The painted elephants of Rajasthan

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When I first stumbled across these photos of  India’s annual festival of the elephants I thought they were stunningly beautiful – and yet also unsettling. The beauty, colour, texture, culture and history evoked is combined  with nagging questions of animal treatment.

Unsettling and intriguing – the hallmarks of powerful photography…

There is a long history of elephants being idolised as a cultural icon in India. These magnificent animals are an important part of both Indian’s mythology and its modern development.

Mythology has it that the elephant was one of the nine jewels that surfaced when the gods and devils churned the ocean looking for the elixir of life, and subsequently must be treasured and protected as a jewel would be.

The elephant also has been integral to the country as a working animal essential in war and labour.

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Every March, at the Elephant Festival in Jaipur, Rajasthan, working elephants are given a day off from ferrying tourists and painted, dressed and paraded in elephant beauty contests – but these photos may be some of the last we see of the animals in that pantomime state.

The festival has met with opposition from animal welfare activists and has been cancelled for the last two years. According to reports in Indian media, concerns about the chemicals in the coloured paint used was the basis of the opposition.

The photos shared here were taken by French photographer, Charles Fréger, before the cancellation of the parade. He photographed 25 elephants, one by one, with different costumes and painting styles.

On his website, Freger writes:

“It was like a dream to organize this painted elephant project in India. I wanted to know how it felt to portrait the elephant, so much that the elephant became really the model, much more than the mahout on its back.”

See a full gallery of Freger’s photos at National Geographic here: Painted Elephants–Photo Gallery.

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