In Rajasthan, land of the kings, Amer Fort crowns the city of Jaipur.
Raja Man Singh built Amer Fort in the 16th century atop a large hill that meets the edge of Maota Lake. A delicate wall curves along its spine like a string of pearls; the morning light is so soft that it casts the amber fort in a nostalgic haze; its worn cobblestones speak of a ritual of grandeur—processions, imperial marriages, and festivals— carried out for centuries.
Though the fort boasts Amer Palace, the Mirror Palace, frescos, and pavilions as exotic tourist attractions, it was the elephants that captivated me. Bedecked with bright mirror-embroidered cloth, they shuttled up and down the fort carrying tourists on their backs, swinging their painted trunks. The mahouts proudly perched on their backs chatted under the fort’s amber arches; they carried cruel iron hooks to prod the elephants into submission.
When it was finally my turn to step out of the long line and onto the loading platform, I was ready to yield to the rhythmic sway of the elephants. I sat on my elephant’s back with my brother, and while he snapped photos, I examined the elephant’s fluffy eyelashes and tiny smiling eyes. She was like an old woman guiding me with her leathery hand, slowly, as if urging me to take everything in, to absorb how the view changed with each step. She courteously took us through the fort following a single file line, mainly because the mahout prodded her with sharp iron.
We were curving into the main courtyard when another elephant on the way down bucked a bit, unsettling the mahout so that his hook clattered to the floor. The elephant stopped for a minute and bowed her magnificent head down. With grace, her trunk swooped up the hook; she gently handed it to her master. He proceeded prodding her with it, and she slowly continued the painful journey down the hill. At that moment, I felt wrong for riding such a majestic creature when our kind rightly deserved to be trampled by them. How can we domesticate a creature that so closely resonates with the wise, maternal spirit of the earth?
There is a popular folktale about the elephant. One day, six blind men went to visit an elephant that had entered the village. None of them knew what an elephant was, so they attempted to “see” the elephant through touch. Each of the six men felt a different part—the tail, the tusk, the ear, the trunk, the leg, and the flank. And each man thought the elephant resembled a completely different object—a rope, a pipe, a fan, a snake, a pillar, and a wall. They argued over what the elephant most resembled, each insisting he was right. It was only until a king stopped by and inquired about the altercation that it was settled. When they explained, the king laughed and answered, “All of you are right. The elephant is composed of different parts and has all of the features you mentioned.”
While this parable usually refers to the coming together of ideological differences, the story can also relate to traveling. The geography of the elephant’s body— each part previously untouched and unknown— represents new places. Before we travel, our understanding of the world is so limited, so fragmented and superficial. The more we travel, however, the more parts of the world we touch; and over time, the more we understand how the world fits together.