When ISKCON Mayapur’s resident elephant, Gulab Kali, passed away in April 2006, devotees mourned her almost as if she were a human Vaishnava. Brought to Mayapur when she was only three years old, she had served the community during festivals and other religious functions for 24 years until her untimely death at age 27.
It was difficult to even think about replacing such a fine and devoted animal, but Hrimati Dasi and the other members of the Mayapur Animal Protection Team were sure that, having passed away in Lord Caitanya’s holy land, Gulab was now in a better place. And so their search for a new elephant began.
“I travelled to Assam to meet Dr. K.K. Sharma, a veterinarian who provided medical care for the Kuntkies, highly trained elephants engaged in India’s WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature),” Hrimati says. “And he introduced me to their manager, Dwipen Kalita.” An excellent mahout, or elephant trainer, it was Kalita who helped Hrimati find Faguni, a young female elephant born in 1998.
The first time she lay eyes on Faguni, Hrimati felt a lump rise in her throat.
“The little elephant was in such a pitiful condition,” she says. “She was very thin and malnourished, and three of her feet were tied. Her Mahout, a poor opium addict, had no means to feed her – he was so skinny himself that you could see his ribs protruding up through his skin.”
As she approached Faguni, Hrimati held out some cut pieces of banana stock sprinkled with salt, which the frail elephant enthusiastically devoured.
Hrimati says that Assam elephant owners used to rent their elephants out for logging. The current ban on logging, however, has left elephants with no work, and their owners with no means for maintaining them. “The cost to maintain an elephant can be overwhelming,” Hrimati explains. “In the wild, elephants graze for eighteen hours per day on a variety of grasses, leaves, bamboo and banana trees. And a domestic elephant needs 250 kg of fresh fodder and 150 - 250 liters of water per day to stay healthy.”
Fortunately, this was something ISKCON’s large Mayapur community could provide. After making an agreement with Faguni’s owner, Hrimati renamed the elephant Laksmipriya, and brought her to Dr. Sharma for some much needed medical treatment. Then it was time to take her to her new home. “Here in Mayapur, Laksmipriya is under the care of the Mayapur Animal Protection Team and ISKCON,” Hrimati says. “But because in India the trade in endangered wildlife, including elephants, is banned, Laksmipriya's official ownership remains with her Mahout in Assam.”
After the premature death of previous resident elephant Gulab Kali, the Mayapur Animal Protection Team are doing everything they can to make sure Laksmipriya gets the best facilities and care possible. While Gulab was confined to a small space on the temple grounds, Laksmipriya is kept in a natural forest environment, free to roam for the best part of the day. She is chained to a different tree each night, has shade from both the tall trees and a specially constructed roof, and cools off several times a day in her own bathing pool.
And there’s no chance of the once starved elephant going hungry again, either. “As well as allowing her to graze naturally in the nearby field, we supply Laksmipriya with freshly cut grass according to season,” Hrimati says. “But her favorite foods are banana leaves and banana tree trunks – she can consume up to twelve whole trees per day.”
The elephant also gets a daily ration of soaked raw chickpeas and uncooked rice with a mixture of minerals and Ayurvedic herbs. The Mahout on duty wraps this mixture in cut banana leaves, making a kind of sandwich, which Laksmipriya often eats with black salt, to ward off intestinal parasites.
Apparently there’s a lot of room in that big elephant belly, as visitors can also feed Laksmipriya when she arrives at the ISKCON Campus at 5pm on her daily rounds. The menu of recommended treats includes grass, fruits, small pieces of sugarcane and carrots. “Just remember never to feed elephants cooked food,” warns Hrimati. “It causes gas, indigestion and sometimes even death!”
Should anyone forget or disregard the warning, Laksmipriya’s Mahout, Dilip, will be there to intercept. While ISKCON Mayapur employs several Mahouts, all trained by the WWF’s Dwipen Kalita, Dilip is a certified Pandey Mahout – the most experienced and qualified of them all. And his methods of training are exemplary.
“Mr Kalita’s Mahouts never use the iron ankush, or hook, for controlling their elephants, except for very extreme circumstances,” Hrimati says. “Here in Mayapur, we naturally follow the same principle – Dilip uses a small bamboo stick and teaches Laksmipriya by voice commands.”
This April these methods were given an official seal of approval when Principal Chief Wildlife Warden of West Bengal, Mr. S. S. Bist, came to inspect Laksmipriya and her habitat. Also a former director of Project Elephant of India, Bist was accompanied by the Forest Officer for Nadia District, Mrs. Lipika Ray, and two other Forest Officers. He expressed his satisfaction with the way Laksmipriya was being cared for, and the appreciation was instantly mutual.
“I could tell right away that Mr. Bist had genuine compassion for animals,” says Hrimati. “Since it was a hot day when he arrived at the entrance of the Mayapur campus, I suggested he might like to take his car to the place where we kept Laksmipriya. But he shrugged off the discomfort, pointing out a small stray dog that was sitting under his car. ‘I think I’d rather walk, because our car is providing this poor little dog with shade from the hot sun,’ he said.”
In line with his compassionate nature, Mr Bist stressed that Laksmipriya should not be lonely, and advised the Mayapur Animal Protection Team to hurry and get a second elephant. And so as the first rain falls, Hrimati will travel to Assam once more, to get a friend for Laksmipriya. Aptly, she’ll be named Vishnupriya.
But for now Laksmipriya serves the Lord on her own, enjoying her new home. And there’s much to enjoy. She eats delicious food, frolics freely in her habitat, and every Sunday, devotees walk her to the Jagannath temple, where she’s allowed to play in the water of a nearby lake.
It’s Laksmipriya's reaction when she sees Lord Jagannath, however, that sticks most in Hrimati’s mind. “Every time, she puts up her trunk and gives a loud roar, that echoes far across the campus,” she says. “This elephant must be special, to have taken shelter of the Lord in the holiest of lands, Sri Mayapur. Who knows who she might be?”
Any one who would like to assist in the maintenance and upkeep of the elephants in Mayapur, please contact Hrimati Dasi at: M.A.P@pamho.net