The Man Behind the Elephants
Elefantastic is a family business. It’s founder Rahul is a 4th generation elephant rider. His family has owned elephants since his great-grandfather retired from the Maharaja’s army and received an elephant as his pension.
Before starting Elefantastic in 2012, Rahul and his elephant worked at the Amber Palace ferrying tourists up and down the winding road. Every day, passengers asked the same questions:
They didn’t ask about the Fort, the didn’t ask about the city, they didn’t ask about my life; they wanted to know about the elephants. “What’s her name? How old is she? Where does she live? What does she eat? I’ve heard that Palace elephants aren’t treated well?”
His lack of formal education eclipsed by a blazing entrepreneurial spirit, Rahul started Elefantastic to answer those questions with an up-close, personal, and unbelievably heart-melting answer.
As he smoked a cigaret at the end of the day, we were struck by what a fierce and focused entrepreneur he is. He works six days a week (Elefantastic elephants alternate one day on, one day off). He’s the public face of the farm by day, and finishes administrative work and answers emails until the wee hours of the morning. India needs more Rahuls.
Hanging with Chan Chal
Rahul might be big papa, but each Elefantastic elephant has another man in her life. The farm—which is government-owned—has a series of four-room houses. Each house has a bedroom and kitchen for its human family, and a bedroom and kitchen for an elephant. At birth, (or in Chan Chal’s case when she was purchased from a defunct Indian circus) elephants are paired with a rider. She’ll work, play, eat, and even sleep with her rider and his family for life. In the case of well-cared for domestic elephants like Elefantastic’s, that can be up to 70 years.
Upon arrival, Elefantastic visitors are paired with an elephant – rider duo. It’s a brilliant way to make a group experience feel personal. As soon as we saw Chan Chal, we knew she was our elephant. And through her, we met her rider, Shakir.
Elephants have a great sense of smell and hearing. But their eyesight is pretty fuzzy. This means that when parleying with an elephant, you get to stand close, really close. Like feel her eyelashes on your eyelashes close. It’s amazing.
Eye contact, the universal language
Shakir taught us how to communicate with Chan Chal using some of the phrases in the 18-word “elephant language”. We could tell her to eat (which she does all day, and, we’re told, all night), to finish her food when she stopped mid-chew, and to follow us. It’s like giving commands to a three-ton labrador.
Besides being by far and away the cutest elephant on the Elefantastic farm, Chan Chal had the added adorable bonus of being pregnant. That’s 11 of 18-20 months pregnant.
11-month baby bump
Chan Chal’s maternity leave doesn’t kick in for a few months, and she was able to give us a bareback spin around the farm. We were concerned that our weight would hurt or at least annoy her, but Shakir assured us that we were just “a couple pieces of popcorn”. Shakir waltzes up her trunk with the grace of Princess Jasmine. Cliff still needs a little practice, and his own team of handlers.
All hands on deck for this American boy
After a really tasty lunch at Rahul’s mother’s house (in the company of one fluffy white puppy, and a matching fluffy white bunny, both free to roam the house) we were back on the farm for elephant painting. Elephant painting has a long history in Rajasthan. From war to weddings, as long as there have been domesticated elephants in India, they’ve been used as living mural space.
We didn’t expect much from this part of the Elefantastic itinerary, but it ended up being one of our favourite parts of the day. Any excuse to touch, pet, and nuzzle Chan Chal’s mottled, wrinkly hide.
We took the opportunity to write our friend Dave a really big birthday card. We thought we the most inspired, creative kids out there. Then we got to chatting with very cool new friends in Bombay, and found out we’re not the only elephant birthday card painting masterminds out there.
We ended our day on the elephant farm with one last better than expected experience. After all that food, Chan Chal was ready for her evening watering. Shakir bought a chair beside the hose, and said, “you’re going to want to sit for this”. He was right. Homegirl can drank.On hot days, each morning and evening watering can take up to 45-minutes.
Indian elephants have one cartilage flap at the end of their trunks (African elephants have two) but two trunk-long tubes. They take in water until each side is full, and then project it into their mouths like a fireman wielding a hose. Each gulp is followed by a little backwash spray. It’s a noisy, messy, and a thoroughly enjoyable process.
Elefantastic was probably our favourite day in Rajasthan, and one of our better days in India. In a country where animal welfare is one of our most frequent complaints, it was so lovely to be around well cared for and loved creatures. Especially these incredible beasts.
This is an experience we wish for every kid of every age.