Elephants have been a part of folklore in India for millennia. Of all animals that had not always remained wild, the elephant was the largest and most exotic of species. Milk, fresh from the udder of the cow, was warm and slightly sweet. Dogs were adored as bundles of abundant love. Cats were graceful but glacial in their response to human love. Horses were elegant, lordly and a perfect physical match for human beings, making one believe that centaurs were real creatures who mistakenly got relegated to being mythical entities.
There were smaller, less popular animals and avians associated with people, like the majestic falcons and the fluffy, fast-breeding rabbits. There were carnivores kept leashed by chains, as were performing bears. But it was the elephant that stood out by far in this crowd of animals.
Ancient Kerala history pointed out that apart from women, intoxicants, and gambling, the main reasons for the destruction of prominent homesteads was an inordinate love for Kathakali, literature, and elephants. An elephant grazing peacefully in a yard was a mark of prosperity. When rice had to be bought from the market, a matriarch was reputed to have exclaimed, “Now, we are really poor.” This was when the well-meaning, but ill-conceived land reforms rendered it impossible for independent landlords to successfully cultivate enough rice for their domestic consumption. An average elephant can polish off 7 kg of rice for a single meal.
Indra, the lord of the devas, had the white tusker Airaavatham as his mount. This exotic creature was yet one more of the goodies that was churned out of the “Ocean of Milk”, the Paalaazhi, by the suras (gods) and asuras (demons), working in tandem. Such cooperation was very rare in the case of step-siblings who shared a common father. The journey of Hannibal with his pachyderm is also well-known.
Elephants are essentially wild creatures that cannot be tamed, only trained. It is the oldest symbol of the power of an individual or a monarch. The amount of food consumed daily by an elephant makes it a high-maintenance animal to look after. The consumption of water, too, is huge. Apart from drinking gallons of water, elephants love playing in the water. Swans are awkward as they waddle on the land, as are ducks. But in the water, they look like graceful dancers, which makes one think that Swan Lake was most appropriately named. It is the same with elephants. One can watch elephants, both wild and domesticated, frolic in water endlessly.
Elephants have four broad teeth within their mouth. The outward manifestation of its teeth is the tusk. Much like grandmothers of yore cleaning their grandchildren’s teeth with coal powder and massaging their gums with fingers, experienced mahouts clean baby tusks with mud. They push the tusks to grow upwards and outwards. Baby elephants are made to rub their tusks against mature tree trunks, most often coconut trees to shape their tiny, but very often, sharp tusks!
Elephants show their love for human beings by making low rumbling sounds. They also pick up human hands with their trunks and put them in their mouths and suck on them. They are careful never to crush hands with the teeth they use to masticate tree leaves and boughs. One bite is enough to turn finger bones into dust.
The greatest of the five senses an elephant has is that of smell. They can smell intruders miles away, which is why it is important to be downwind from elephant herds when trying to get close to them.
Elephants are normally the gentlest of living beings. They are shy beings who prefer to disappear into the foliage of a forest rather than confront other species, despite their considerable advantage of size. But when provoked, the elephant becomes a terrifying killing machine. Elephants are social animals. Very often, domesticated elephants are kept chained to a tree. There are no elephants nearby. Even if there are, they too are kept in captivity. They use their trunks, much like the way blind people use their hands to “identify” physiognomy. They are also said to communicate in frequencies inaudible to the human ear.
The trunk is capable of lifting up the entire leafy part of a coconut tree. It can also daintily pick up a grain of rice from the floor. An elephant identifies people by their smell. They inhale trunkfuls of smell from the hair, armpits, groin, and feet. Another important thing to remember is to take care to approach a trained elephant only after calling it by its name. The elephant has proportionately huge ears. It is almost as if the head and the body of the elephant are divided by the ears. It is wary of any sudden movements behind its large body. Even calm elephants are known to panic and attack if caught unawares. When called by its given name, the sagacious elephant knows that the person who approaches it is familiar with the animal.
Much like human beings, fear is a great factor in making elephants aggressive. To the gentle, friendly elephant which loves the quietude of deep forests, the temple and other festivals for which they are decked up and taken for processions must be pure hell. The noisy crowds, people intruding far into the personal space of the pachyderm as well as a loud and sudden explosion of firecrackers, with the acrid smell of gunpowder wafting up with the collective sweat stink of the crowd, must mean extended trauma of a special kind.
More often than not, either to show their misplaced love for elephants or to display a cheap kind of power over such a big animal, human beings grab tails and tusks of elephants. The poor animal reacts to free itself from such unwelcome attention. Even a slight push from an elephant is disastrous as it is very often not aware of its own strength. A flick of its head is enough to make people literally fly away! More often than not, it is the elephant that gets a bad name for the misdemeanours of human beings. The elephant is branded to be a difficult, if not an actual killer.
Even a peaceable elephant can be taught to gore whatever falls in front of it. Banana plant trunks are made to float in water, and the elephant is encouraged to impale them with its tusks. After a period of time, the elephant automatically does what comes instinctively to it. Wild animals have an inbuilt tendency to actively chase something running away from them. Similarly, an elephant can easily attack in circumstances where it feels threatened.
The bond between the mahout and the elephant is that between a parent and a child. Like in the case of human parents, there are sadly abusive mahouts as well. Much like caring parents nurturing well-behaved, well-adjusted kids, the quality of the mahout is directly seen in the elephant he looks after. Earlier, mahouts learned everything about taking care of the elephant in their charge, from their elders.
Training to be a good mahout is a rigorous exercise. Just as it is for the human body, there are vital energy points called marmams in the elephant’s body. Depending on the method of controlling these points, they are called Nokku (look) marmam, Thodu (touch) marmam and Thadavu (stroking) marmam. Experts have been reputed to control even raging elephants with just a look, reciting some mantras (prayers). The late Shri Avanamcode Maheswaran Namboothiri was one such person. As a child, he had to recite the Panchakshara Mantra 500,000 times before he commenced learning about Ayurveda for elephants.
Senior members of the mahout families would often put a mark on the wall of their houses. The mahouts in training were required to hit that spot at least a hundred times without a break. One mistake made them start the whole process from the beginning. There is a point between the nails of an elephant. If that point is pressed, the elephant will immediately bend that leg only to kneel in front of the person who succeeds in doing so. Mahouts know it and do it with the stick they carry along with them. This writer was witness to an elephant called Achu literally being brought to its knees and later being led away peacefully and tied to a coconut tree by the late Babu, who was a brilliant mahout. Babu walked up coolly to an elephant that was running amok with a watermelon under his left arm and the stick in his right one. He had declared confidently to the bemused crowd that when (and if) the elephant accepted the fruit, he would bring it to its knees with just a tap (and most certainly, not a blow) of his stick. Those who watched Babu’s incredible performance, when he did what he said he would, became his fans forever.
An elephant always eats what he loves the most first. The topmost portion of coconut trees (this contains a creamy substance which was added to molasses and given to pregnant ladies as a tonic in olden days), the entire banana plant, molasses, the red watery banana (used to cool the body during chickenpox), watermelon, etcetera, were special treats for them.
Musth is a condition that affects male elephants. When they are ready to mate, a liquid called ichor flows out of the two glands near their eyes, which become open at that time. A thick and very pungent liquid flows out from them at the beginning and end of the state of musth. Many elephants become aggressive at this time. They are in a mood to fight other males for the right to mate with the females in the herd. An elephant in musth has to be dealt with, with great care, caution, and most of all, respect.
Being matriarchal animals, it is the females and the calves which make up most of the herd. Males, beyond a certain age, leave the parent herd in the wild. Mating with other groups of elephants, now horrendously dwindling, serves to spread the gene pool.
Much like thoroughbred racehorses, elephants, too, command a huge price in niche markets. A family was reputed to refuse to sell their elephant for a price of thirty million rupees. As in the case of all competitions, there are stories of mahouts being bought off, food being doctored and other devious methods being used to make sure that a particular pachyderm was crowned “king” or “queen”. One of the cruellest and most absurd things was to see which elephant held up its head the highest. This was a most unnatural position for the elephant. While the elephant, despite its bulk, is extremely graceful, mahouts hit or push the elephant’s neck to achieve this ghastly and gangly look.
With a hooked stick called the ankusham, a normal stick and leg chains with deadly spikes often made to dig into the feet of recalcitrant elephants, incompetent mahouts can become abusive. Sometimes, the incessantly hurt elephant takes revenge on them by simply killing, or less kindly, maiming their human controllers.
Experienced mahouts think of their elephants as Lord Ganesha. They greet their charges and touch them and put their hands to both their eyes and heart, as a sign of respect.
Owners of elephants give them names as per whim. One elephant was named George. There was a huge issue when this elephant came to take part in a temple procession. Non-Hindus were not allowed to enter temples. What was to be done about George, who clearly did not have a Hindu name? His owner came from a very reputed family in Kerala.
A casual look at the elephant kingdom will teach us how to live. Eat, sleep, wash, take care of the herd. Be gentle the bigger you are. As a species, human beings could benefit vastly by learning from elephants.