My eyes are glued to the screen as Indiana Jones rides his elephant up towards Pankot Palace. I am bursting with excitement and dream of exotic adventures and Indian palaces in places far, far away. It’s 1984 and at just nine years old, watching “Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom” is one of many experiences that would shape my adult life to come. As my eyes struggle to stay open, I fall into a deep sleep full of Maharajas, princesses and evil cultists. When I grow up I want to be just like “Indy”.
Fast forward a number of years and although I would still like to be “Indy”, reality has, to some degree, taken its toll. Standing in front of the real Pankot Palace, a stunning fortification in Jaipur India, the feeling of adventure and exotic locations is certainly still there. As the sun rises over the horizon, illuminating this sandstone marvel, the deep red and warm orange glistens against the bland desert backdrop. Amer Fort, the name of the fort chosen as the location in the blockbuster movie, is a fort built by Raja Man Singh I in 1592. In centuries past, it was home to many Maharajas, but today it is the principal tourist attraction in the Rajasthan region. With more than 1.5 million visitors per year, a tremendous amount of stress is being put on these old buildings. The government understands that conserving old treasures like Amer Fort should be a priority. More than eight million dollars have been allocated to preserve the buildings, and although the funds don’t always get used optimally, it is a start. As visitors, we can help the cause by acting responsibly, beig aware of where we sit and what we touch, not drawing pointless graffiti and such, something which sadly was prevalent throughout the fort.
One of the main draws to tourists from all around the world is that you can ride elephants up the steep winding hills to reach the imposing fortress. Watching the elephants march towards the humongous gates is almost surreal, as it looks exactly like in the movies. Now I must confess, the movie was not filmed here after all. The production team could not get it approved by the local government who found the script offensive and wanted to change almost everything if they were to shoot the film epic here. Instead, they opted to film most of the movie in Sri Lanka, and Pankot Palace was created as a miniature. Nevertheless, you can certainly understand why this would have been the perfect choice.
Overwhelmed and a little discouraged, I couldn’t help but feel terribly upset by seeing these magnificent creatures queuing up to haul the tourists up the steep mountain. The idea of riding these elephants is truly romantic, and if it could be done in a humane way, I would not be entirely against it. From what we observed, this does not seem possible, and some of these elephants are certainly not living an ideal life. It was horrifying to see that after the tourists got off the elephants, some of the Mahouts (the elephant trainers) would beat the elephants to return faster for the next pick-up. The training of the elephants involves torture-like methods to dominate and destroy their spirits. Carrying the weight of several humans is incredibly strenuous and causes permanent damage to their spines, a fact often overlooked by eager and slightly ignorant tourists. There are ways to enjoy the domestic elephants which are not harmful and which should become the norm of human and domestic elephant interaction. More and more sanctuaries are popping up across Asia; sanctuaries that allow tourists to spend time with elephants, bathing, feeding and spoiling them – a much more balanced relationship. Ideally of course the elephants should remain wild, but for the ones that are born in captivity the sanctuaries are a great alternative! The key to these issues is awareness and understanding. If the public learned about the good and bad sides to elephant tourism I am confident they would make the right choice. There is such an immense feeling of joy when seeing these highly intelligent animals in the wild and the amazing look in their eyes will never be matched by that of a domesticated elephant.
I was in complete and utter awe of this impressive fortress overlooking the city of Jaipur. A remarkable wonder which should not be missed and something I believe will inspire the Indy in all of us.