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Parbati Baruah, India’s first female mahout awarded Padma Shri

Honoured for challenging stereotypes and carving a path for women in a traditionally male-dominated field.

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Popularly known as ‘Elephant Girl’ (Hasti Kanya) in Assam, 67-year-old Parbati Baruah is India’s first woman mahout (elephant keeper) who was conferred the Padma Shri award on April 22. She has been recognised for her work in animal conservation and for dispelling preconceptions to make a name for women in a field that has historically been dominated by men.

She was handed over the Padma award in a ceremony held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.

Born into the Gauripur royal family in the Goalpara district of Assam, Parbati and her father Prakritesh Barua caught their first elephant together when Parbati was 14-years-old in the Kachugaon woods of Kokrajhar district.

Parbati spent 40 years reducing human-elephant conflicts and fighting against gender stereotypes in this field.

Parbati Baruah
Image: X

Human-elephant confrontations have a long history in Assam, and Parbati was instrumental in developing government regulations to keep them under control.

She became a master at taming wild elephants.

Her expertise on the behaviour of elephants made her well-known not just in Assam but also in nearby states like West Bengal and Odisha.

Parbati Baruah also assisted the forest authorities in driving troublemakers back into the forests from agricultural fields.

‘Queen of the Elephants’ is the title of a book written about her by British travel writer and naturalist Mark Roland Shand, published in 1996. Later, the BBC produced a documentary that was widely praised.

Queen of Elephants
Image: Penguin Books

Following at least 40 years of continuous service as a mahout, Parbati committed her life to animal conservation, and she is currently a part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group (IUCN).

This is her family’s second Padma honour.

The Union government earlier also awarded the renowned folk singer Pratima Pandey Barua, her sister, a Padma Shri.

Pramathesh Barua, an award-winning filmmaker, is also related to this family.

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