The Untold Story of India’s Captive Elephants

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A visit to one of India's 'eco-tourism' centres reveals an age-old tradition of elephant abuse. How have elephants fared over the years?

Basking in the glorious morning sun, 75-year-old Soman looks majestic and daunting, yet very gentle. The misty morning air has not yet settled when he started walking the narrow streets of Konni. People marvel at him. “Wow! Look at him”, they say, moving aside to give him right of way.

He makes his presence felt, yet his front legs are hobbled together in shackles of wrought iron, making it difficult for him to walk. He limps ahead slowly, his gait curtailed by those dreadful locks. Every step of this majestic, gentle giant tells of an untold misery endured for years in silence. Like thousands of others, Soman, one of India’s captive elephants lives a life bound by shackles.

Walking next to Soman is his Mahout – a thin, mustachioed man, in his late forties. Dressed in a green shirt and brown Lungi, he wields a thick bamboo hatchet (called Ankush), commanding Soman with his screeching voice – Aana Badavath, Drrrraaahhh! Aana Badavath!

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He is taking Soman and the other elephants held captive at the Konni elephant training camp (renamed eco-tourism center) to the nearby river – It’s bathing time for them.

I walk with Soman, the elephants and the Mahout to the river. The reason – I’m presenting a show on the History Channel about India’s history – and Hastya Ayurveda (an ancient treatise on the science of elephants that was written by Palkăpya), caught my attention. It advocated Sukha Chiktsa, a form of ayurvedic treatment, for elephants. I was intrigued. Can ancient Indian thought be connected to contemporary practice?, I wonder.

Konni’s ‘Eco-Tourism Centre’, I was told, would be an appropriate place to film. So, here I am, to learn more about elephants in India, and their connection to the ancient world.

A chequered history

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‘Elephants are an integral part of India’s history and culture’ or so goes the narrative. Mythology and history are rife with stories of how gods and kings tamed these giant beasts and made them part of our existence.

Ganesh, the Hindu deity worshiped as the remover of obstacles, is recognized by his elephant head. According to one mythological version, angels of Shiva (the god of death), decapitate the head of the elephant ‘Gajasura’, and Brahma (the creator), transplants it onto Parvati’s son – who breathes life in his new avatar.

Human-elephant interaction dates back millennia – elephant seals from the Indus valley civilization, or historical accounts of the Pala Empire’s vast elephant cavalry bear testimony to this.

Babur’s son Akbar, known as the Great Mogul emperor is said to have had over fifty thousand elephants in his army. Historical records show his fascination and ‘natural skill’ with elephants since childhood. Stories of his father gifting him a quiet beast named Dilsankar; of him taming Hawa’i, the elephant in Musth (a period of high testosterone that males undergo) with a choleric temper, gave him the sobriquet, the Great Mahout. He used (read abused) them as weapons of war and beasts of burden – conquering his enemies and enhancing his grandeur as an emperor.

They were also used (read abused) for ‘entertainment’. For hundreds of years until World War II, Sath-Maru or elephant wrestling was an Indian sport – a sadistic wrestling match which pitted intoxicated elephants against each other, in a gruesome fight with Mahouts sitting on their back. Akbar ‘the great’ even had a special amphitheatre built for elephant fights in Agra.

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It was not just the Moguls – the British, Nazi Germans, Belgians, and Japanese captured and enslaved elephants – mainly to be used as artillery and baggage haulers, log workers and beasts of burden. In the colonial era, their importance to the Indian army led to a book being written about them.

Regardless of books written and narratives painted, elephants bearing excessive workloads died in the thousands or were left wounded with nasty acid burns from carrying batteries. Over 4000 died in 1944 alone.

A historical record written by a war veteran during 1943-1945 tells of the suffering they endured:

Elephants died of overwork and undernourishment, while some died at the hands of Japanese soldiers, who shot them indiscriminately for their handsome tusks

Another historical account tells of what elephants have had to endure.

They’d be left free … a chain hobbling their front legs

Captive elephants in contemporary India

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Returning to the 21st century, Soman and other captive elephants still walk in chains. They have one respite – a long bath in the river, and a scrub with coconut husk or pumice by his Mahout – a treatment mentioned in Hastya Ayurveda.

The Mahout offers to let me help. As Soman lay in the river, gently splashing water over himself with his trunk, I scrub him with coconut husk. His pachyderm was unlike anything I ever touched – hairy, coarse and hard to describe. His handsome tuskers made me wonder how much toothpaste he would need. Selfishly, I presented a piece to the camera and moved aside to let the Mahout finish the job.

The Mahout volunteers to speak to the camera. Soman is in the background – restless and fidgety – his feet are on hot tarmac. The Mahout stops the interview half way through, asks me to step aside and lands a blow on Soman’s feet, beating him into submission. It’s the most chilling shriek I have ever heard, and it continues to echo in my head.

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Back at the Eco-Tourism Centre, Soman’s left hind leg and right foreleg are chained to a stump. He sways restlessly under a concrete shelter. His food (palm leaves) is piled next to his poop. Tourists marvel at his majestic appearance and click selfies with him in the background – a memory for posterity, and children are offered joy rides on other elephants. In this ‘Eco Tourism Centre’, the animal is merely a display piece – a tool for a joy ride.

Footage of me scrubbing Soman made it through the edit board. The Mahout’s interview and shots of him beating Soman got chopped out. The justification – it wasn’t about Indian history. Mea Culpa – I’m guilty.

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The narratives built around mankind’s efficiency in taming these gentle giants for war and work celebrate human dominion over nature, suppressing the torture that elephants have endured for millennia. In return, what the elephants get is some symbolic importance in the human world (meant for human aggrandizement) – on coins, state emblems and history texts – an act that makes no difference to them.

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There are over 4000 captive elephants in India – serving in religious places of worship and noisy ceremonies. Greedy businessmen rent them out for profit or to enhance their social standing. Tourists take ‘elephant rides’ oblivious to the damage this causes to the elephant’s spine – or even its self-esteem. Please don’t take these rides – there’s nothing ‘eco’ about elephant tourism.

Elephants don’t ask to be cultural icons or exhibits, nor do they care about customs cooked up by humans. They seek to live freely in their own habitat. Let them do so – for God’s sake!

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A few days after the interview, Soman attacked his Mahout. Soman was also tranquilized five times in 2016, an unethical practice. A complaint has since been lodged against the forest department, accusing them of violating key rules pertaining to the protection and maintenance of captive elephants at Konni.

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1 Comment

  • Oh dear, poor elephants, ditto tigers. We all agree they need to be living in the wild in their natural habitat but there just isn’t enough space anywhere now for them. Is there really a solution out there, bearing in mind that each animal need an enormous area of territory.

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