This is my old friend Istiyak, a mahawat, with some of his family who meant so much to him. Sadly he passed away at Christmas time in 2012.
I have a great love and respect for this man, as I spent many happy times in his company.
Here he is, third from the left, enjoying the place he loved so much, where he once lived with his family, right in the heart of the jungle in a place called Dhikala.
He took as much delight in the small details of the forest as in encountering a wild tiger, passing on his enjoyment and sense of fun to the many who met him. Riding on top of the howdar, he would take his high-spirited passengers down the steeply inclined bank, urging on Rambha by tapping behind her over-sized ears. She had a very wide head that accommodated her bold bright brain and wonderful nature – united they made a fabulous partnership.
I remember on one ride, Rambha crossed the Ramganga’s white waters with ease, though they lapped and splashed around her vast belly. As we approached the shallows of the neighbouring bank the water became much calmer and she began to pick her way across the large round boulders to reach dry land. Suddenly she stopped and lifted her foot high out of the water. I looked down and was perplexed to see a boulder floating to the surface, until four little legs popped out and a long neck with blinking eyes – Rhamba had discovered a soft shell turtle nestling among the rocks.
Istiyak liked to stay away from the crowds, choosing his own path to follow and track wild animals. When meeting others in the jungle his exchange of words were quiet and brief before moving on again.
Tracking was Istiyak’s forté and adventure usually followed. He is the only mahawat I have known who could take you into the middle of a herd of wild elephants, a feat requiring not only courage but an amazing sense of awareness and understanding (though this was also down to Rambaha’s calm manner). Wild elephants can turn quickly from gentle giants to angry beasts that can shred trees like paper and have unparalleled strength you won’t find anywhere else in the Indian jungle. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of an elephant.
Once we moved cautiously into the midst of a large herd close to an area known as Shisham Bhoji. The wild elephants continued to graze in the long elephant grass, tossing up clumps of grass and earth onto their backs, gently footing the ground to expose tasty roots and shoots. Grasping clumps of long grass with the tips of their trucks, they tugged them free and beat off the soil against their legs before chewing peaceably. Some stood as still as rocks while others watched the newcomer to the herd. A young tusker approached us fanning his ears. Rambha turned to show hers and the tusker turned tail and ran off. Istiyak retreated a little to another part of the herd.
The large matriarch drew up dust and cast it over her back, creating a protective layer to guard her skin from both hot sun and biting insects. A younger daughter had snapped off a branch from a shesham tree and sat it on the shelf of her head, skilfully using it now and then as a fly swot. The melody of squeaks, rumbles and trumpeting was so close the sound reverberated deep inside, enveloping us as we became almost part of the herd.
Thanks to Istiyak I have so many memories to treasure.