Travels On My Elephant

Mark Shand


Travels On My Elephant

Mark Shand


Tara was an elephant, and in Hindi her name means ‘star’. With the help of a Maratha nobleman, Mark Shand purchased Tara and rode her over 600 miles across India, from Konarak, on the Bay of Bengal, to the Sonepur Mela – the world’s oldest elephant market.

From Bhim, a drink-racked Mahout, Mark Shand learnt the skills of elephant driving. From his friend Aditya Patankar he learnt Indian ways. And with Tara, his new companion, he fell in love. So much so, that decades after their travelling days were over, Mark Shand was still fund-raising and campaigning on behalf of Indian elephants.

Travels on My Elephant is the story of their epic journey across the dusty back roads of India and a memorable, touching account of Tara’s transformation from a sad, scrawny beggar elephant to the star attraction who became Mark Shand’s devoted loyal companion.

‘I enjoyed this book immensely. Shand is the most engaging adventurer I have come across’ - Imran Khan
‘A Just So story for our times’ - Observer
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Travels On My Elephant
SBN: 978-1780600-69-7
Format: 200pp demi pb
Place: India

Author Biography

Mark Shand is a travel writer with a playboy past which has been exchanged for the life of a fund-raising conservationist. His travel books include River Dog: A journey down the BrahmaputraQueen of the ElephantsSkullduggery (a journey he undertook with his friend Don McCullin) and Travels on my Elephant for which he received the Travel Writer of the Year award. The latter journey directly led to his foundation of Elephant Family - a charity specifically established to protect the environment of the Asian elephant, tiger and orangutan, and is currently engaged in the creation and acquisition of half kilometre wide jungle corridors that connect together the various different forest reserves.


Extract from Prologue

‘AM I RIGHT in assuming that you want to buy an elephant?’ the voice from New Delhi shouted down the telephone to me in London. Even through the hiss and static of the long-distance connection I could detect the apprehension in the voice.

‘Yes,’ I shouted back.

I was restless again. The last time I had been restless, I ended up being pursued by cannibals in Indonesia. This time, I had decided on a quiet jaunt across India on an elephant. This idea evolved from a drawing I had discovered while clearing out my grandmother’s house after she had died. The drawing was of an infuriated male elephant about to charge a little Indian mahout or elephant driver. I took it with me and forgot about it – at least I thought I had.

A few days later I opened a book on India. Staring jovially at me from the page was a bewhiskered gentleman, wearing a dashing plumed hat, sitting nonchalantly astride an elephant. It was Tom Coryat, the eccentric Englishman who travelled to India overland in 1615, on foot, on twopence a day. When he reached the court of the great Moghul Emperor Jahangir, he wrote: ‘I have rid upon an elephant since I came to this court, determining one day (by God’s leave) to have my picture expressed in my next booke sitting upon an elephant.’ I was now obsessed. With or without God’s leave I was determined to have my picture expressed in my next book sitting upon an elephant.

I rushed to the library where I read a few classics on elephants. From the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, I received sound information:

The great elephant has by nature qualities which rarely occur among men, namely probity, prudence and a sense of justice. They are mild in disposition and are conscious of dangers. If one of them should come upon a man alone who has lost his way, he puts him back peacefully in the path from which he has wandered. It is so peaceable that its nature does not allow it willingly to injure creatures less powerful than itself. If it should chance to meet a drove or flock of sheep, it puts them aside with its trunk so as to avoid trampling upon them with its feet; and it never injures others unless it is provoked. They have a great dread of the grunting of pigs and they delight in rivers. They hate rats. Flies are much attracted by their smell and as they settle on their backs they wrinkle up their skin deepening its tight folds 

and so kill them.

How could I go wrong? It seemed I had chosen a most practical and agreeable travelling companion.

Now I was telephoning a friend in New Delhi. ‘Yes, I want to buy an elephant,’ I shouted to him, as if this was the most usual of requests.

‘You must be mad,’ his voice echoed. ‘Still, I suppose it’s possible. India is full of elephants, but what are you going to do with it when you leave? I don’t see your parents taking kindly to it residing in Sussex. Think of their beautiful garden. Why don’t you rent an elephant?’

‘Rent one?’ I yelled. ‘It’s not a car.’

‘All right, I’ll see what I can do.’ I could hear the resignation in his voice. ‘Meanwhile I suggest you contact Pepita. I think she has an elephant.’

‘Thank you so much. Goodbye.’

‘Mark,’ he shouted frantically. ‘There’s just one other thing. Where are you going to go on it?’

‘Well, um … er …’ I stuttered feebly. ‘To be frank, I haven’t really given it much thought yet.’ In fact, I had not thought about it at all. I just imagined myself climbing aboard and setting off.

Pepita Seth is an unconventional English woman, married to one of India’s finest actors. A scholar and talented photographer, she spent ten years in Kerala documenting the religious rituals of southern India. There she became obsessed with the elephant that so enriches Kerala’s ceremonies and festivals. Now she lives in Delhi. I wrote asking if I could buy her elephant. Pepita replied promptly. Her writing paper ‘ELEPHANT OWNERS’ ASSOCIATION’ announced what surely must be the most exclusive club in the world: No, I could not buy her elephant, she wrote indignantly. ‘On the other hand I know where you can get one. The Sonepur Mela in Bihar, the world’s largest animal fair. Elephants, cattle and horses have been sold there for centuries. I went three years ago and must have seen three hundred elephants. It happens sometime at the end of November, depending on the full moon.’

It was now the beginning of August and the Mela was not for another four months. I couldn’t wait that long. I decided to leave for India immediately certain that I would find an elephant once I got there. After all, I now had a goal – a place to sell it. I just had to find one and ride to the fair.


INDIA SHOWS WHAT she wants to show, as if her secrets are guarded by a wall of infinite height. You try to climb the wall – you fall; you fetch a ladder – it is too short; but if you are patient a brick will loosen and then another. Once through, India embraces you, but that was something I had yet to learn.

When I arrived in Delhi it was my ladder that was too short. I wanted everything immediately. The monsoons had broken. Black, swollen clouds brought the usual rain, humidity and chaos. Roads were awash, taxis broke down, peacocks screamed. I perspired, worried and developed prickly heat – and I had only been there a few days.

Inevitably I consulted a fortune-teller. ‘You are married, yes,’ he stated wisely.

‘No,’ I replied.

‘But you are having a companion, I think.’


‘You are most fortunate, sir. Soon you will be having another one. I am seeing many problems. But do not worry, sir,’ he added brightly. ‘They will only be getting worse.’

With characteristic generosity my friend had put his house at my disposal. It was to become ‘elephant headquarters’ and the mantle of co-ordinator had settled, however unwillingly, upon his shoulders. In the following week his elegant dining-room was converted into an operations area fit for a world war. Maps and papers littered the table, kit bags, medical supplies, mosquito nets, tents and food rations occupied corners. People dropped in and out. The telephone never stopped ringing and his staff worked overtime producing a continuous chain of refreshments. Game wardens, wildlife officials and forest officers, retired shikaris, politicians, journalists, government servants, ministers and just plain friends were contacted – all important people with tight schedules who went out of their way to help. Undeservedly, however, the bricks had already been loosened for me.