El Salvador pines for Indian - Songs, paintings and Facebook page fete Manyula

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  • Published 26.12.10

New Delhi, Dec. 25: For over half a century, El Salvador had looked to its most famous Indian resident to seek solace amid the civil wars, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, earthquakes and gang wars wracking the country.

When she fell ill at 60 this year, the news made the front pages for days. After her death from renal failure on September 21, thousands of mourners — young and old, politician and poor — turned up with candles, flowers and posters as the grand old lady was buried in a very large grave in capital San Salvador.

Now Central America’s smallest nation wants a replacement — or two — for the Indian-born Manyula, the country’s only elephant who became a national icon during her 55-year stay at the San Salvador zoo.

Although offers have poured in from across the world, Salvadorans insist that the new elephant must come from India, as Manyula herself had done in 1955. She had arrived as a five-year-old cub (“Manyula” means “girl”) along with several tigers, baboons and chimpanzees.

El Salvador’s ambassador to New Delhi, Ruben Zamora, has already made a request to South Block, ignoring a strong campaign by mostly US and Europe-based animal rights activists who are against elephants being held in captivity.

Perhaps the Salvadorans’ fascination with Manyula had to do with the attraction between opposites. Maybe it was the wonder that the sight of the gentle giant evoked in a country nicknamed the “Tom Thumb of the Americas” because of its shape and size.

To generations of Salvadorans, Manyula was a symbol of serenity and permanence, a calming and benign presence amid the natural disasters and political upheavals that claimed thousands of lives.

“My grandmother first brought me to see her. I had been visiting her for the past 43 years,” a woman told a local newspaper.

Manyula was called the “queen of the zoo” and her enclosure was moved right to the entrance. Now, a small statue with a plaque stating “Plaza Manyula” stands at the spot.

Painters have painted her and musicians have composed songs to her. Manyula by singer Omar Angula is a hit. Salvadorans have posted the elephant’s videos on YouTube and grieved for her on Facebook, the page drawing 9,000 members.

But animal rights activists say Manyula herself was denied the joy and comfort she gave her adoptive country. They cite how she died without ever knowing the companionship of a fellow elephant. They have asked the zoo never to house elephants again.

But almost all the protests have come from outside El Salvador — the local population desperately wants another Manyula. Ambassador Zamora, who plans to meet environment minister Jairam Ramesh in January, has said he would try to get two elephants so that they do not feel lonely.

Dozens of Salvadorans have written rejoinders to the activists’ Internet campaign.

“Manyula was a great icon for the Salvadoran community. She put a smile on the faces of many generations. It’s sad to hear that part of my childhood is dead. We will always remember her,” posted Harold Garcia.

“We’ll remember how she used to show off when people came to visit her; that wild and happy spirit she used to have. Thank you Manyula... thank you for drawing so many smiles on the innocent faces of so many children. Te recordaremos siempre (I will always remember).”

At 21,040sqkm, the Republica de El Salvador (Republic of the Saviour) may be the size of Manipur and its population only half that of Calcutta, but it is passionate about what it wants. The soccer-crazy country had fought a four-day “Football War” with neighbour Honduras in July 1969 after a bitter World Cup play-off between them.

Zamora did not reply to this newspaper’s queries. The Salvadorans apparently fear that any publicity may lead to animal rights activists derailing the move. However, the Salvadoran media quoted Zamora as saying: “There is much interest from the foreign ministry of India to make an exchange (of species).”

He said elephants from Kerala might be brought to El Salvador in a trade-off for rare Salvadoran monkeys.