Posted by: cochinblogger | December 16, 2010

Mahouts on Women

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I recently picked up To the Elephant Graveyard: A True Story of the Hunt for a Man-Killing Indian Elephant by Tarquin Hall from my favorite used book shop. It turned out to be an excellent and fast-paced read; I devoured it in a couple of sittings. The setting of the tale is Assam, and the book is about the hunt for a rogue elephant. This elephant harbored a deadly hatred for man. In the course of the book, the reason for this hatred is explained.

Elephants are emotional animals, and captive elephants develop an emotional bond with the humans who sustain and nurture them. The most important person in a captive elephant’s life is the mahout. This rogue elephant was a captive elephant that had been cruelly treated by the mahout. It killed the mahout one day and escaped into the forest.

You’ll have to read the book for the rest, but here, I just want to draw your attention to some of the mahouts’ opinions of women. I don’t identify with the opinions expressed, but merely report them. The following snippet is the caption of a photograph.

Chander, Churchill’s assistant. A dedicated mahout, he was inseparable from his kunki. “Being a mahout is like being married,” he joked. “But elephants are easier to manage than women.”

That was Chander with a quotable quote. Now comes the turn of Churchill, head mahout. Churchill has traveled all over the world on elephant-related journeys; his expertise with elephants is widely sought, and he is in global demand.

Churchill’s tribe, the Khasis, who live in a range of hills in Meghlaya, another Indian state bordering Bangladesh, are a mix of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. And yet much of their culture remains intact, including a matrilineal system which ensures that all property and land remain in the hands of the tribe’s women. It is a tradition that is resented by many Khasi men, Churchill included.

“We men, we have nothing. We can be throwed from the home!” he complained. “Women. They in charge. Women nightmare. That why I become mahout. I am free man!” Once again, his face broadened into an infectious smile.

And this is Churchill again, in the midst of tracking the rogue in the forest:

Churchill agreed.

“This hathi just like Mrs. Mahout,” he joked, endeavoring to raise everyone’s spirits as we plodded towards the village.

“Like her he is very angry and has big stomach. Soon he will need good, no? He will be crop raiding.”

“You have a wife?” I replied, somewhat surprised by this news.

“Yes. She like female hathi.After children making, she push male away. Then male live in forest. Like me.”

“Is that what the matriarch elephants do? Push the male out?”

“Yes. But it is good. I prefer. Life of elephant and mahout is same. Is free, no?”

“How many children do you have?” I asked.

“Five, six, seven, maybe. I not remember. Too many.”

Reading the book dented my pride in Kerala’s famous elephant culture. It seems there are two methods of capturing wild elephants, the stockade method and the pit method. The former is used in Assam, and the latter method, which is cruder, is used in Kerala.

One last factoid: It seems the Asian elephant is one of the few animals that can recognize itself in mirrors. I’ll insert the reference here later.

Oh … the elephant photos were taken at the Punallur Kotha, Guruvayoor.

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