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Home Capture Memories Read contributions Life Back Then Capturing and Taming Wild Elephants (as told by Ali) by M.P.V. Shenoi
Capturing and Taming Wild Elephants (as told by Ali) by M.P.V. Shenoi Print E-mail

Shenoi, a civil engineer and MBA, rose to the rank of Deputy Director-General of Works in the Indian Defence Service of Engineers. He has also been a member of HUDCO’s advisory board and of the planning team for Navi Mumbai. After retirement he has been helping NGOs in employment-oriented training, writing articles related to all aspects of housing, urban settlements, infrastructure, project and facility management and advising several companies on these issues. His email id is This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

In the 1940s, I was a young boy living in Mysore, which was a Princely State at that time. If I stepped into main street from our house in Mysore, and walked due east, I would soon come to the Ane-karoti stables, which housed the elephants belonging to royal household of Mysore. I am not sure whether any elephants were still a part of the bits and pieces of the purely ceremonial Mysore army that the ruling British had allowed to be maintained. Like the army, the elephants in the stable were mostly ceremonial. They were brought out on special occasions such as Dussera, birth day of Maharaja, Yuvaraja (crown prince), and the yearly chariot procession of the Gods’ of the temples that were within the palace precincts. On these occasions, the elephants were draped in embroidered fabrics, gold plated trinkets and floral design painted on skin.

The stables had about 10-12 adult elephants and a few calves. One of the elephants was Pattada-ane, a revered tusker whom the Maharajah worshipped during Dussera. There was another elephant on which the royal howdah was mounted when the Maharaja went in procession from his palace to Banny mantap and back on the last day of Dussera.

The large compound and the adjacent betel leaf plantation gave my friends and me an excellent place for playing hide and seek, and a host of other games. Naturally, we got to know some of the mahouts (the persons who rode, controlled and looked after the elephants) and their children. They were mostly Muslims from a nearby district, where there were many wild elephant herds in large tracts of tropical forests.

One particular mahout, Ali Hussein, was outgoing and friendly. He told us children fascinating tales of wild animals and hunters. He was adept at mimicking the cries of birds and animals, particularly how the male and the female of a species call and respond to each other. His son, who was of our age, sometimes joined us in games in the garden.

I think I was seven or eight years old when there was news in the air that there would be a Kheddah (an operation to catch wild elephants, which would then be tamed) that year. The news spread like fire in the bazaar, and soon it reached our school, where it immediately excited us children. To gain importance in the circle of friends one had to have some knowledge of the operations. I did not have any information, neither my mother who hardly went out of our home. Our part time housemaid told me that wild elephants would be caught. She said that many white men, i.e., Britishers, would come to witness it. And once the elephants had been tamed, they would be sold to rajas, maharajas, zamindars, etc. Beyond that, she also did not know much.

This little bit of information did not give me any confidence to build some authority among my classmates. Then it occurred to me that I could ask Ali Hussein. That evening I ran to Ane-karoti but he was gone. His wife told me that he would not be back for four months. He had taken his son with him, and his elephant, too. She told me that Ali would have a major role in capturing and taming the wild elephants. A big disappointment. I could do nothing but wait for his return.

As the days went by, the tempo built in Mysore. People, including dignitaries and white men, from outside were coming to witness Kheddah. They would go to designated places like near the stockade or near the taming enclosures, etc. There was a spurt in the turnover of business, and the town had a festive look. But for us children there was not much excitement - we had to make do with listening to the gossip of the elders who had been the fringes. We learnt that two or three trackers/drummers had died or injured in the stampede of elephants, one person drowned in river Kabini, and some 50 elephants had been captured.

After about three or four months, Hussein and his son returned from the Kheddah. He was busy for several days in settling down. He was also not his usual self. He seemed to be brooding. He seemed to ignore our request to tell us his experiences. However, our constant pestering overcame his reluctance. Ultimately, one day he relented, and found time to narrate the incident on the condition that each of us would give him half an anna (16 annas made a rupee) each day. While a few children backed out, four of us were very excited and wanted to know what happened in a Kheddah operation. We assembled on a Sunday morning below the banyan tree, and Hussein started his narration.

Four mahouts with two tuskers and two cows (female elephants) from Ane-karoti were ordered to travel to Kakankote area of the forest some days prior to the day when the Kheddah began. His eldest son insisted that he would like to join and created a scene. So, reluctantly, he had to take permission from his superiors. The place where he had to report was about 50 km from Mysore. Ali Hussein decided to cover that distance in three days so that elephants do not arrive tired. In between there was a large sized town, Hampapura, a village of about 100 families, and a smaller one. There the elephant could be rested, fed and watered.

"All of you must know that an elephant eats about one bullock cart load of fodder and foliage per day in the wild," he said (a wild elephant may devour about 40 kilograms of fodder and grass per day.) While this could be obtained at the villages on the way, he had to carry some special food items like jaggery (crude sugar made of sugarcane), ground Ragi (a form of millet which can be made into balls by adding water and a little salt), groundnut meal, which gave the elephants energy to walk. The journey was uneventful.

On arrival they reported to a temporary office set up in a compound not for from the river Kabini, a little distance from a town. In a few days, about 100 tame elephants and 200 mahouts from various other places assembled in a compound and surrounding clearing. The officials in charge also arrived and many of them were accommodated in tents. "There could be as many as thousand men," said Hussein. These included the local tribals - jenukurubas ­­­- who lived off the forest, and knew every hill and glade, tracks of the animals, watering holes and animal behaviour. And there were the drummers, who were chamars, and the beaters, who made noise with split bamboo - a local contraption.

The Kheddah preparations had started months before, maybe four months ago. First, the jungle had been surveyed to identify the various herds of elephants and their pattern of movement. Then, a decision had been made about how many animals would be caught, and the herds from which they would be caught were selected. The place to which the elephants would be driven and caught was identified.

The Kheddah managers had also decided how to merge elephants from elephants from two or more herds into a single file, and drive off the excess elephants also had to be decided. The compartments in to which the caught elephants were to be divided were decided; once the elephants were caught, each would be isolated and then tamed. The animals that were feeding and caring for the calves required a slightly different kind of facility. The routes through which the animals could escape were identified, barricaded and made impossible for a breakthrough. Fodder and watering facilities were planned and created.

The taming of wild elephants involved both specially trained Mahouts and domesticated elephants. The domesticated animals would have to be strong, even-tempered and able to stand attacks by the wild ones. The selected mahouts had to be observant, of quick reflexes, and able to sense the mood of a wild elephant.

Many of these preparations had been already completed before Hussein arrived at the compound. Hussein, according to his own statement, was an outstanding trainer of wild elephants. So he would not take part in driving the wild elephants into the barricades. But his responsibilities included inspecting and strengthening the barricades, and inspecting the gears, ropes, and slings that would be used to tame the elephants.

The spot chosen for trapping the animals was usually across a place in the river where it was shallow, the flow was gentle, and the riverbank was flat. He told us this place was usually on the opposite side of the land from which herd was driven in. Driven by the din created by the drummers and beaters, a herd would enter the river in utter panic, clamber up the opposite bank at the designated spot and dash into the ever-narrowing path with tamed elephants, drummers and beaters rushing them from behind. On both sides of this entry point, heavy fortification was built with bamboo, rope nets and other foliage. This passage ended at a massive gate opening in to a circular fortification, in which the animals would be forced and trapped. At one or two points in the circular fortification, there were gates through which selected animals would be led out into another enclosure for taming. From this second enclosure, there were gates leading to another large open area, where there were trees and manmade posts to which animals would be taken singly, tied and tamed individually.

The operation for driving the elephants to the circular fortification began three days after Hussein had arrived and reported for duty. Initially, the noise created by the drummers and beaters was distant, and it increased as the herd came closer. Suddenly, Ali Hussein could see the herd rushing madly in utter confusion, and some elephants trying to break away from the line. The drummers, beaters and people with poles chased them back and tried to make them a single file. One of the men slipped and got injured by dashing against a rock. Ultimately, all the animals were in the enclosure, tightly packed, trying to make a circle and protect themselves, with a few brave tuskers trumpeting and pushing and stomping in rage.

The animals were allowed cool down for a couple of days. The mahouts provided them fodder from above but not as much as they would eat in the wild. In the meanwhile, plans were worked out for selecting the elephants and transferring them one by one to the taming area. Then, some tame elephants were introduced into the stockade, and the selected wild elephant was isolated by coordinated manoeuvres and driven to the next enclosure. Once in the taming enclosure, the next move was to rope the wild one, fell it to the ground, and then tie its legs securely to the trees nearby. It was usual to start with cows and calves, and then take up the adult males.

Old Kheddah photo

Roping the legs and felling the elephant required special skills. This was the area in which Hussein claimed he was an expert. The job required the coordinated effort of a couple of tamed elephants, mahouts/men carrying Ankus (An Ankus is a sharp pointed iron pole used to poke elephants at sensitive areas of their anatomy to force them to obey commands) and pointed bamboo, some carrying ropes for lassoing. As it was painful, the elephant might run wild unless the surrounding tame elephants and men stood their ground and prevented the elephants from running away. And all this was to be done in a narrow space.

In this way as many legs as the mahouts consider adequate were tied. Then the animal was starved. It was a widely held belief that a wild elephant had to undergo a painful treatment so that it would know and remember that man is its master, and that the elephant has to obey his master.

When the elephant became weak, it was felled. Once felled, its hind legs were cut at the ankle, and milk of cactus was rubbed into the wounds. This caused boils to develop. Then a rope was tied around the cuts, so that any small movement would make the rope rub and break the boil - causing break and cause intense pain.

Colour Kheddah photo

This prolonged suffering and meagre food supply broke the will of the elephant gradually. It was now ready for taking out for walks tied to a tame elephant, and would accept a mahout on its back subsequently. After some the elephant had become used to its new life, it would be trained for tasks specific to its employment, which could be as a logger, or used in temple ceremonies, etc. Whenever it obeyed a command, it was rewarded with a lump of jaggery, a ball of sweetened Ragi, or in some other way.

"Should all this be done?" asked one boy. Another boy said "Is it not heartless. Cruel?" Hussein did not like the remark. He was slightly annoyed. He shouted, "If you do not want to hear why you have come here. Training of any animal is the same. If it obeys, reward it. If it does not, punish it. There is no other way." The session ended abruptly that day.

During all this narration, we did not observe Hussein's usual wit and flair for dramatisation. Once or twice, I did ask about it. But he did not respond. We had heard rumours that there was an accident during the training and Hussein was blamed for it. This had hurt his pride.

Ultimately, he opened up, as perhaps he could not keep it within himself. One day when only three of us boys were with him, he made a casual remark, "I will tell you what happened. An accident. Perhaps it was my bad luck - no, my over confidence. Allah kasam (oath) - it was not entirely my fault."   We showed just enough curiosity just make him continue. After some pause, he started.

"I was given a young, tall, tusker with a broad forehead to tame. He would have been a prized possession for any one. ‘He was proud, would not like to be a captive.' I thought. He resisted all my efforts to subdue him. When I caught his hind leg in the rope, he made such terrific effort to free himself, I could not hold on to the rope. The rope entangled in the elephant's legs, and he stumbled and fell; it had rained day before, and the ground was soggy and slippery at places. He could not rise and started howling in pain. We tried to pacify him but of no avail. Next day, we discovered that during his fall his hip had hit a small rock outcrop and fractured at the joint. In the next few days, there were several attempts to find out whether anything could be done. In the meanwhile, the tusker was crying out in pain and its wailing could be heard for miles. After several consultations, the higher ups decided to shoot him and put him to sleep. This was carried out as soon as the decision was taken.".

Hussein felt he was responsible for the death. It was clear that he had not forgiven himself for this costly mistake.  It had shaken his confidence. It seems he was in depression for a number of days. Even now when he was narrating one could see shame and morose in his face and tears swelling in his eyes. It seems the whole thing was kept under wraps.

Epilogue

After this Kheddah, as far as I know Kheddah was not held regularly; it seems the last Kheddah was held in 1971. And now it is banned.

Soon we out grew our childhood and so also our favourite haunts. High school, College and then in 1956 I left Mysore. Years later, in the 1980s, when I went to Mysore, royalty had been abolished. The pomp of the Dussera procession had survived but in a garish avatar as a tourist attraction. The sanctity and solemnnity were no longer there.

I felt like going to my childhood haunt. The whole place had completely changed. The choultry had been demolished and a trunk road bearing the name MG Road had ran through the centre. The Ane-karoti and betel leaf garden had been swallowed by the urbanisation of the city, and in their place an educational institution with its sleek modern buildings had come up. The whole place was bustling with students and professors. No one knew where the families of mahouts had gone.


© M P V Shenoi 2009

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N Niranjan Nikam   |2009-12-18
Very good narration of Khedda Mr Shenoy. In fact hailing from Mysore I also had
heard of the Khedda operations. One of my friends Mr Surbramanyam of Lakshmi
theatre even today has fantastic pictures of Khedda of 1911 and 1913 in which
his great grandfather participated. The pictures show not only Nalwadi
Krishanaraja Wadiyar but also many Englishmen and ladies in fineries witnessing
the khedda operations exactly the way you have described. In fact one of my
ambition is to convert these photographs into movies because that is possible.

Once again thanks for taking us back in time.
k.s.prasad   |2011-08-31
It reminds me my younger days of Mysore.Life of yesteryears at Mysore.I
request Mr.Nikam to post the photos so that younger generation will can have a
glimpse of history.
Vinay   |2012-04-06
Extremely well written, bring out the humane side of Ali so well.

Another
mahout from Mysore who went on to become a hollywood star, Sabu Dastagir,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabu_Dastagir
Ngullie   |2012-05-16
Well written.. Cheers
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