He is the one who bears the goddess Chamundeshwari on Dasara. He is the pride of Mysuru.
He is the one who made a comeback.
Just like his namesake, the mighty warrior Pandava prince Arjuna, the lead Dasara elephant too is in a league of his own.
Mysuru inherited its Dasara from the mighty Vijayanagara, which celebrated these nine days of Sharad ruthu as the biggest celebration in the kingdom.
The Mahanavami Dibba, a raised stone platform in Hampi has the entire paraphernalia of the Dasara of yore sculpted on its stones from the folk fanfare to the wrestling bouts, dancers, musicians, traders, entertainers and all else that be.
But after the fall of the mighty empire, and with the rise of the Mysore Wadiyar kingdom, Dasara shifted to Srirangapatna first and then to Mysuru.
While all that is left of the royal Dasara in Hampi are the imprints of the past, Mysuru makes up for it in all ways possible as the entire city turns into a royal amphitheater showcasing all that celebrates the culture of the land — from food to fabric, from music to muscle might, from dance to decor, from fine arts to farming. But the magnum opus is the Jumbo Savari or the Dasara parade on Vijayadashami or the tenth day.
The celebration of the victory of Chamundeshwari over the demon Mahishasura, from whom the city gets its name, culminates on the day of Vijayadashami with the Jumbo Savari when the goddess seated inside a golden howdah or the mantapa on a royally decorated elephant is taken in procession by a set of elephants accompanied by dancers, musical troupes and tableaus, much to the awe of thousands of visitors, who head to witness this cultural carnival.
While the parade lasts for just a few hours, the preparations for it begin months in advance. The elephants arrive at the palace almost a month in advance in batches and then spend time in acclimatising, training, and bucking up for the big day.
Their arrival to the palace too is a ceremonious affair as they are received with all due rituals and customs after which they along with the mahouts make the palace garden premises their home until the last day of Dasara.
This year, the elephants arrived in two batches of six and eight each in the last week of August and have been gearing up for the big day. But all eyes are on the 59-year-old protagonist Arjuna, who will carry the goddess on his back may be one last time before he retires as the age for the Dasara elephant is said to be 60.
Arjuna, The Legend Who Reclaimed His Glory
Tall, dark and handsome. Just like his namesake, the mighty warrior Pandava prince Arjuna, the lead Dasara elephant too is in a league of his own.
The air around him is festive, the energy robust, the environment action-packed what with a million things being planned for one of the biggest festivals of the state, the naada habba and the festivities associated with it.
But this colossal creature stands there in his shed happily chomping on his leaves, getting himself an oil massage, having a special team to feed him and keep stray visitors away.
As he takes his strolls around the town of Mysuru with his fellow gentle giants following suit preparing for the Dasara parade for the past few weeks, Arjuna knows he is the ‘man’ or shall we say the mammoth of the season.
Weighing a good 5,800 kilos, this mighty tusker is the one entrusted with the task of carrying the golden howdah that weighs around 750 kilos with the idol of the devi inside it and making that ceremonial journey from the palace to the Banni Mantapa and back.
Arjuna flanked by two female elephants and led by the nishani aane (lead elephant) that bears the flag with the royal insignia of Ganda Berunda and others will take the long walk to the Banni Mantapa, where the Banni tree is worshipped. The Banni tree is said to be where the Pandavas hid their arms during the agyatavasa (period of incognito exile).
But this annual affair of being the centre of attraction and the chosen one to carry the howdah is something Arjuna too got after a long agyatavasa. Arjuna who has taken the baton from Balarama in 2012 had actually carried the howdah even before Balarama.
Arjuna, captured young in the late 1960s was tamed and then made a part of the regular Dasara procession in the 1990s. He had carried the howdah once when Drona fell ill.
But he was said to have gotten jittery and charged at the crowd before the procession as the helicopter that was to shower flowers on the deity stooped too low for Arjuna’s comfort. This made him lose his chance of continuing as the ambari aane and was made the nishani aane for Drona.
Although he was said to have calmed down and completed the procession, he had to let go of being the ambari aane. He became the nishani aane while Drona continued to carry the ambari, a privilege he had for 19 years.
But when Drona died, Balarama took over. An incident involving the death of a mahout in 1996, for which he was allegedly held responsible, Arjuna was barred from even participating in the Dasara proceedings. Until, in 2012, when Dr D N Nagaraj decided to let Balarama rest and Arjuna be given a chance.
After a long exile of 16 years, Arjuna wore the royal howdah again.
“Balarama had begun to show signs of fatigue having carried it for 11 years. He would take more than two to two-and-a-half hours while Arjuna would complete the walk in one-and-a-half hours or less. Which is when we decided to give Arjuna a chance,” explains Nagaraj, who has been overseeing the Dasara preparations for the past 20 years.
He takes meticulous care to ensure these giants eat right, feel right and are fit and fine for the big day. “Since then he has always behaved well and is also the fastest and fittest,” he adds.
Mahuta Vinu has only affection for his maney maga (son) Arjuna, who he says is hyper only in the wild and not otherwise. Arjuna nods as if in agreement. The camaraderie between Arjuna and his mahout is to be witnessed to be known.
“I can’t be without him as he is family,” says Vinu, who comes from a family of mahouts, with his father having been a mahout to Drona and his grandfather tending to Ramani, a hunting elephant back in the days of Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar.
Arjuna is special, he says. “Look at him. Isn’t he equal from all sides? Look at his back. The howdah sits firm on Arjuna’s back. Even on Balarama’s back it would slightly tilt but not Arjuna’s. He is a class apart,” says the mahout, recounting endless episodes of their bonding even as Arjuna wraps his trunk around him.
“He is quite possessive and emotes equally strongly,” says Vinu, narrating an incident where he had fallen asleep next to the elephant and Arjuna ensured no one disturbed his mahout’s siesta.
“My family members who saw me sleeping by his feet were scared and tried to even distract Arjuna with food so they could wake me up. But he would head that way and the moment someone walked towards me head back. He stood guard all the while,” he says, recollecting the moment he woke up to find the elephant seated just next to him.
Vinu’s days in the forest begin at day break when they feed and give Arjuna his massage and only then get some breakfast. They then head into the woods for a walk and return after a few hours having spent time at the river, where he lets “the boy play in water for as long as he likes”. But their days here at the palace have different routine from the one at the camp.
Apart from their health check-ups, oil massages and baths, the elephants have taleem sessions where they are taken out on a practice parade session in the city. A few of the elephants also carry sandbags to prepare for the howdah.
Arjuna and a few other elephants practise with the wooden howdah on alternate days with the weight of the bags beneath gradually increased.
While in the forest, the tuskers mainly feed on what is naturally available, Dasara calls for a special diet. They are fed a special high-nutrition diet for the period they are preparing for the Dasara.
A special combination of boiled black gram, green gram, boiled rice and wheat with onion and salt is fed to these elephants according to their weights every morning before they head for the practice session and after return.
Upon return, they chomp on some paddy straw balls infused with coconut, jaggery and oil cake and in the evening before practice.
Most of the elephants end up putting on at least 400-500 kilos by the time they leave the palace premises.
Even on the day of the parade, bags of ‘refreshments’ are placed at regular distances which are fed to the elephants.
Arjuna, as the ambari elephant, is fed a special nutrition ball made of beaten rice, cane and jaggery, glucose powder and wrapped in Dhruva grass, all along the way for as long as he wants to.
Additional glucose powder is also fed to ensure he is not dehydrated or fatigued with the load he carries as he walks.
The minute he returns, he is checked for any strains on his chest, given a hot water bath and painkillers if need be and ensured he is all fit and fine and well rested before he goes back to the forest.
“He is extremely hyper in the forests but by the grace of Chamundi, when he comes to Mysuru for Dasara, he is a calm obedient boy,” says Vinu, adding that he doesn’t get perturbed even when the cannon shots are fired.
While on one end he treats him like his own, calling him ‘raja, chinna’ at the other he holds him in equal reverence as he carries Chamundeshwari on his back.
“He is bearing the goddess herself. So he is divine too, and we take care to approach him with equal reverence even when we are in the forest. Even if we cook meat at home, we take a shower before we touch him. He is the devara aane (god’s elephant) after all,” remarks the doting mahout.
The authorities will take a call if he will have the royal honour next year as he turns 60, but the mahout sure hopes he does, for he says “he deserves it”.