From mahout to protector: Assam’s 'Elephant Girl’ Barua broke glass ceiling to do it all

IANS Photo

Guwahati, March 8 (IANS) The first female mahout (elephant trainer) in India, Parbati Barua, 67, known as the ‘Elephant Girl (Hasti Kanya)’ in Assam, was honoured with the Padma Shri award this year.

The fourth-highest civilian award was bestowed on her in acknowledgement of her efforts in animal protection and for her groundbreaking contributions as India’s first woman mahout.

It was not an easy journey and Barua worked hard to break stereotypes to establish a female presence in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Born into the Gauripur royal family in the Goalpara District of Assam, Barua first caught elephants with her father Prakritish Barua in the Kachugaon forests of Kokrajhar District when she was only 14-years-old.

There was no looking back for her after that first encounter with elephants and Barua spent the next 40 years of her life, reducing human-tusker conflict even as she fought against gender stereotypes in the profession.

Human-elephant confrontations have a long history in Assam, and Barua was instrumental in developing government regulations to minimise them.

She became a master in taming wild elephants and due to her extensive knowledge of pachyderm behaviour she became well-known not just in Assam but also in West Bengal and Odisha.

Barua also assisted the forest department in driving troublemaking elephant herds foraging in agricultural fields, back into the forests.

‘Queen of the Elephants’ is the title of a 1996 book written about her by British travel writer and naturalist Mark Roland Shand. Later, the BBC produced a documentary that was widely praised.

After over 40 years of continuous service as a mahout, Barua committed her life to animal conservation, and is part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Asian Elephant Specialist Group (IUCN).

The girl from a royal family, who could have led an easy life, chose a difficult path and broke the glass ceiling in her journey towards becoming a protector of the animals she loves.