Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Nepal's first female mahout leads elephant safaris

Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post/AFP

Nepal's first female mahout, one of only a handful of women across Asia to be selected to drive elephants, spoke Tuesday of her pride at breaking into the all-male profession.

Meena Chaudhary, 33, was selected for the highly-specialised role after being picked from a female-only shortlist of 15 candidates as part of a government scheme to get more women working in the public sector.

"Women are flying aircraft. So, driving an elephant is peanuts," she said. "I wanted to prove that we're equal to men. I showed it by being an elephant driver."

Mahouts take tourists on elephant-back safaris in southern Nepal's Chitwan national park, home to the endangered royal Bengal tiger, the rare one-horned rhino and other exotic animals and birds.

The job has traditionally been a men-only preserve because women are often considered weak in the conservative, Hindu-majority Himalayan nation.

Chaudhary, who has led up to half a dozen drives a day since taking on the role two months ago, said she was proud to be breaking that stereotype.

"We were trained for three days on how to treat elephants and how to drive them towards the jungle," she told AFP.

"We were also asked to climb trees and swim," she said, adding that another woman had now been selected to join her.

But she told AFP she was full of anxiety on her first day in the job.

"I was not used to dealing with so many people. I was also afraid that something might go wrong. But everything was all right," said Chaudhary, who receives a monthly pay of 10,000 rupees ($120).

Mahouts are often introduced to their elephants as children and stay with one animal for decades. They drive their mounts using oral commands and pressure from their feet on the elephant's ears.

There are around 100 mahouts in Nepal, with a handful paid by the government and the rest employed by the hotel industry in Chitwan.

Every year thousands of people visit the park, a haven for wildlife and one of Nepal's biggest tourist attractions.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wedding gone berserk

By Bishnu Chaudhary

Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post

In the past few months, I had to drag myself to numerous matrimonial ceremonies, no matter how hesitant I was. Today, instead of sharing its pleasant features, I am going to attract your attention towards a notorious social practice haunting each and every wedding ceremony taking place in Tharu villages of eastern Nepal. This perversion has such dreadful consequences that it almost converted a lovely wedding procession into a gloomy funeral. Here, I want to share that very scary experience, which I was destined to confront.

I am a Tharu boy from the southeastern terai district of Sunsari. In the last week of Falgun (around a month ago), my school friend from the village of Jhakanjhoda was to tie the knot. On the day of the bariyati (the day when the bridegroom, along with his friends and relatives go and fetch the bride from her house), we left the groom’s house at about 8pm in the evening. Some of us jantees boarded a bus, whereas others were on motorbikes. After 45 minutes of the bandmaster’s cheering, singing and playing, we had almost reached our destination. As we entered the bride’s village, we were stopped by a group of young men, most of them in early and mid-20s. Some of them were drunk. These days, a trend has surfaced, in which a group of youngsters obstruct the path of a groom and demand cash from his side as a form of payment to be made before reaching the bride’s place.

The guys standing in the way wanted money. Both parties then began bargaining. The groom’s party was stating that the demanded amount was outrageously higher than the usual. The situation began to get intense, leading to some heated verbal exchange. Finally, to our relief, an agreement was reached after prolonged discussions. I’m still unaware of the amount paid.

Relieved, we reached the gate of the bride’s house. Soon a group of pretty bridesmaids came to welcome the groom and jantees, showering flowers and corn on them. I thought the troubles were over, but I was wrong. Some of the men from earlier, unsatisfied with the amount that’d been paid, were throwing rocks over the gate, at the party, at the same time that the bridesmaids were showering flowers and corn over us.

The hurled rocks caught some of our friends, and they started to bleed with head injuries. Next, while we were dining, we came to know that two or three of our friends were thrashed by the same gang. Unable to tolerate it any more, we started chasing a man from the group and were led to a house where his friends were grouped, well prepared with sharp weapons, rods and sticks. In a blink of an eye they charged at us like a pack of wolves on meek lambs with whatever they had in their hands. Laxmi, my childhood friend and the groom’s own cousin, was knocked down with a blow from an axe. For a moment I was left gaping at the sight of my friend lying motionless in a pool of blood. Regaining my nerves, I realised I was unable to help him. Running for my life was the only option I saw. I jumped over a bamboo fence but got caught in a ditch. Pulling myself out of it I ran for my life faster than a projected missile, never looking back.

Sanju, Laxmi’s elder brother lay unconscious on the very mandap where his cousin was to tie the knot. Eventually, the groom was married but he left bride’s house alone. It was incredibly painful. The result of this act of obstructing jantees has shaken the whole district. Three of our critically injured mates are still receiving treatment in ICU, and the whole village of Jhakanjhoda is in a state of shock.

The experience has left a lasting impression in my mind. It still sends chills down my spine when I remember the lifeless countenances of my near-dead friends and death-coloured assailant’s faces. After this incident, I’ve vowed not to attend any night-time wedding ceremony and I advise you to do the same.

This true story was narrated to the writer by eyewitness Tulai Chaudhary