Elephant link

Print edition : February 11, 2011

A file picture of Manjula, the Asian elephant that died in the National Zoo of San Salvador. - PICTURES COURTESY ELFARO

An Indian elephant, which died recently in a zoo in the country, inspires El Salvador to seek closer ties with India.

SOME stories begin with no indication of the end. The story of Manjula is one such. This Asian elephant, who began her voyage to El Salvador, the smallest Central American country, in 1955 and became a national icon ever since she made the country's national zoo her home, died of ill health in September 2010. The emotions her death evoked among El Salvadorians have been a huge revelation.

Manjula [or Man-hew-la as Salvadorians pronounce the name] is an emotional issue in El Salvador. She was the first elephant we saw in our lives. We have no elephants there. The day she died hundreds of people gathered to see her last rites. And the nation declared it a day of mourning, said Ruben Ignacio Zamora Rivas, El Salvador's Ambassador to India. It was a pleasant winter morning, and the Ambassador, sipping coffee at the embassy in the upmarket Vasant Vihar in New Delhi, reminisced about the only elephant his country had housed. What the story brings home is the fact that Manjula was not just another elephant: she was brought from India, and the people of El Salvador became attached not just to her but also to an India they had never seen. Salvadorians are now rallying with their government to find another Indian elephant to keep the memory of Manjula alive. It was sometime in the 1950s. The coffee prices in the world market went up. El Salvador wanted to improve the national zoo in its capital, San Salvador. The government contacted a broker in New York who got us an Indian elephant, Rivas explained.

It was this little South Asian elephant with small ears, and we named it Manhewla. It is not a Spanish word. The origins of this name are in Sanskrit. That was the first time our people saw an elephant. I have heard that thousands of people came to the dock to see it deboarding the ship, he said. Do you know that it took nearly two weeks for Manjula to reach San Salvador? It came in a ship via Hamburg in Germany, he said.

Manjula's body adorned with wreaths.-

Since the arrival of Manjula, Parque Zoologico Nacional de San Salvador, or the national zoo, was not the same. Entry to the park was made free and the biggest spectacle of the zoo was Manjula. People made weekly visits with their children to see her. Schools organised trips to see Manjula. It was amid this kind of popularity that the doctors advised that she be put to sleep because of her failing health. It caused a national commotion. Small resistances took over, with newspapers reporting mostly this event in our country. Finally, people understood, and the day came when Manjula had to be buried, after elaborate arrangements, Rivas said.

When a person dies in El Salvador, friends and relatives of the deceased perform velacion, a benediction. The body is kept for a night, and friends and relatives sit around it and sing. Manjula was the first animal to receive this honour. The outpouring of grief and respect for the elephant was spontaneous. Nothing of this sort had been seen in our country before. It was a spectacle. Almost everyone in San Salvador and even people from other cities came with candles, posters and gifts for Manjula that night. We had to close the zoo as there could have been a stampede in it. Still people stayed outside the zoo to have a last glimpse of Manjula. It was a scene to remember, Rivas recalled.

People throng to witness the burial.-

Just a day after her burial, the government asked me to speak to the Indian government so that we could import another Indian elephant, he said. An elephant and not just another elephant is what the people of El Salvador want. They are so emotionally attached to Manjula.

The farewell ritual included throwing fruits and flowers into the pit.-

The Ambassador has been trying to strike a deal with India to import an elephant, but has met with bureaucratic hassles. In India, if you import elephants you cannot import just one. You will have to import at least two. We are ready for that. I have to talk to the Environment Ministry, the Home Ministry and the External Affairs Ministry. Hopefully, I will be able to do that soon. We are also ready to exchange some of our bird varieties that are not available in South Asia, such as the rare black birds, Rivas said.

People begin to mill around the corral where the elephant lived for 55 years.-

El Salvador has also used the opportunity to expand bilateral relations with India. The relations between the two countries have been minimal, with not much trade happening between them. This is primarily because of the highly formal transport lines between India and El Salvador and vice versa. Rivas said: If you have to transport anything from India, the goods have to first go to the United States of America and then to Europe before they could reach India. This is what prevents vibrant trade between the two countries. The connections between El Salvador and South Asia are very bad because of such transport agreements made over a period of time.

Commerce between the two countries is very low. India gets some timber and scrap metal from El Salvador while the latter imports some textiles from India. But Rivas says the new government in El Salvador has a new outlook for India. We want to strengthen political and economic ties with India as Asia has become a top priority in Central and Latin America. We know in the next two decades Asia will run the world economy. To improve relations with India is our only option as we cannot do that with China because we have good relations with Taiwan historically. It is for this reason that South Asia is on the top of our priority list. We recently concluded a trade agreement with Sri Lanka, Rivas said.

Children at a candlelight vigil.-

Rivas realises that India is a big country and has huge economic prospects. If India improves its economic relations with El Salvador, it will be an advantage, for El Salvador has the only deep-water port in Central America, he said. There is a growing pharmaceutical packing industry in El Salvador. Some of the medicines that are packed in El Salvador are made in India. We are going to have a common customs agreement and a free trade agreement with the European Union, which will solve the transport problems that have been restricting even private trade, he said.

Manjula's caretakers bid her a tearful farewell.-

Likewise, El Salvador also seeks investment by Indian industries in its service sector. This, he said, would help minimise the illegal immigration problem in El Salvador. The main concern of El Salvador is to create job opportunities. Rivas believes that cultural ties must be strengthened to make the relations sustainable.

The posters at the zoo left no one in doubt about the affection the people had for the animal. The Ministry of Culture provided papers and markers for those who wished to leave a message.-

We have learnt a lot from India. That is why we have implemented the public-private partnership model in our port. We have set up an information technology college in our country where there are two Indian teachers. We have relations on the language front with universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Delhi University. We have got some Salvadorian poems translated into Bengali. The novelist Manzio Areueta, considered to be a living legend in El Salvador, has been translated into Tamil. We want him to be translated into more Indian languages so that people know more about our culture. Only then, there will be a healthy environment to build economic and political ties. Economic connections, despite being indispensable, are fragile. If you don't create a substratum of cultural links, there will be a crisis. And importing an elephant at the outset will be a strong beginning, Rivas said.

Drawings of Manjula formed an altar in front of the locked gate of the zoo.-

With the kind of turn world politics has taken, it is strange how the national identity of even an animal becomes important. Manjula transcended national boundaries and united the emotions of two nations that are so ignorant of each other.

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