Saturday, 16 June 2012

Andaman Island's Rajan: Ocean-Swimming Elephant

Sometime things are so unimaginable that till the time you don’t see them from your eyes, you don’t believe them. Such case happened with me last year, when I heard about Rajan from my parents who are staying in Andaman Islands. Dad told me that Rajan is the only elephant left in entire Indian sub-continent who swims in the sea. I was surprised that how come an elephant can swim. Dad told me to visit Havelock Islands and see it from your own eyes. Without wasting any time, I booked the cruise for coming weekend from Port blair to Havlock. Havlock Island has its own charm but I was more interested in Rajan.  As Dad said, I went to the Barefoot – Havelock Resort to meet this unusual elephant. 

Rajan - The Swimming Elephant
What I saw was totally outside of the norm. An elephant, swimming, snorkelling! Rajan, the permanent elephant resident of Barefoot at Havelock Resort, knows the water well. At 59 years of age a simple morning or afternoon ritual is a plunge in to the waves along the beach. Using his trunk as a snorkel, he finds his way along the seabed to deeper water, enjoying every moment floating.

Rajan Playing in Ocean
Rajan mahout' or elephant driver told me his tragic story:
Unlike a lot of logging elephants at the time, Rajan was born in captivity in mainland India around 1950. Initially trained using very cruel methods to log the islands of the Andamans, he was forced to swim with massive loads. He was trained on the mainland and bought by a Karen Businessman to work in the Timber Industry in the Andaman Islands. He arrived in the Andaman’s in his twenties & worked in Little Andaman, until about 2002.
But in 2002, logging was banned in the islands and most of the 200 elephants were sent back to the Indian mainland. However, Rajan was kept on by a wealthy owner who had no desire to see him leave Havelock Island, and enjoyed a blissful existence eating bananas and swimming in the crystal clear water.

Rajan with his driver

Rajan- Only Elephant who knows how to swim in Ocean
Five years ago a Kerala temple offered £40,000 for the elephant and Rajan almost had to leave, before a tourist lodge launched a campaign to raise the funds to keep him. Since then Rajan and Nasru have become something of an attraction. At 60 years he is the last of the group to survive. Now retired, he spends his time with his caretaker and now enjoys swimming and walking through the forests he once logged. He is truly the last of his kind.

People at Barefoot Resorts have taken it upon themselves to raise the money required to free Rajan. This amounts to nearly 70 000 USD. It is a mountainous sum of money, and in order to collect it they  undertook merchandising methods, selling Rajan T-shirts, or even offering people the once in a blue moon, exquisite opportunity to swim or dive with an elephant, with Rajan.

Rajan Playing in Ocean
When swimming with Rajan you are almost certain he is aware he is being photographed. Rajan is very friendly elephant. He is like a dog paddling when he swims and his mahout swims alongside him and never loses track of him. They are almost inseparable. It was a magical moment to observe – this majestic beast paddling effortlessly through the water.

Rajan in Havlock Island Beach

Rajan at 61 has only few more years to enjoy his life
I was fortunate that I had this chance to do a few dives with him and it is for sure an amazing experience. Very often, when people ask me what is the biggest creature that I have seen underwater, I say – Rajan!

How to Reach Havlock Island:
  1. Ferries are the major way on or off the island. 2-3 arrive daily from Port Blair (2-4 hours) and one from Rangat, one of which comes via Neil Island. Schedules vary according to day and season, so enquiry locally.
  2. There is also an air-conditioned catamaran ferry from Port Blair to Havelock. Tickets are 700, 800 or 1100 (which gets you a leather seat and your own tv). As the ferry is more expensive it is less likely to be full, and its schedule meets incoming flights. Tickets can be booked from a dedicated ticket booking window at Port Blair, thus avoiding the queue barging.
  3. The other option is to fly in. Pawan Hans (+91-3192-233601), which until 2011 operated sporadic helicopter flights to Havelock, now flies an amphibious 8-seater Cessna seaplane from Port Blair to Havelock and back every day except Sunday, covering the distance in about an hour. The standard price is a steep 4100 rupees one-way, but discounts may be available.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Ganjifa Cards: Ancient India's Favorite Game

Few days back, I got the chance to visit an exhibition in Pragati Maidain in Delhi. It was an all states art and craft fair where people from different states were exhibiting their art forms. While roaming, I saw some beautiful miniature paintings in the Orissa stall. When I enquired about the painting he told “Madam, these are Ganjifa playing cards”. He explained me that Ganjifa is actually a very old art form of paintings and playing cards. Further told me how some of the families in Orissa and Maharashtra are trying to revive this dying ancient Indian game.

Ganjifa Cards

Painting in Ganjifa Card

Ganjifa’ is the name given to an ancient Indian card game which originated in Persia (modern Iran) and became popular in India under the Mogul emperors in the 16th century. The first known reference is in the diary of Emperor Babur in 1527. The game used to be the favorite pastimes of ancient India, it first became popular at court, in the form of lavish sets of precious stone – inlaid ivory or tortoise shell.  It later spread to the general public, whereupon cheaper sets would be made from materials such as wood, palm leaf, or pasteboard.

Technique to Prepare Cards:
The techniques, processing, designing of ganjifa cards varied from user to user. Artists involved in making Cards for the rich and wealthy used expensive materials. They used to craft on lac wafers, tortoise shells, ivory, engraved brass discs, mother of pearl and decorated with precious stones and metals.

Artists Preparing Ganjifa Cards

Detailed Work on Ganjifa Cards
Common people made the cards using leather, paper, stylographed palm leaves, fish scales and paper machete. Colors were made by hand and they were rich in natural minerals and vegetable dyes. The artists grinded and mixed these natural colors by hand themselves. They used fine brushes including the squirrel hair brushes suitable to the Ganjifa painting technique to paint the cards.

Perception Behind the games:
In Maharashtra and Orissa, Ganjifa was a favorite pastime for Brahmins. Old people are still seen playing Dashavatara Ganjifa near Puri Temples, mainly with 16-suited 192 card decks. The main purpose of the game was to teach, learn and tell stories from our ancient scriptures and holy books. Style was set to stories and shlokas from the Hindu Puranas, stories from the Ramayana, the chapters from Mahabharata and many more scriptures. One of the greatest benefits was that besides a memory test, the game provided a good retention of traditional knowledge.

How to Play with Ganjifa Cards:
Ganjifa cards were circular and traditionally hand-made by local artisans. The standard playing cards of India are usually a set each of 96 cards of Mughal Ganjifa and of 120 or 144 cards of Dashavatara Ganjifa.  The structure and the rules of both the games are the same except that in Dashavatara, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu are depicted.

Mughal Ganjifa:. The present game of Mughal Ganjifa was introduced by Akbar. The Mughal ganjifa carried eight suited ganjifa pack and had 96 beautiful cards in eight suits of 12 cards each. The twelve cards in each suit comprised of two court or figure cards and 10 numeral or pip cards.

Mughal Ganjifa Cards

Dashavatara Ganjifa :The Hindu Dashavatara (10 incarnations) were different in their composition and construction. In the first order the number of suits and cards were more which made the game complicated . The figures and the suit signs were common to the Hindu players. Each pack of ganjifa carried 10 suits, which displayed one of the incarnations of Vishnu.
Dashavatara Ganjifa Cards

For example in the Mughal Ganjifa set Taj, Safed, Samsher and Ghulam are strong suits while Chang, Surkh, Barat and Qimash are weak suits.  The sequence of each suit is arranged as Raja, Pradhan and serial number ace to ten for strong suits and ten to ace for weak suits.  Each time the trick is to win the round by placing the highest denomination.  Therefore it is beneficial for a player to remember all the symbols and cards played.  By the end of the game, which is played in anti-clock-wise direction, the player who amasses the maximum number of cards is the winner.  Similarly the game can be played with the Dashavatar set, Ashtadikpala, Ramayana and Navagraha. 

Ganjifa Cards
Unlike Chess or Parchisi (Dice), Ganjifa is now close to extinction. Few people know how to play the game and fewer are the artists who make them Orissa is one of the last remaining pockets of this diminishing community.

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