In India, the centuries-old relationship between man and elephant is breaking down. Each species views the other with fear and suspicion. But one woman, the mysterious Parbati Barua, has forged new bonds between them
THE TEA-PLANTERS had gathered for cocktails at the plantation manager's bungalow in Assam, India. Idly, they watched the fireflies dancing over the swimming-pool and chatted of golf, boarding-schools for their children, and the coming monsoon. A deep contentment reigned. And then, out on to the verandah limped a fashionable and bejeaned young Sikh. His arm was wrapped in a sling, and his face was a matted bruise. He had, he explained, been speeding along on his motorcycle in the tea plantation, when he had run splat into the backside of a wild elephant.

"Quick as anything, the damned elephant lashed out with its trunk and knocked me clean off my cycle," he complained. Worse, he had had to scuttle into a drainpipe to escape being stamped to death. The planters laughed condescendingly. The citified young man had only just arrived from Delhi to begin his career in the tea plantations of Assam and West Bengal. He had a thing or two to learn.

"Wild elephants have been giving us too much trouble," said the host. "A week ago, a tusker sniffed out an illegal liquor still that some of the tea pluckers were hiding in the forest. They should have known better. The tusker drained a barrel of the horrible stuff, and fell over, dead drunk.

"But that wasn't the end," he went on. "Some dogs found the elephant lying there the next morning and started yapping. Poor elephant was waking up with most terrible hangover. You can imagine - that country-made liquor is vile. The tusker went chasing after the dogs, and the dogs ran back to the village for safety. That didn't stop the elephant. He destroyed nearly a dozen houses in the village. Injured a few people - not badly, thankfully. Then the elephant wandered back into the forest and slept for three days. Damn nuisance, really. Must get rid of him."

And then another planter piped up: "Why not give that woman in West Bengal a call? Parbati Barua. You know, the elephant princess. She chases away wild elephants - leopards, too."

THAT planter's party was two years ago, and it was then that I first heard of Parbati Barua. Thereafter, I heard about her many times; and, the more I heard, the more improbable her story seemed. She was a prince's daughter, I was told, and had gone to the finest schools before marrying a banker. Then - unhappy in domesticity - she had vanished into the jungle to catch and tame wild elephants with a lasso and little else. I pictured her, astride a huge elephant, as a brash Amazon draped in leopard skins.

Friends of hers said that Parbati had a supernatural understanding of elephants, inherited from her father, PC Barua, the late Rajah of Gauripur. Everybody, even the mahouts (the elephant drivers who look after most of India's 23,000-odd domesticated elephants) called him "Lalji", which means "the beloved little kid". Lalji was an eccentric and uncanny hunter who killed over 40 tigers and twice as many leopards. (There would, I imagined, be no shortage of leopard skins for his Amazonian daughter's wardrobe.) For six, sometimes nine months a year, Lalji left his palace and camped in the Assamese jungle, taking along his large family (he had four wives), and a retinue of 70 servants that included nearly a dozen cooks, a doctor, a barber, and a tutor for his nine children. Parbati, the favourite among the children, has since claimed that "When I opened my eyes for the first time, I saw an elephant." It was probably not the most suitable upbringing for the future wife of a banker.

Although Lalji hunted many different animals in the jungles of Assam, neither he nor his princely ancestors ever killed an elephant. The elephant was sacred to the Barua family; as good Hindus, they had worshipped Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of Auspicious Beginnings, for centuries. When the Moghuls ruled India, demanding taxes from the princes under their domain, the Baruas paid off their yearly tribute to the emperor with six war elephants. But after independence from Britain in 1947, the Indian state began stripping the maharajahs and princes of their land and wealth. The final blow was the abolition of the maharajahs' privy purses in 1970, an act which cut off the Indian aristocracy's final vestiges of privilege and power. Lalji found himself broke, with little left aside from his Mahtiabag palace and a stable full of 40 hungry elephants - each animal devours nearly 250lbs of fodder a day. There was no room for princes in modern India, so Lalji retreated into the forests, seemingly as doomed to extinction as many of the species he had hunted. Parbati followed. Together, father and daughter went into the business of catching wild elephants, taming them and selling them off either privately or through the Sonepur fair, on the River Ganges near Patna. Indeed, many of the elephants seen in north India today - chained outside Hindu temples, dragging teak logs out of the jungle, chauffeuring tourists around game parks or up the steps of Rajasthani palaces - were caught by Lalji and Parbati.

From her father, Parbati learnt the dangerous art of the mela shikar, the elephant round-up. Riding barefoot, and steering her elephant with the firm pressure of her toes behind the elephant's ears, Parbati would stalk a wild herd through a tangle of jungle creepers. Then she would ease her way into the herd, separate one of the smaller calves from the others and, if all went well, have it securely tied up before the alarm was trumpeted and the calf's mother and the bull elephant charged over. Catching wild elephants in this way is perilous work, and Parbati is the only woman in the world to have mastered it. (So remarkable is she that Mark Shand, the English adventurer and pachydermophile, and Aditya Patankar, his Indian collaborator, have written her biography, which is published next week by Jonathan Cape.)

Parbati and Lalji's jungle life came to an end in 1977, when the Indian government banned the capture of elephants for commercial purposes. Lalji was disheartened and impoverished, and his health failed. Parbati nursed "the beloved little kid" until he died. "She took her father's death well," says one friend."She returned to the family for the cremation ceremonies. Then, with all of her duties done, she disappeared alone into the jungle with her elephants for a long, long time."

AND THEN, shortly afterwards, Parbati found a new purpose: a role in the battle between man and India's 9,000 remaining wild elephants. This battle is at its fiercest in rural India where hundreds of wild elephants are killed each year - some by poachers and some by angry villagers tired of having their crops destroyed or gobbled up by these voracious herbivores - and for the past 20 years it has been growing fiercer. "My work," Parbati told friends, "is to rescue man from the elephants, and to keep the elephants safe from man. All the elephant wants is peace and safety." There was no doubt on which side her loyalties lay. "If a man is killed," she said, "millions more are there to replace him. But if just one elephant is killed, the species is brought so much closer to extinction."

Not many of her compatriots share this view. Europeans may entertain warm feelings towards elephants, but in north-east India the species is much less popular, and not without cause. Increasingly, the Indian elephant is angry: shot at by poachers, its ancient migratory paths blocked by tea plantations, its home in the jungles that once greened the Himalayan foothills now reduced to small shards of forest, it finally seems to be fighting back. According to S Deb Roy, former conservator of Assam's forests and one of India's foremost wildlife experts, "There's been a definite behavioural change in the elephant. It's attacking man more often. Before, it was the solitary bulls, but now, even the female elephants are killing people." Each year, more than 200 Indians are killed by elephants - and a disproportionately large number of these killings take place in the Jalpaiguri region of West Bengal, where all that remains of the jungle is a few islands of green - wildlife sanctuaries - surrounded by rice paddies, tea plantations and villages. It is here that Parbati's skills have been in greatest demand.

It was SS Bist, Field Director of the Buxa Tiger Reserve in Jalpaiguri, who best explained the situation. "If an elephant walks more than 15 minutes in the forest," he told me, "he will probably run into human habitation." Most killings, he said, occur when elephants stray into a plantation. The tea-gatherers panic, and, in the confusion, the elephant will charge and kill. Nor does it help that elephants have acquired a taste for alcohol. Often, like bored teenagers on a Saturday night, elephants will go hunting for cane liquor, ransacking village huts until they find a few hidden jugs. Mr Bist showed me photographs of an elephant so drunk it was unable to stand up for several days or even to fight back when villagers lifted up its limp trunk for the photographer.

If an elephant kills without provocation, it is declared a "rogue", and forest rangers must shoot it. But, says Mr Bist, "Given a choice, an elephant doesn't want conflict. The rogue elephants we've examined have usually been injured by man. They've been shot at with arrows or bullets or burnt by torches. They've become so irritated by their wounds that they start hating humans."

A recent forestry department census in northern Bengal shows that only 185 wild elephants are left in the state; 20 years ago, more than 1,000 grazed in these lush jungles. These surviving elephants face a new threat: poachers. Guerrilla tribesmen - known as the Bodos - from across the border in Assam, having slaughtered most of the bull elephants in Assam's Manas wildlife park and traded the ivory for guns, are now moving into Jalpaiguri district.

It is in this Jalpaiguri battle zone, Mr Bist told me, that Parbati is usually to be found . Whenever wild elephants stray into a tea-garden or turn trumpeting mad because a new cluster of huts has blocked their migratory path, Parbati is summoned to guide the beasts back to the jungle before the killing begins. But, my informants added, the elephant princess is elusive. She and her two elephants - try to visualise two three-ton sheepdogs, used for driving wild herds - are often dispatched as far away as Orissa, southern Bengal or Bihar, where 40 elephants recently found their migratory route blocked and were wandering lost among the paddy fields.

Mr Bist directed me to the Subhasini Tea Estate, 40 miles away: "The manager there's a good chap - Banerjee's his name. He usually knows how to find her."

SUBHASINI tea estate lies close to the foothills of Bhutan, surrounded by Jalpara reserve, 200 sq km of forest and marsh with grass tall enough to hide elephants, rhinos, leopards, tigers and deer. In the plantation, tea pluckers - Nepali women in vivid red and orange saris - were bunched like flowers among the bushes, each woman slowly gliding through her own private patch. The estate was bounded by a deep trench, the first line of defence against wild elephants.

By the roadside, a few tribesmen were quartering a pig. They pointed me towards the manager's very English-looking cottage. There, Bhanu Banerjee, an ebullient and athletic-looking Bengali in tennis shorts, invited me in for a cold beer. The interior of his bungalow was most un-English; his salon was a replica of a Tibetan shrine, with tanka paintings and a wooden altar that occupied a corner of the room with a shrine of Buddha illuminated by butter lamps. "You're in luck," he told me. "Parbati's building a small farmhouse by the river. Just five minutes away."

He knew Parbati well: indeed, he'd turned to her a few years back when he had leopard trouble. Leopards, he told me, often hide their newborn cubs in the cool damp ditches around the tea bushes and are impossible to see until the gatherers walk right into their lair. "A plucker was mauled to death by a leopard, and the workers were so angry they were tried to lynch me. After that, we brought in Parbati and her elephants to chase away the leopard." (In the Jalpara Sanctuary I saw a photograph of Lalji on top of his elephant. In its trunk, the elephant was dangling an extremely angry leopard by the tail. "Leopards and tigers usually won't attack an elephant rider," Parbati told me later. "They can't see that high up.")

Mr Banerjee had known Parbati since she was a young girl. "She's frail, short and with a voice as thin as she is. But, my God, I don't know what command, what power she has, but she can make an elephant obey more than any of those hefty men. The elephants act motherly towards her. Once, I hugged Parbati in front of her elephant. Damned if the elephant didn't prod me on the ribs with her trunk, telling me to leave Parbati alone."

IT WAS dusk when I drove up to a simple pink house at the end of a dirt road by the Torsa river and saw what looked like a young servant girl lighting candles in front of a stone Shivalingam. It was Parbati (she is actually 37). She was short, less than 5ft, dressed in a plain cotton sari and intensely shy. I had the feeling that she was struggling with the urge to bolt into the forest. Without saying a word, she led me to her verandah and pulled up chairs for the two of us. She sat with her arms clasped tight around her, fidgeted and then rested her hands primly on her knees. She was taut and nervy, a twig of a woman. "I know you have come a long way, but I have nothing to say," she told me, her voice small but wilful. "How can you understand anything about elephants in only a few days?"

"Tell me about yourself, then."

"Better we discuss elephants."

And so we sat in her spartan house, with its mud floors. (Parbati makes a living hiring out her services to the tea-gardens and, occasionally, renting her own elephants to wildlife parks for £200 a month.) Gradually, as night spread down from the Bhutan hills and a lantern was brought to the verandah by one of her mahouts, Parbati began to open up. She spoke of how, before she could even walk, her father gave her a baby elephant to ride, of how she preferred the company of elephants and mahouts to that of princelings and princesses, and of how, when she was immured in boarding-schools, she yearned to rejoin her father in the jungle. "My father enjoyed going to London and all these places. But for me, three or four days in a city is the maximum I can bear." Indirectly, she also spoke of her unhappy arranged marriage to the Assamese banker. Parbati married him only at her father's insistence, but her misery was so apparent after one year that even Lalji, known for his stubbornness, had to admit that he had made a mistake. "My family knows that if they try to block me, I'll kick away the blocks," she says.

"Without adventure, life is too dull. As a housewife, you make tea and food, serve it and send the children off to school. That is all. Every step of what I do involves a risk. When I'm trying to lasso a wild elephant, I'm concentrating so hard that I've probably forgotten my own name. Hours go by and you forget everything else," says Parbati. "That exhilaration stays with me for two or three days after the chase. Then I feel sad that I've separated this elephant child from its mother."

Being Lalji's daughter helped Parbati to enter the all-male fraternity of mahouts. She learnt that if an elephant fell sick, the best cure was to let the creature wander off into the forest and find its own medicinal herbs. Parbati claims that an elephant's knowledge, passed down through the herd, takes in nearly 1,000 medicinal plants. Mr Bist, the forestry official, agrees: "Vets can't do much with elephants. Even if it's something as straightforward as a dog bite, the elephant will probably die unless it can find the right plants for itself. Parbati has this knowledge, too." In many ways, Parbati has surpassed the mahouts. Most can only make the elephant respond to 30 verbal commands. Parbati's vocabulary stretches to 42 commands. These are not, she told me, such simple instructions as "Lie down" and "Roll over", but "Take this letter in your trunk, go through the forest and deliver it to the other camp." She was relaxed now, happy with her favourite topic, prepared even to joke. "If I found a pen big enough, I could probably teach an elephant how to write."

As she talked, the lantern caught the glow of her large diamond ring, an heirloom of her regal past. But her world is now that of the mahouts, the men who taught Parbati the elephant love songs which are used to soothe and tame a newly captured beast; a good mahout will spend 16 hours a day, singing to the elephant, feeding it, bathing it, caressing it. Elephants, she told me, also have an excellent memory for sounds. "In the jungle, all I have to do is give my call," Parbati said, "and my elephants will come running. No mahout can stop them."

In case all this sounded too cosy and anthropomorphic, Parbati wanted me to have no doubt that raising an elephant was not like keeping goldfish. "No matter how long an elephant remains in captivity, the elephant stays wild. That part of them never leaves. No creature that has ever come from the wilderness is happy in a cage." But she insisted that they can grow to love their mahouts. "We've had many female elephants escaping to rejoin their herd," she explained. "But once a tusker ran away. Five years later, he changed his mind and came back to our ancestral home, 150 miles away from the place where he disappeared."

Parbati insists that a "law of the jungle" exists among elephants, as among all animals: a law that is superior to man's rule. A tiger and an elephant will brush by each other on the same path without scrapping with one another, while among bull elephants it is understood that to start a fight almost always means a fight to the death. "It's a horrible sight," she told me. "Sometimes the bulls will just be playing around with each other, joking like, and one will get angry. Then it's a fight to the end." Such epic clashes - and she has witnessed many - can last up to five days, ranging through forests, villages and farmland, with the two elephants oblivious to all but their duel. "They'll stop if they trap themselves in a ravine - and then start up in a wider place. They walk single-file into battle again, never attacking from behind. Elephants are more civilised than us. We have laws, but we break them."

It is, in fact, solitary bulls, those chased from the herd, that are responsible for the deaths of most tea workers and villagers. So serious has this problem become that the authorities are being forced to take some sort of action - and for that, it seems, they need Parbati's help. To capture nearly 40 elephants tagged as potential killers, they are planning to revive the old mela shikars, or round-ups. Parbati isn't convinced that this is a sane idea. "What do we do after we've captured the solitary bulls? Do we kill them? I say we try taming them, but it's difficult trying to domesticate a full-grown wild elephant. I'm not sure anybody has tried it before." Nor is she keen on using tranquilliser guns to capture these lone bulls. "With tranquillisers you must know the weight and if the elephant's heart is in good shape, otherwise the drug will kill him. No, I prefer my lasso."

Assuming that she does proceed with the plan, she might well end up doing the job alone; there are few mahouts in India today who can match her skills in the mela shikar. As Mr Bist explains: "Parbati has practical experience. We've read about trapping elephants, and we know how it's done - in theory. But she's the only one who can actually do it." It is hard to believe that he is talking about a fragile woman who, at first sight, looks as though she would be incapable of crossing any busy street in India, buzzing with rickshaws, scooters and lorries.

At Parbati's farmhouse, one of her elephants approached us. I asked her if she had ever experienced fear riding an elephant. "You can't show fear," she replied. "You have to keep your brain cool. An elephant can sense exactly what's inside a mahout's head." And with that she grabbed her elephant's ears, scampered up its freckled trunk and sat, little bigger than a child, on the huge, happy animal.

There was only one question left to ask: did she enjoy elephants' company better than humans'?

"Of course," she said, with a sly little grin. "They don't waste your time, disturbing you with so many questions." !