a game of skill.

Panchakarma Unit

Like in the last seven years, this year too, the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) has opened Panchakarma unit to treat forest dwellers.

From a small ailment like common cold to headache and body ache, these forest dwellers use medicines that are locally available inside the forests. Common ailments, including joint pain, leg pain, back-ache, lung and other health disorders, are treated. This apart, body massage is provided for mahouts and kavadis to rejuvenate after a tiring day of work and training.


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