The maharaja’s elephant that made me a lensman

T.S. NAGARAJAN writes: His size and stature did not deter us from touching and fondling him. We had no fear. Often, he would tie his trunk into an impossible knot and then unfurl it, just to impress, and end up by bowing his head and flapping his ears at us. He was a great performer.

Iravatha, Mysore’s celebrated elephant, was a friend of the family. On festival days, the mahout would bring him to our mohalla. The ding-dong sound of his bell, early in the morning, would wake us up from sleep.

We lost no time in rushing out and lining up in front of the elephant to receive his blessings. He would raise his trunk and softly touch our heads.

On some days, my mother would place a bucketful of water in front of him. He would draw the water from the bucket and spray it on my sister’s head, leaving her deeply shaken. My mother believed that this ritual would ward off her daughter’s problem of bed-wetting.

Every household on the street would feed the elephant generously with akki and bella (rice and jaggery). The children made it a point to save small coins to give him. He would deftly pick up the coins from the top of their heads and promptly transport them to his master above.

Iravatha was a gentleman known for his looks, loyalty and flawless conduct. He had everything to be classed among the best: a long trunk that touched the ground, ears which met when brought together on the face, a long and hairy tail, spots on the face and a graceful walk.

The Maharaja had named him after Indra’s mount, the legendary white elephant. Every year, on Vijayadashami day, he carried the Maharaja in a golden howdah in a procession watched by thousands of people.

In full regalia, Iravatha would walk in measured steps, gracefully waving his long trunk to the music of pipes and drums.

One day, while in college, news arrived that Iravatha was no more. It was impossible to believe that the city’s most loved one lay dead in the stables at the palace.

My friend and I bunked the class and peddled fast on our bicycles towards the palace where a huge crowd had already gathered. People vied with one another for a last look. Liveried men scurried around urging the crowd to keep away from the elephant.

Word went around that the maharaja would arrive to pay his last respects to Mysore’s much-loved citizen. The crowd continued to grow and began pushing us from behind. We decided leave to make way for others to see Iravatha, who lay stretched on the ground, grand and dignified.

Back home a lump in the throat made me speechless. I went to my friend’s room, where we used to do “combined study”, to spend the night.

I couldn’t sleep and so I decided to pour out my grief in words on a sheet of paper. My friend, who was good at writing, helped me with his ideas. The result: “A Mysore Gentleman Passes Away”, my first article ever written.

The following morning was spent in hunting for a picture of Iravatha to accompany the text. I went from studio to studio asking for one. No one was willing to help, perhaps thinking that I would make a fortune by publishing it.

Finally, the city’s then famous photographic studio “Raj Bothers” came to my rescue and helped me with an unsatisfactory picture of the elephant.

I mailed the article and the picture to the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India explaining my inability to provide a better photograph.

A few weeks later, the editor, an Irishman, sent me a copy of the magazine with my story, along with a cheque and a note urging me to take to the camera “if I had ambitions of making a success of my career as a journalist.”

I took to photography without a second thought. The years that followed proved in ample measure that the editor was right.

Also see: RAJAN (1993-2006)

19 Responses to “The maharaja’s elephant that made me a lensman”

  1. jeevarathna Says:

    A very moving anecdote but what is missing is the dates and the name of the Maharaja. It may be common knowledge to some of us, but for the current generation who do not know the Maharaja’s days or the how the old Jumboo Savari used to be, it is necessary to complete the story.

  2. Gouri Satya Says:

    Congratulations Nagaraj! I am happy to read the anecdote on the famous elephant Iravata. According to London Zoo, I am told, it was one of the five world’s tallest and majestic elephants. It was appropriately named ‘Iravata’, the elephant of God Indra. I remember I had seen this elephant in the elephant stables of Jayachamaraja Wodeyar. Have you by any chance a photo of the elephant? If you can post it in this blog, we can take pride that one such great elephants was in the possession of Jayachamaraja Wodeyar. When it died, I am told, it was given a royal burial. I tried to find a picutre of his in the Mysore Zoo, but the officers there have not heard of this grand elephant at all! Keep writing more about such experiences of Mysore’s past–all that is memory now and very few remember the city’s great traditions.

  3. T.S.Nagarajan Says:

    In life some events go. Some just stay. As time passes, the occurrence of the event crystalises in the mind and becomes timeless. As far as the event in all its detail is concerned my photographic memory doesn’t fail me.

    The year in which Iravatha passed away may be around 1952-53. I was in the First Grade college. Today I am 74 and I am finding it difficult to recollect dates.
    The Maharaja was, of course, Sri Jayachamaraja Wadeyar. The editor was Mr. C.R.Mandy, who edited the “Weekly” with so much love for the country and its people.

    I don’t have the clipping of the “Weekly” which carried the story. When once my effort was seen in print, perhaps, I was immensely happy and expected nothing more from it . I haven’t come across a good photograph of Iravatha. It is a pity I wielded the camera only after its death. This is why I had to depend entirely on words to paint a portrait of the magnificent elephant.


  4. T.S.Nagarajan Says:

    The year in which Iravatha passed away is around 1952-53. The Maharaja was, of course, Sri Jayachamaraja Wadeyar. The editor was Mr. C.R.Mandy, who edited the “Weekly” with so much love for the country and its people.

    I haven’t come across a good photograph of Iravatha. It is a pity I wielded the camera only after its death. This is why I had to depend entirely on words to paint a portrait of the magnificent elephant.


  5. Haldodderi Sudhindra Says:

    Thanks to KP and thanks to TSN

    As a school student I was the one who was assigned the task of bringing home the Illustrated Weekly of India, from the news stall near Minerva Circle of Bangalore. It was my father’s (Late HR Nagesha Rao, Resident Editor, Samyukta Karnataka) favourite news magazine. With little known english I would struggle hard to read news stories. But the photo features filed by TS Satyan and TS Nagarajan were always impressive.

    Nagarajan’s nostalgic musings are very interesting. I wish KP continues posting Nagarajan more and more.

    A big thanks

  6. Gouri Satya Says:

    Iravatha prominently figures in the Hollywood film, “The Elephant Boy”, in which Mysore boy, “Mysore Sabu” became famous and subsequently acted in a couple of more English movies in the Hollywood. The Hollywood team was in Mysore, I think in the early 50s to shoot this film, chiefly in Mysore and the Kakanakote forest. But, I do not think any one in Mysore has any record of this famous film, which brought fame to Mysore, its elephants and forests, resulting in more Hollywood productions like “Harry Black and the Tiger.” Mr. T.S.Nagarajan or Mr. T.N. Sathyan may remember about this movie.

  7. kUli MUTT Says:

    “The Elephant Boy” himself is great story. The following is from

    From User Comments:
    Born Sabu Dastagir in 1924, Sabu was employed in the Maharaja of Mysore’s stables when he was discovered by Korda’s company and set before the cameras. His first four films (ELEPHANT BOY-1937, THE DRUM-1938, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD-1940, JUNGLE BOOK-1942) were his best and he found himself working out of Hollywood when they were completed. After distinguished military service in World War II he resumed his film career, but he became endlessly confined for years playing ethnic roles in undistinguished minor films, BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) being the one great exception. His final movie, Walt Disney’s A TIGER WALKS (1964) was an improvement, but it was too late. Sabu had died of a heart attack in late 1963, only 39 years of age.

    Date of birth (location): 27 January 1924
    Karapur, Mysore, India

    Date of death (details):2 December 1963
    Chatsworth, California, USA. (heart attack)

    Height : 5′ 6″ (1.68 m)

    Spouse: Marilyn Cooper (19 October 1948 – 2 December 1963) (his death) 2 children

    He became an American citizen on January 4, 1944, after which he served in the US Army Air Force during World War II as a tail gunner.

    Father of Jasmine Sabu and Paul Sabu.

    According to his widow, actress Marilyn Cooper, Sabu had a complete physical just a few days before his death, at which time his doctor told him, “If all my patients were as healthy as you, I’d be out of business.” Thus, his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 39 came as even more of a shock than it would have been otherwise. His last film, Disney’s A Tiger Walks (1964), was released posthumously, to good reviews.

    The first Indian actor to make it big in Hollywood. However, he was restricted to stereotypical roles of Indians.

    In the late 1940s and 1950s, he was among the richest stars in Hollywood. In an era in which white actors often played Asian characters, he was respected not only for his physique but also for his natural acting abilities. He was a friend to many Hollywood actors including James Stewart and Ronald Reagan.

    Most reference books list his full name as Sabu Dastigir, but research by journalist Philip Liebfried suggests that was his brother’s name, and that Sabu’s full name was, in fact, Selar Shaik Sabu.

    He was 12 years old and cleaning out the stables of a wealthy Indian maharajah when he was spotted by director Robert J. Flaherty, who was in India looking for a lead for his film Elephant Boy (1937).

    Actor – filmography
    A Tiger Walks (1964) …. Ram Singh
    Rampage (1963) …. Talib
    Herrin der Welt – Teil I, Die (1960) …. Dr. Lin-Chor
    … aka Formel des Todes – Teil I, Die
    … aka Mistero dei tre continenti, Il (Italy)
    … aka Mistress of the World (USA)
    … aka Mystères d’Angkor, Les (France)
    Sabu and the Magic Ring (1957) …. Sabu, the stable boy
    Jaguar (1956) …. Juano
    The Black Panther (1956) …. Sabu the Jungle Boy
    Jungle Hell (1956) …. Sabu
    … aka Jungle Boy (USA)
    Tesoro del Bengala, Il (1954) …. Ainur
    … aka The Treasure of Bengal
    Buongiorno, elefante! (1952) …. Sultan of Nagore
    … aka Hello Elephant (USA)
    … aka Pardon My Trunk (USA: reissue title)
    … aka Sabù, principe ladro (Italy)
    Baghdad (1952)
    Savage Drums (1951) …. Tipo Tairu
    Song of India (1949) …. Ramdar
    Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948) …. Narain
    The End of the River (1947) …. Manoel
    Black Narcissus (1947) …. The Young General
    Tangier (1946) …. Pepe
    Cobra Woman (1944) …. Kado
    White Savage (1943) …. Orano
    … aka White Captive (UK)
    Arabian Nights (1942) …. Ali Ben Ali
    Jungle Book (1942) …. Mowgli
    … aka Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book
    The Thief of Bagdad (1940) …. Abu
    … aka The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor (UK: complete title)
    The Drum (1938) …. Prince Azim
    … aka Drums (USA)
    Elephant Boy (1937) …. Toomai

  8. jeevarathna Says:

    Thanks TSN. See how much nuggets this has alredy unearhed . Thanks KM ! see for a glimpse of sabu in jungle book.

  9. Gouri Satya Says:

    Thanks KM for that wikipedia content on Sabu.
    Any idea what happened to his parents, his brothers, who lived in Mandi Mohalla, in Mysore? Any of his relatives still living there? I had heard one of them was a tonga driver! Trying to trace them, no success so far.

  10. rk Says:

    Dear Mr. TSN,
    Loved reading this piece which vivdly recollects the glorious days of erstwhile Mysore. Thank you.

  11. Suma Says:

    Thank u TSN sir for giving this touching story.Thanks to IRAVATHA also which gave us a most talented photographer and journalist. Kelavar hogutha hogutha olledanna bittu hogutharanthe iravatha left behind him a talented person tha nk u KP for posting this. Sir Look forward for more of ur posts especially on the personalities whom our generation just knew thru photographs.

  12. KentonC. Says:

    The Maharajas’s elephant “Iravatha”
    (also spelt Irawatha in a number of sources)was a tremendous elephant.
    In 1937 with a measured shoulder height at 301 cm and a body weight of 5,000 kg.
    Irawatha would have been about 40 years old in 1937,a bull elephant in the prime of his life.
    World wide newspapers reported in July 1952 that Iravatha died of meningitis at the age of 56 years old and had been buried in Mysore with full military honors.
    BTW if you log onto the blog site,
    if you look in the September 2006 photographs postings,there is a photograph of a temple elephant taken around 1948 that may or may not be Irawatha.
    Perhaps Mr. Woodcock can e-mail a photograph of the elephant to post here.

  13. Raza Husaini Says:

    Dear Mr. Nagarajan,

    I Have been fascinated with your works, would like to meet you and learn more about photography..

    Many Thanks..

  14. U.B. Vasudev Says:

    Dear Sri Nagarajan:
    This morning one of my friends sent me a very rare photograph of the Kannada legends of yore that you had taken in 1955 at AIR, Mysore. As there was some problem with the text accompanying the photo, I googled your name only to see several articles by you. Even though I had read most of the articles that I had come across, I had missed the one about Airavata, the gentleman elephant from Mysore. My attraction and love for elephants were also instrumental in my selection!
    I was too young to remember this elephant but am very familiar with his successor Biligiriranga whom we, as kids, have seen umpteen number of times on his way from “aanekarOTi” (perhaps the right pronunciation is aane karu haTTi) to the woodyard that belonged to the forest department. This was behind our school in Krishna Murthy Puram. I could not tell you how many times we went to the wood yard to see Biligiriranga arranging those huge wooden logs on his massive tusks with his trunk locking it in place. On his way, the mahout used to go by our houses when almost every household would offer akki, bella, and tenginakaayi. Sugarcane was an added delicacy around Sankranti and Ganesha Chaturthi. Once in a way, he used to take the kids for a short joyride for a block or two. Even today, after a few decades, I admire the intelligence of the animal. Biligiriranga would take the whole cocoanut in his mouth, crush it with his massive teeth, swallow the pulp and spit the pieces of shell out. Once, he was given a cocoanut straight from the tree without removing the husk more out of curiosity to see what he might do with it. No one could believe it when he pressed it hard on the ground with his foot and peeled the skin completely. That was a big surprise and a shock for all of us who were eagerly watching him. He was a tall and stately animal with a red patch on his forehead. It looked as if he knew that he was the most handsome of the palace pachyderms. In addition to our visits to the wood yard, we used to go to aanekarOTi whenever we got a chance as the elephants had cast a magic spell on us. I have taken videos of Drona, Shanti, Ayyappa and some others in the palace premises in ‘92 and though they had a beauty of their own, were not a match to the large and majestic Biligiriranga. Fifteen years ago, I borrowed a 16mm film from a library in California and copied the short documentary about Mysore shot by a visiting American family. This was shot sometime in mid 50’s and I am not sure if it was Airavata or Biligiriranga that visited Hotel Metropole to entertain the guests there.
    Sometime in the early 80’s, one of my patients who found out that I am from India, took me by surprise when he asked me if I knew Mysore Sabu. I told him that I didn’t know him but knew of him and have also seen his movies The Jungle Book and Thief of Baghdad. I didn’t forget to mention that I was another proud son of the erstwhile Royal Mysore just like Sabu was. They were roommates and very close friends and flew together during the sorties over Europe during the Second World War. I believe Sabu was a tail gunner while he used to operate the guns under the cockpit in the front. It’s a pleasure to hear him talk about his deceased friend in glorifying terms. Just to prove what he said, he brought a photo of both of them the next time he came to the office. Those were not ‘digital days’ and I could only make a photocopy of the photograph. How I wish I had that with me now?
    I am an ardent admirer of both of you brothers. Having read Sri Satyan’s ‘Alive and Clicking’, I would like to look forward to your memoirs soon. Just a couple of years back, I found out that T.S. Rangu who was several years my senior was your brother. I can vividly recall him entertaining the audience with “sau saal pehale, mujhe tum se pyaar tha” in his golden voice with Mysooru Ananthaswamy on mandolin at one of the functions in our school, Vanitha Sadana.
    Yes, those were the days!
    Thank you very much for some of the unforgettable and nostalgic photos on the web. Perhaps it would be a nice gift to all the Mysoreans if you can publish a coffee table book with all such photos.
    With warm regards,

  15. Vivek Golikeri Says:

    How could he have become an American citizen in 1944? Until the laws were changed in 1950, persons of Indian blood could not become naturalized Americans no matter where in the world they were born. Indeed, the Cable Act would have caused even his wife, Marilyn Cooper, to lose her citizenship for being married to “an alien ineligible for citizenship.”

    A famous case before the US Supreme Court, United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, determined that under then-applicable laws, East Indians could not be naturalized because although technically Caucasian according to anthropology, they were not “white in the understanding of the common man.”

  16. rajachandra Says:

    Elephant Boy was shot in Mysore during 1935-36.

    But the Maharaja at that time was Nalvadi Krishna Raja Wadiyar !

    Eminent cinematographer Mr. Osmond Borradaile who was in Mysore for making the above movie says in his book “Life through a lens” :

    The second star of the Film was Irawatha, reputedly the largest Elephant in south India. Loaned to us by the Maharaja, this magnificent beast was at our disposal through out our stay in India. Each morning a Bell would ring and Irawatha would appear under Flaherty’s window curling up his trunk to salute the “The Boss” . Then, unless otherwise required, he would spend the day in the compound under the shade of great spreading Tree. When ever he suffered fro indigestion, as sometimes happened, his mahout would feed him pills of opium, big as cricket balls. Mighty Irawatha was a perfect partner for young Sabu. Elephant Boy vowed much of its charm and success to the dramatic bond they created so effortlessly between them……

    There is a photograph of Irwatha at page 76 of this book.

    In fact Mr. Osmond Borradaile developed a close rapport with the Yuvaraja during his stay in Mysore. Yuvaraja visited him in London during 1939. Yuvaraja expressed his wish to form a production unit to make films in Mysore and wanted Mr. Osmond Borradaile to return to Mysore along with him. As the World War loomed large, Yuvaraja left London soon after. As the events unfolded, Yuvaraja died shortly after his return to Bombay and Mr. Osmond Borradaile’s career took a different path and he could never return to India.

  17. Vivek Golikeri Says:

    Let me answer the same question I asked on this forum on July 14th 2009. Between then and now I have learned that a loophole in the Asian exclusion laws still allowed Indians or yellow people to be naturalized if they had served in US armed forces. Both Sabu Dastagir and Bhagat Singh Thind eventually got citizenship on those grounds.

  18. s.nagaraja Says:

    I just loved the warmth of sri.t.s.Nagarajan for Irawatha.We all knew the story of Gajendra Moksha.I am lucky to come across.Thank you.

  19. Richard Chiger Says:

    I believe there is are two pictures of Irawatha on plate 46 of P. E. P. Deraniyagala’s book, Some Extinct Elephants, Their relatives and the Two Living Species, published in 1955. Also, there are many pictures of him in the book, Sabu, The Elephant Boy, by Frances Flaherty, published in 1937. He was quite a beautiful elephant.

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