The elephant and his mahout*
A bond for live
Text and photos: Pierre Virot, former photographer of the WHO
Elephants are Natures masterpieces, created and perfected through 55 million years of evolution! Man has always been fascinated by this strange and mysterious animal, the largest creature ever to walk on earth since the Jurassic period! Elephants, despite their huge-size are also extremely intelligent gentle, sensitive and astonishingly submissive. These characteristics were exploited by man and he domesticated the Elephant, probably around 5000 BC. He used them in warfare, hunting, as a beast of burden and finally as an icon in his religion and culture.
In India, Elephants have become an integral part of mythology, religion and culture. Ganesha, the Elephant headed God, symbolizes the Indian fascination and reverence for this majestic beast. The Indian subcontinent also happens to be a prime habitat for the wild elephant and man has always been in intimate contact with them since thousands of years. Even today, India is home for about 30,000 wild elephants which is about 70% of the entire Asiatic Elephant population!
India also has a large population of domesticated elephants about 2000 of them, used mainly for religious and culture purposes. All of them have their mahouts.
Although it was common in South Asia for rulers to use elephants as executioners, one Mogul Emperor in particular, Akbar (1547-1605), used his favorite elephant as a judge, as well as an executioner. While ruling in the city of Ahra from 1570-1585, Akbar came to believe that his favorite royal elephant could discern by instincts who was guilty of an offence and who was innocent. As word of the elephant spread to regions unfamiliar with the animal, so did fantastic legends. They were called "celestial animals", and stories of special rites performed naturally by the animals during the full moon reinforced this idea.
«Cleanliness is next to godliness» saying in India
They were regarded as special to the gods, and praised for their fantastic intelligence and wisdom. And at first sight, they were greatly feared by an opposing army. And to further aid their usefulness, horses could not stand the smell of the strange elephant, hence they stampeded.
Already in ancient time, the elephant was found to be very intelligent, and responded to humans, almost as a pet. It was eager to please and gentle, considering its size. It learned quickly, and was tame and dependable once trained. Each elephant was assigned a driver, called a mahout, who formed a bond with his particular charge. This bond was strong and each [driver / animal] tended to help and protect the other. The elephant would respond quickly to its driver on spoken command, even coming to the driver when called by name.