The horse whip made from bull’s genitals swayed to and fro. The carriage driver held it aloft in his right hand and we immediately went quiet. With his left, he had pulled the reins of the carriage to a halt. His body is taut.
‘Gaja’, he whispers.
Alert, we look in every direction. We see no sign of elephants in the dim light of our flickering torches. But the carriage driver’s body remained stiff in that position with his face down. He is not looking. He is listening. And then we hear it too. A heavy branch breaking sharply to our right. I froze. This could only be an elephant.
In the forests that separate our towns and cities, the elephant is the only being we fear. The Tiger and Panther fear us. But the elephant is the most unpredictable being of our forests. Their matriarchal herds are led by the oldest female and she could charge at us to protect her young. It would be a mock charge, but knowing that doesn’t help. The sound of her trumpeting and the ground trembling as she approaches could put the fear of God in anyone. The horses of the carriage would bolt and even our experienced driver would struggle to control them. If it was a lone male Tusker on the other hand, we had much bigger problems.
A tusker in heat is the terror of the forests in which he lives. Aggressive and irritable at all times, everything flees from his path. Last year, eight soldiers from my regiment were returning from a patrol on this road when they had encountered one on foot. Only three returned.
Today, we are accompanying the Queen and the infant Crown Prince from her home in Bodh Gaya back to the palace in Pataliputra. Our Raja is not forgiving. The Queen’s delay in setting off as her parents were fussing about her may prove costly for the soldiers. We are almost there but we should have reached before nightfall.
In one fluid movement, the carriage driver picks up some sand from below. He releases it into the breeze in front of the torch. Knowing the direction the wind is blowing in is important. Elephants have poor eyesight, but a keen sense of smell. Had the wind been blowing towards it, we would have had to change plans. Ten of us would have had to be ready to confront the elephant on our horses while the remainder would rush forward with the carriage. Some luck. The wind is blowing towards us.
Just then it emerges ahead of us onto the path. There is no escape now. Even through our flickering torch lights we can make out its massive outline. We can see its white tusks, so large that they touch the ground. Even from this distance, I can hear him breath. My horse fidgets under me and while I absently pull at its reins, I am transfixed. I could never get used to the size of an elephant. Not really. We are caught between the Gaja and the Raja. We cannot flee on our horses because the Raja will have our heads if we do and we cannot hope to face this Gaja with our swords and spears.
I do the only thing I can do. I pray, to this creature that holds our fate. While still tightly holding onto the reins, I fold my hands – ‘Spare us, wise one, let us be on our way’. From the flow of secretions on the side of its face, I can tell it is in heat. We extinguish our torches. Its tusks now gleam in the moonlight. It makes a low rumbling sound and exhales sharply. It raises its trunk in our direction trying to smell. I think of what can help it detect us. The wind is still blowing towards us, none of us have worn white and the infant prince is asleep. After smelling the air for a few seconds, we hear it move again through the slight tremors on the ground. The undergrowth crashes in its wake as it forges a new path into the forest. We wait for a few minutes as we hear its sounds fade away into the night.
The carriage driver’s frame relaxes and we beam at each other in the moonlight. We stay there for longer than needed to stretch out the relief washing over us.