Who Is Parbati Barua? Meet India’s 1st Female Mahout Honoured With The Padma Shri
Parbati Barua, also known as ‘Hasti Kanya’, is India’s first female mahout who was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri on Republic Day, 2024. Here’s how she fell in love with elephants and dedicated her life to the gentle giants.
On India’s 75th Republic Day, 132 people were awarded national honours — 5 Padma Vibhushan, 17 Padma Bhushan, and 110 Padma Shri Awards. Among these, Parbati Barua, now in her late sixties, received a Padma Shri for her groundbreaking contribution as India’s first female elephant mahout.
Born and raised in Assam, Parbati disliked playing with dolls. Instead, she admired wildlife and enjoyed being outdoors. She was one of nine children born to the late Prakritish Chandra Barua of the Royal Family of Gauripur. Prakritish was the final ruler among the Rajahs of Gauripur.
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At a young age, her affection for the gentle giants stemmed from her father, who was renowned internationally for his expertise and knowledge of elephants.
Fondly known as ‘Hasti Kanya’, Parbati captured her first elephant at the age of 14 in the Kachugaon forests of the Kokrajhar district. After this initial encounter, there was no stopping her. Defying all stereotypes, she became a mahout in 1972 and dedicated herself to rescuing elephants.
Her daily routine involves giving her elephants baths, riding them in the jungle, and training them. She also mentioned making hadiya (a rice-based treat) for her beloved elephants, who have a fondness for liquor.
“They [The elephants] love me because I understand their sentiments. One call and they all come running to me,” said Parbati in an India Today interview.
Parbati has three pachyderm daughters: Lakshmimala, Aloka, and Kanchanmala. This trio, along with a team of dedicated coworkers, leads an unusual and adventurous life. “In my job, there are no retakes,” she says. “Every time I go to the forests, I think of it as my last trip. But as a mahout, I can never retire.”
States like Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam seek her assistance in handling rogue tuskers or caring for those injured or ailing.
Over the years, Parbati gained prominence and even became the subject of a BBC documentary titled ‘Queen of the Elephants’.
Among her various tales of adventure is one from West Bengal’s Midnapore district, where a herd of 50 elephants had lost their way and was on a destructive path. State authorities turned to Parbati, and with her three elephants and a team of other mahouts, they could guide the tuskers along the correct migratory trail after a fortnight of adventure.
Continuing on this adventurous path, Parbati leads a life devoid of modern conveniences even today. She uses ash instead of toothpaste and sleeps inside a tent on a threadbare mattress, while surrounded by the tools of her trade — ropes, chains, khukris (a sharp knife), and stirrups.
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When she was asked about her fascination with the tuskers, she said to the Firstpost, “Love cannot be explained. Perhaps it’s because elephants are very stable, loyal, affectionate and disciplined.”
Edited by Pranita Bhat
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