India's First Female Elephant Keeper Talks Breaking Gender Stereotypes

Delving into history, she mentioned that her family owned an elephant stable, where numerous elephants were housed after being trained and domesticated.
Parbati Baruah, India's first elephant keeper
Parbati Baruah, India's first elephant keeper

At the age of 70, Parbati Baruah from Assam, who is the first female elephant keeper or 'mahout', will be honoured with the Padma Shri, the country's fourth-highest civilian award. President Droupadi Murmu will present this prestigious award to her and 110 other notable individuals.

Parbati will receive a particularly meaningful honour as she will be the second person in her family, following her older sister Pratima Pandey Baruah, to be granted the country's fourth-highest civilian award.

Pratima was awarded the Padma Shri in recognition of her efforts to promote Goalpariya, a well-known form of Assamese folk music.

In an interview with ANI on Friday, Parbati, a descendant of the royal family of Gauripur in Dhubri, eastern Assam, expressed that she has been in the company of elephants since her childhood.

Delving into history, she mentioned that her family owned an elephant stable, where numerous elephants were housed after being trained and domesticated.

“I am very happy to be chosen for this recognition after so many years. I thank all, and, in particular, the state and the central governments for this honour,” she told ANI on Friday.

“I spent the better part of my life with and around elephants. I dedicated my life to their welfare. I kept on doing my work and God has now blessed me with this recognition. I will continue to work in this field. My life is dedicated to elephants and the preservation and welfare of the wildlife in general," Baruah added.

Even though Parvati was raised as a member of the royal family in Dhubri, her earliest recollections mostly revolve around elephants. It didn't take long for her to discover her true passion - caring for elephants.

She has trained more than 600 untamed elephants and provided instruction to their handlers. Additionally, she has travelled to different regions of the country, participating in a variety of workshops, conferences, and events.

Parbati, affectionately known as 'Haathi ki Pari' (an angel for elephants), made history by becoming the country's first female elephant mahout, shattering gender stereotypes linked to the occupation.

For more than 40 years, she led the way in addressing the conflict between humans and elephants.

Beginning her path at the young age of 14, Parbati learned her abilities from her father and mentor, Prakritish Chandra Barua. She acquired all her elephant-training and care skills from him.

“I was introduced to elephants when I was a one-year-old infant. We had an elephant mahal in our house with a full complement of tuskers. We still have them. Growing up, a thought would often cross my mind as to whether I can also acquire the skills of handling elephants like my father," she said.

“I asked my father if I could learn the skills. My father said no as it was a male-dominated job. However, I was adamant and learned the skills from him and the nitty gritties around it. I learnt how to deal with elephants, how to heal them, and how to apply herbal medicine to them in case they come down with an ailment. It's a job that one should learn seeing others at work. It cannot be learnt from books," Parbati added.

“Catching hold of an elephant and taming it is not easy as there are risks involved. But I was determined to do it. My father was satisfied with my perseverance and work and it continues to this day," she further said.

On her message to the youth and generation-next, Parbati said, "Elephants are benevolent and must loved and cared for. We must learn to coexist with them. Without elephants, our existence will be at stake. Their habitat must, at the same time, be preserved.”

“I request conservationists and governments to conserve our forests and ensure free and unhindered passage of elephants,” she added.

Shifting the focus to the ongoing human-animal conflict, she expressed that these unfortunate occurrences are a reflection of the constant intrusion and takeover of wildlife habitats in today's world.

“Mother nature should not be disturbed at any cost. Collectively, as a society, we have to come forward and make it happen. The government alone can't do it. Every citizen has to take a solemn pledge that he or she would make a conscious effort towards saving nature and conserving forests," she said.

She further stated that the crucial factor in decreasing human-elephant conflicts is to guarantee a secure pathway.

Parbati Baruah, India's first elephant keeper
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