Elephant in the Room: Tracing the Path of the Gentle Giant through Indian Culture

Once you’ve got ele-obsession, it’s impossible to stop following the herd. | By Rachel Dwyer  
Elephant Painting
Paintings, frescoes, and ancient texts prove that elephants have played an important role in India’s religious, cultural, and military past. Photo: Olaf Kruger/Imagebrok/Dinodia Photo

The seeds of my elephilia were sown when I was a child, with elephant toys, and stories from Babar to Rudyard Kipling’s “Toomai of the Elephants”. When I began my study of India as an undergraduate learning Sanskrit, I was intrigued by the elephant imagery in courtly literature. Women had the gait of an elephant (gajagamini), thighs like elephant trunks, and breasts like an elephant’s head bumps; while men were like mountain-raging elephants. I also became enchanted by Ganesh, not so much for his cuteness, but for being simultaneously human, animal, and divine.

I am not alone in my fascination for this aesthetically delightful animal. Its appeal may be rooted in its distinctive appearance—trunk, flapping ears, wrinkled skin, size—all of which attract children and adults alike. Unlike other animals, the elephant is seen as solemn and calm of demeanour. Its size dominates any encounter, though, this is often undermined by its child-like love for fruit and sweets and endless eating.

After seeing the BBC’s Elephant Diaries, about the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, my elephant obsession set in. Then David Attenborough presented Echo of the Elephants about the Amboseli matriarch whose life has been documented by elephant scholar Cynthia Moss. I was hooked. I travelled to the DSWT orphanage in Nairobi to bottle-feed Shimba, the baby I adopted after his mother died of starvation when her trunk was amputated by a poacher’s snare. I met Cynthia Moss and went to Amboseli, where I saw Echo herself. I began to write to ministries and members of parliament in the UK about elephant causes, from the sale of ivory stockpiles to wild animals in circuses. My friends regularly add to my collection of elebilia and my house in London is now called the Pil-khana, the Persian word for “elephant stable”. Shelves of books on elephants overflow, from photo essays to scientific and historic research.

Eventually, I felt something more needed to be done and I began an academic project on the cultural history of the Indian elephant. It started with a paper about the elephant in Hindi cinema. My aim is to examine how elephants are understood in Indian culture and to examine the porous boundaries between the categories of human, animal, and god.

Ganesha India Elephant

Ganesha, known for his child-like nature, blurs the line between human, animal, and god. Photo: Dinodia Photo

From the Indus Valley Civilisation, where the first images of human and elephant interaction in India emerged, elephants have appeared in art, iconography, and folk images, as well as in stories in Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu mythology. I’ve become a collector of elephant tales. In the Rig Veda, the mount of Indra, the king of the gods, changes from a horse to the more appealing seven-trunked white elephant Airavata, marking the Indianisation of this Indo-Aryan deity. Every Sanskrit text begins with an invocation of the elephant-headed Ganesh, who has the body of a child. Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism is marked by an elephant emerging from a hill above Dhauli in present-day Odisha; though it is a mystery why the Republic of India opted for Ashoka’s lions rather than his elephants as the national symbol. Ancient texts have also offered technical writing on elephants, from discussions of the king’s elephants in Arthashastra, the great work on statecraft, to the Gajashastra, a scientific “Treatise on Elephants”.

I was never so interested in the war elephants of the Indian army, although they formed one of its four divisions in early history. Akbar was obsessed with elephants and had many favourites among the 5,000 in his stables. Chief among them was Hawa’i, “The Rocket”, who features in several glorious miniature paintings as well as in the 2008 Bollywood biopic, Jodhaa Akbar, where Akbar (played by Hrithik Roshan) was shown taming him. The association of elephants with power continues. If you travel to Lucknow today, you can see that Mayawati has filled her monumental parks with elephant statues (at election time these were wrapped in pink plastic although their trunks prevented any attempt at disguise).The British were also elephant enthusiasts, although part of this was directed towards the “sport” of killing elephants and making ornaments from the body parts, even beyond ivory, including umbrella stands from elephant feet. Colonial governments employed them as “timber elephants” in forestry departments. Cambridge University has wonderful footage online of the plantation elephants that helped evacuate hundreds of British soldiers and civilians from Burma in 1942.

Kipling wrote excellent elephant stories including “The Elephant’s Child”, and “Toomai of the Elephants”. In 1937, Zoltan Korda grafted the story of the boy mahout Toomai and his tusker Kala Nag onto wildlife footage shot by Robert Flaherty, to make the film Elephant Boy, which was one of my childhood favourites. It stars Sabu, the mahout’s son discovered in the royal elephant stables of Mysore, who became India’s first international film star, and later served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. I also loved Disney’s Dumbo (1941), though it was quite traumatic for me, as was Hindi cinema’s Haathi Mere Saathi in 1971, with its tragic ending and divine apotheosis of the secular elephant.

Elephants have played important roles in forestry, the military, religious festivals and, lately, tourism, leaving large footprints on all aspects of Indian culture. Yet the elephant is still not entirely visible. It is like the fable of six blind men from early Indian stories. Each man, touching a part of the animal, mistakes the part for the whole; so the tail is a rope, the leg a column, and so on. None is wrong, but each is limited to his own experience and, being blind, none can see the whole elephant. Two thousand years later, the Indian elephant remains misunderstood despite playing the most significant cultural role of any animal in India. It is seen only in parts—as sacred, endangered, crop-raiding, entertaining, and aesthetically pleasing in its many pictorial representations—without the whole elephant emerging. Human and elephant interactions remains problematic.

Though India has some of the strongest legislation to protect elephants, it is not well enforced. Elephants are the National Heritage Animal and have been recognised as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature since 1986. Yet, there are now only 20,000-25,000 wild elephants in India, half the number there were in 1947, and 3,500 domesticated ones. Though best known from its ubiquitous imagery, the elephant itself is physically disappearing. As Sir David Attenborough said, “The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?”

Along with research, my attempts to observe elephants at every opportunity have continued. When I encountered them at the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, I was annoyed by having to do things such as ride an elephant rather than just look at it. I was blessed by chained temple elephants across Tamil Nadu, I saw elephants in zoos, but I was always uneasy and dissatisfied. Elephants in the wild, always appealed to me more though I have not had much luck seeing them wild in Asia.

Elephant Guruvayur Temple Kerala Punnanathur Kotta

Punnanathur kotta, near the Guruvayur Temple in Kerala, has the largest elephant farm in India. The 60 elephants that are housed there are an integral part of the day-to-day activities of the temple. Photo: Zoonar/Dmitri Rukhle/Dinodia Photo

Fortunately, Indian authorities are proscribing the exhibition of elephants in zoos and circuses. Currently, the most likely place to encounter an elephant is in a South Indian temple. While most temples do keep their beloved elephants well, these animals are not suited to standing still for long periods and need soft surfaces for their feet. Many chained elephants display repetitive movements that are misinterpreted as dancing, rather than manifestations of extreme stress. Temple elephants that participate in spectacular processions may also be fed unsuitably, either with leaves that give poor nutrition or rich festival food, rather than the strict diet advised by traditional Indian elephant-keeping wisdom. Some captive elephants are sent to “ele-spas” in the hills for pampering every year, as their duties have increased to cover weddings and events beyond the temple.

Each autumn, I follow the stories in the national newspapers about which elephant will lead the Mysore Dassera procession. The speculation about who will carry the 750-kg howdah is a soap opera and I’ve been gripped by the drama, from Drona’s untimely death by electrocution in 1998, to the tale of stately 54-year old Balarama, whose unexplained weight loss of 400 kg, led to his replacement by the magnificent 52-year-old Arjuna in 2012. However, Arjuna is said to be bad-tempered and perhaps unsuitable for this religious duty because he killed a mahout in 1996.

The Forestry Department also has a number of captive elephants. They are allowed to roam in the forests overnight although chains stop them moving far. In the mornings, their mahouts round them up for their duties that include tourism, processional use, or helping manage wild elephants. There are also a few elephant orphanages that welcome visitors. Two years ago, I went to the Dubare Elephant Camp in Karnataka, located on the River Kaveri between Mysore and Madikeri, which is reached by crossing the river in coracles. The comfortable cabins are tastefully decorated in a style appropriate to the surroundings. Dawn and dusk are the best time to see the elephants. Some patience was required during the guided evening drive through the forest, since this is not a zoo. But soon, the bells of tamed elephants signalled their arrival. Watching the silent emergence of these vast animals, seeming to solidify from nowhere, is a wonderful experience.

For those on generous budgets, the premier elephant destination is the Four Seasons Tented Camp in the Golden Triangle, Northern Thailand. Reached by boat, the camp is based on the bank of the River Ruak, offering views of Burma and Laos, and excursions over the border. The meaning of the word “tent” is really stretched as these large structures, with terraces overlooking the forest and river, are provided with every luxury. Although some of the camp’s first inhabitants were bought, the management soon realised that this may encourage the capture of wild elephants. All the later elephants were brought here by their mahouts, usually because they could no longer afford to feed them. The elephants at the camp now number more than 20 and they all have different roles to play, according to their nature and inclination. Some elephants are for riding, some are participating in research on animal intelligence, while others are used for guests to train as mahouts, notably patient and gentle Yuki, whose colourful earlier life had her working in advertisements in Japan before begging in Pattaya. The mahouts carry ankushes but I never saw one used for more than touch; the relationship is clearly close and happy. The elephants in this adoptive herd are nearly all female but they pair off naturally with a “best friend”. Visitors are encouraged to ride the elephants, not on howdahs, but as mahouts on the elephant’s head. There is nothing to hold on to as one sways several metres above the ground, but the mahouts are confident of their 100 per cent safety record, and even the not-so-fit or those who fear heights can enjoy this once they overcome their fear. Yuki, the elephant I rode, holds your knees with her ears, which is very reassuring. The forest walk ends with a bath in the river where the elephants seem to enjoy spraying trunkfuls of water on their new mahouts. The highlight for many though is the visit of two elephants to camp’s breakfast where they are fed bananas. These seem to be the tamest elephants and their inquisitive trunks, chorus of squeaks, trumpets and rumbles, and endless hunger, makes them a good place to start an encounter.

Finally, I end up in the superb shop with beautiful elephant-themed products that are irresistible. As my luggage was screened at Mumbai airport on my return from Thailand in November, the man in charge commented on the number of elephants that showed on the X-ray. Security asked me to unpack my hand luggage. My elephants were put on a parade, which brought smiles to the other passengers as well as the security staff. Would you ever distrust a person who loves elephants?

Appeared in the February 2013 issue as “An Elephant In The Room”. This article has been edited on September 17, 2015.

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