Subject: Mahout & Elephant
Place: Coorg, Karnataka
Camera: Yashica Mat 124 G
Film: Ilford HP5 Plus
Elephants have for long played a key role in the battles of the world both east and west. Many a decisive conflict was won only because one side had more elephants. The Mahabharata mentions the presence of elephants upon the fields of Kurukshetra. Elephants formed an important part of the war machinery of the Magadha empire in the 5th BCE, among the first to deploy this animal as a key part of battle strategy.
Though captured by man from the wild a long time ago and made to do his bidding the elephant has not been truly domesticated. Unlike cows and sheep that can be herded into groups managed by just one person, elephants need to have a dedicated interface with one human being who comes to know his every want, trains him in various labors and maneuvers, pilots his movements and attends to his every need – from feeding, washing and resting him as required.
The Mahout is a word of Indian origin and means ‘caretaker’ - in this case one who takes care of an elephant. Mahouts have been respected members of Indian society from earliest times when elephants were so much a part of Indian life, from fighting in wars, hauling giant logs of timber and gracing numerous temple and village festivals across the country. Owing to its specialized nature it was an occupation that was restricted to certain communities, forming a tradition that was handed down the ancestral line.
However, this unique institution began to break up gradually after independence with technological development and a changing understanding of the man-animal relationship. The desiccation of elephant populations in the wild due to poaching and a growing conservation ethic among officialdom and the general populace also contributed to less animals deployed for labor, entertainment or festivities. Today, the mahout walking his elephant is a rare sight spotted occasionally on a country road or at some offbeat temple festival. It might soon come time for them to part ways for good.