Unbroken Dasara Jumbo Tradition
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Unbroken Dasara Jumbo Tradition

October 14, 2023

By M.T. Yogesh Kumar

The tradition and legacy of elephants in Dasara, one of India’s most celebrated and cherished festivals, hold a profound place in the hearts of the people and the history of the region. These magnificent creatures have played an integral role in the Dasara festivities of Mysuru for centuries.

The tradition of using elephants in Dasara traces its roots back to the time of the Vijayanagara Empire’s rule in the South. After the decline of the Empire, the Wadiyars of Mysore embraced this tradition and it has continued for over four centuries. The history of Dasara elephants is steeped in grandeur and royal patronage.

The elephants that grace the Dasara procession are not merely animals; they are revered symbols of grace and dignity. Bedecked with opulent decorations, including the Golden Howdah, the lead elephant proudly carries the presiding deity, Goddess Chamundeshwari, in a grand procession that captures the imagination of millions who gather to witness this spectacle.

Biligiri elephant leading the last Dasara procession of the Mysore Maharaja.

Legendary status of elephants

Several elephants have risen to legendary status due to their exceptional roles in Dasara festivities. The lineage of these elephants is marked by names like Jayamarthanda, Balarama, Airavata, Drona and others, each celebrated for their unique personalities and contributions to the festival.

Dasara’s history can be traced back to 1610 when it began in Srirangapatna during the reign of Raja Wadiyar. This year’s celebration marks the 414th anniversary of this cherished tradition. From its inception to the present day, the elephant teams have consistently fulfilled their roles with great success, maintaining the trust placed in them. Each year, a team of 10 to 14 elephants participates in the festivities.

Balarama, who was one of the most loved Dasara elephants.

Jayamarthanda carried Ambari 45 times

In the royal tradition, the Jayamarthanda elephant was the first to carry the kings in the Jumboo Savari procession within the 750-kg Golden Howdah (Ambari). In fact, it has carried the Golden Howdah 45 times, a record of sorts and an unbeaten one. To honour this, the main entrance gate of the Mysore Palace has been named as the Jayamarthanda Gate.

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 The Biligiri elephant was the last to carry the kings as Monarchy faded away and Democracy began, leaving an indelible mark with its imposing presence. It is worth noting that Biligiri, one of the tallest and biggest elephants in the Mysuru region, played a significant role.

Drona, who carried the Golden Howdah 18 times.

Some elephants have gained fame for carrying the Golden Howdah during the Jumboo Savari, endearing themselves to the royal dynasty. To honour their significance, an elephant gateway has been constructed at the Mysore Palace, enjoying the same privilege as the Durbar Hall of the Palace.

Elephants like Jayarama and Balarama have had gates named after them at the Palace entrance. Likewise, Vijayabahaddur, Nanjunda, Ramaprasad, Motilal and Sundararaj have left an indelible mark on the festivities.

Cinematic impact

The significance of these elephants extends beyond the festivities and into the cinematic realm. For instance, the elephant Airavata, known for its remarkable height and size, gained worldwide recognition when featured in the movie ‘The Elephant Boy,’ where 7-year-old Mysuru boy Sabu Dastagir started to take care of elephants along with his father.

Sabu Dastagir followed in his father’s footsteps as a mahout in the stables of the Maharaja of Mysore, from where he was recruited for the Korda brothers’ first empire film, ‘The Elephant Boy,’ released in 1937, when he was barely 13.

Sabu Dastagir on Airavata in ‘The Elephant Boy’ film.

Another elephant, Rajendra, had a cinematic presence alongside the legendary actor Dr. Rajkumar in the movie ‘Gandhada Gudi’ apart from successfully carrying the Golden Howdah in the procession.

Later, Drona, who carried the Golden Howdah 18 times, became a household name. It was prominent in the TV serial ‘The Sword of Tipu Sultan’ and carried the protagonist Sanjay Khan. At the age of 67, Drona passed away in 1997 after suffering an electric shock.

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Then, the responsibility of carrying the Golden Howdah fell on Arjuna, who successfully demonstrated his prowess. Unfortunately, he killed a mahout in an accident and was removed from Dasara duty due to his temperament.

The mighty Arjuna carrying Goddess Chamundeshwari idol inside the howdah in 2019.

The beloved Balarama

From 1999 to 2011, Balarama, a gentle and beloved elephant, carried the Ambari 13 times, despite having no vision in one of his eyes, showcasing remarkable composure and earning the affection of all. In 2012, Balarama retired and then Arjuna once again became the Howdah-carrying elephant and carried the 750-kg jewel eight times before retiring in 2020 after completing 60 years.

The legacy of these elephants continues with the Forest Department’s ‘Combing Star,’ a 58-year-old elephant named Abhimanyu, who will carry the Ambari for the fourth time this year. Abhimanyu has proven to be a trouble-shooter, participating in more than 100 rogue elephant-capturing operations and tiger-trapping tasks. He has two more years of service before his well-deserved retirement.

The present lead elephant Abhimanyu during the Jumboo Savari-2022.

Consistent performance

The footprints of these elephants in Jumboo Savari have been consistent from the beginning, with their dedication to this prestigious tradition unwavering. Their imprints are etched into the sands of time, preserving a legacy that remains unbroken.

The presence of these elephants in the Dasara festivities is not just a display of grandeur but also a testament to the enduring bonds between humans and elephants, woven into the rich tapestry of Indian traditions.

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