THE ASIAN ELEPHANT

THE ART OF ELEPHANT KEEPING

by Prajna Chowta
Aane Mane Foundation, India - September 2007

Indra mounted on his elephant Airawat (Halebid Temple, Karnataka)

The old sculptures and carvings of India often represent the Hindu god Indra, "King of the Heavens", with a thunderbolt in his right hand and mounted on an elephant: Airawat. According to mythology, the great, white elephant was churned from the nectar of immortality, in the waters of the Ocean and had not two, but four tusks, just like the Gomphotera, another proboscidean (proboscis=trunk) that appeared on earth about 22 million years ago and vanished only one million years ago. Airawat may be an ancestral cousin of the present elephants, and reminds us that the elephant was at first the mount of gods and kings.

Ever since, riding an elephant has been seen as majestic and even today, most mahouts sustain years of training and hardship for the pride of riding a powerful male elephant with tusks. The upkeep of an elephant is an art in itself and there are no schools. The only way to enter this tradition is to be accepted and adopted by a community of mahouts, then eventually merit the teaching of this secret and ancient knowledge.

Shivo and Saiad

The mahouts' knowledge is communitarian and it is enriched and revived only through practical settings. In general, they descend from a lineage of mahouts but only a few among them are capable of having a complete mastery of the art of taking care of an elephant in its natural environment. When a child is born, it is made to touch the elephant as a mark of respect and familiarity. The child grows up with the least fear for the animal and will only be a fine mahout if obsessed about the forests and elephants. An adept mahout has to be able to differentiate any elephant from the side, the back, and the front, to be able to know the trees, the plants, the bushes and their applications.

All known texts agree in attributing the founding of scientific elephantology to a mystical sage Palakapya who is said to have lived in the 6th century B.C. He roamed and lived amongst the elephants, learning all about them, what they should and should not eat, their joys and grief, their gestures, their whereabouts and what is good and bad for them. The Hastyayurveda, a work on the medical treatment of elephants written in Sanskrit and in poetry form is attributed to this sage.

Kuti and Bela

Today, in India, there are only about 3000 captive elephants, so that could only add up to 6 to 7000 mahouts, that is, if the elephant owners maintain a minimum of two men per elephant, plus apprentices. In the past there had to be a minimum of 3 men and now finding even one good mahout is difficult.
So how do you maintain this tradition, when in present times the value of this highly specialised work is undervalued?

Unless there is a continuity of working elephant men to pass down their observations, their experiences, their stories, their herbal remedies, their knacks of the trade, there can be no future. This practice that has been passed down for more than 5000 years is an intuitive wisdom, and if it is institutionalised, the instinct, which is the nexus of this work will disappear.

Dhan Singh

Only when you mix the learned with the inexperienced mahouts can the tradition be maintained, one demonstrating, the other following suite. Simple things like quality elephant equipment, which is not available in any store, has to be made from raw materials spread out in different areas; ropes are made from soft hemp fibres, cleaned and rolled by hands; reeds and coconut coir are dried and prepared for the stuffing of the saddles (gaddi) and undersaddles (namda) then stitched with specific needles; logging equipment is made from wood, leather, natural stuffing, and chains; scrubbing brushes are fruits or barks collected from floral species that are generally found near water bodies or water retention areas, which are cut, and sun dried before use. All the materials that are made need to be maintained all year long and refurbished the following year according to the requirement.

Does this tradition have the means to continue? It needs support and a directive involvement, as its techniques continue to serve particular requirements: state ceremonies, forest department activities such as forest patrolling against poaching, captures of problematic wild elephants, timber dragging in plantations, tourism... If seen from the human resources point of view, this tradition should be regarded as a significant asset for if it is lost one day, it will be impossible to revive.

Dharma, the baby elephant

From the starting point, maintaining and reviving the techniques of elephant keeping was a priority for the Aane Mane Foundation. Two captive female elephants in poor condition were rescued from another region and relocated in a reserved forest of south India with the support of the Karnataka Forest Department. The techniques and experience of different communities of mahouts were combined so as to restore the condition of the two female elephants that are now used to approach and observe wild elephants at close range (less than twenty metres/sixty feet), undisturbed by our presence, thanks to the presence of our two elephants.

This programme has been taking place daily since March 2002, a dozen of young mahouts have benefited from this training, one elephant delivered a male calf in July and the other is carrying. Soon, two young elephants will require care and training. Aane Mane Foundation will have to double its means and calls for support from all elephant lovers.

See the Photo Gallery about Mahouts at Work Back