I was in Kaziranga for their annual three-day elephant festival: a celebration of a beast long revered in India. Although Hindus have literally hundreds of thousands of gods and goddesses to choose from, many begin their daily puja with prayers to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. There are a couple of different stories about how he ended up with a pachyderm head. One recurrent tale is that Ganesha was born as a normal human boy. His father, Lord Shiva, beheaded him when the lad came between him and his consort, the goddess Parvati—who grew so angry and overwrought that Shiva brought their son back to life by replacing his head with the first creature to wander by: an elephant. Ganesh is revered as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings; he is thought to protect against adversity and bring prosperity and success.
But despite this reverence, elephants are disappearing from Assam. Thousands once moved between the nearby Karbi Anglong hills and the Brahmaputra River valley; perhaps one-tenth remain. They have almost nowhere left to go. From the air it’s easy to see what’s happened: only small patches of “green measles”—scraps of forest land—dot the brown and emerald patchwork below that divides the land into tea plantations, paddies, settlements.
In the 1820s, the British discovered tea growing wild; within 50 years they had imported 85,000 workers from other parts of India, clearing the land and turning this region into the largest tea-producer in the world. Enclaves of tribal people in the hills still practice slash and burn farming, getting two or maybe three years tops from a plot before the soil erodes away. A burgeoning population with its roads, agriculture, crops, villages, cities, factories, and power plants, continues to fell the forests.
The elephants have lost their ancient corridor, their needed passageway between high ground in the rainy season and the valley and national park below in the dry months. Crossing fields and villages puts both humans and elephants at risk. Someone was trampled to death at the end of March near here—and elephants herds continue to dwindle.
About 60 elephants were brought in for the festival. As they gathered at nearby forest guard camps the day before, I had the chance to hang out for some hours with them, touching, feeding watching them get their daily bath in the river—and even got a short bareback ride!