Bathing with elephants in Kabini

By Anusha Shashidhar

The ripples of the Kabini River made it look like a muddy red skirt playing to the gentle breeze blowing about. As I walked the path to the river, I could hear indignant cawing and something that sounded like "Did you do it?"

The cawing and "did-you-do-its" got louder and louder even as I moved ahead, only to look up and find at least a dozen birds hovering in a closed circle formation ten feet above my head. The naturalist later told me they were red-wattled lapwings, and their call interpreted as as "Did-you-do-it". Apparently, they go into a frenzy when humans or other animals stray close to their eggs on the ground, and make that formation ready to peck at unsuspecting poor things like me. Ignorant as I was of that fact, I revelled in my interpretation of it as "nature's tiara for my head", as I approached the banks of the river.

A little further down the banks, and I could see Meenakshi – The Majestic. She lay in the shallow part of the river, with her mahout beside her, both patiently waiting for me to sit on her back. I entered the water, strutting, queen-like. At least until the water became too cold and deep for comfortable strutting. About three feet from her, I stopped and looked at the mahout for guidance. "Hatra banni, parvaagilla (Come close. It's alright)," he assured me. Hesitantly, this scaredy queen approached Meenakshi closer. I slowly stretched a hand to pat her back and my, was she warm! It was quite a delightful comfort to touch her warm body as I shivered in the cool breeze. My heart yearned to hug her whole, but of course, far from possible, silly!

The resort's elephant she might be, nature's own, but Meenakshi is a humble lady who greeted me with her ears flapping gracefully. Her face looked calm and gentle. Her mouth seemed to be curved in a smile, her trunk resting in the water. The light spots on her ears and trunk were a sign of her age and wisdom, and she was completely at ease with the river, the breeze, the mahout, the many people and animals watching her. Now who's the queen?

The mahout asked me to sit on Meenakshi's back for "a bath" and I hastily replied, "No, that's fine. I'm alright just petting her, see?" patting her hairy and warm back to prove it. "Illa, illa. Thumba mugdha jeevi ivalu. Banni banni. (No, no. She is a gentle being. Come, come)," the mahout insisted, lifting me bodily off the riverbed, unceremoniously, and placing me on Meenakshi. For half a heart beat I thought I would hear her trumpet indignantly. Instead she simply flapped her ears more graciously. Yes, she had a gift to reassure people she was a lady. Indeed.

"Madam, ready?" the mahout asked. But before I could so much as nod or open my mouth in answer, I heard him utter something very tongue-twisty at Meenakshi. Some tiny part of my brain guessed it was perhaps Malayalam. Lady Meenu hailed from Kerala, apparently. (Interestingly, the pet elephants of Kabini all hail from Kerala, for elephant catching is illegal in Karnataka, and all it takes to wade our way out of that law is to cross this red river.) At his request, she sucked in a trunkful of the muddy red Kabini water, threw her trunk backward at me and splashed a huge amount of it, enough to soak me wet in an instant. I squealed in delight, all my lady-like dignity forgotten. Meenakshi too seemed to be enjoying it, for she flapped her ears vigorously in acknowledgement and splashed another trunkful at me. And yet another. So she went on for another three trunkfuls until her mahout requested her to stop.

With some difficulty, I jumped off her back and happily went on to pet her forehead. It was ever so satisfying to see her close her eyes at my touch. I thought I should return her the favour of her bathing me, and so I scooped up handfuls of the river and started splashing at her sides. Needless to say, she hardly felt a thing! As if to show this pea-brain how to give an elephant a real bath, she sucked in a trunkful of the river and splashed it real hard across her own back, and then she went into an unmistakable sideway sleep. It was her time to get a real pampering bath now, and her mahout obliged. I pet her one last time and then it was time for me to warm up quickly.

The queen-like strutting lady smiled to herself as she walked back to her room. She smiled to herself at the spa-like treatment she had received in all its natural goodness, with the Kabini red clay in the river. But that was only until she passed by the red-wattled lapwings again...


Where: Orange County Kabini Resort | Website
Highlights: Coracle riding, elephant bathing, landscape cycling, tribal dance, bullock-cart riding,
Tariff: INR 18,000 onwards for two persons (3 days, 2 nights stay; includes meals & activities)

How to get there:

From Bangalore (via Mysore): 250 km, 5 hours drive
From Mysore: 100 km, 2 hours drive
From Wayanad (via Sultan Batheri, Gundelpet): 160 km, 3 hours drive

Anusha Shashidhar is a sub-editor for the weekly lifestyle supplement of the English daily Deccan Herald in Bangalore. She enjoys writing and reading, with a weakness for fantasy/ epic fiction. Read more of her work on her blog