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Taming and Training of Elephants


Taming and training of elephants

Recently we featured an article explaining briefly how our ancestors succeeded in capturing the giants of the jungles - the elephants. Today we’ll enlighten you as to how these huge mammals are tamed, trained and controlled by the mahouts or the elephant keepers of today.
Going by old ola leaf manuscripts which have set out in detail everything we need to know about elephants, including the methods of taming and training of these wild creatures, many people have become highly skilled elephant trainers and mahouts today.
Being a mahout is no easy task. Even after an elephant has been tamed and trained by the experts, the mahout’s job does not end; he has to be constantly alert and in full control of the elephant at all times. No other animal in the world is looked after and guarded in the manner an elephant is. So, a mahout has a huge responsibility. 


Now let’s check out how a person is trained to become a mahout first.
Generally, the skills of a mahout are passed down from one generation to another with the son becoming an apprentice to the father. But there are many who are new to this job. They have to initially undergo a hard training to learn how to care for the elephants (feed, bathe and maintain) and also control them by words or commands and with certain weapons, using traditional methods. This all important training is given by a veteran mahout who is popularly referred to as the Ali baas by the people.
Like in some other such professions, the apprentice mahouts have to initially do various odd jobs to help the ‘Big boss’ like fetch water, bring food and so on.
The specialised art of taming and training wild elephants is then taught by the older elephant trainers and mahouts to the younger ones.
Elephant management was a highly recognised profession during the times of the Sinhala Kings. In order to tame an elephant, the animal’s wild spirit had to be broken first. It was only then that the elephant could be made to obey the commands given by a mahout.
What the trainers do initially to break the spirit is tie the wild elephant in a place constantly exposed to humans and other tame elephants. Then the handlers and mahouts make the elephant used to human voices by talking continuously.
They also touch the elephant by hand or with leaves and branches of trees while talking to it. During this time no food is given and the animal gets no sleep either. Without food and sleep, the animal’s resistance drops and it becomes subdued easily.
Once it’s subdued it’s given food and water and also a long bath. Elephants love to bathe and a captive elephant needs to be bathed at least three to four hours a day. Usually, an elephant likes to sleep for about an hour in the water and an experienced mahout would never disturb the animal at this time.
When it comes to training and controlling wild elephants, a mahout initially depends on certain weapons such as the goad (ankus or henduwa in Sinhala), sticks, spear and chains. Among these, the goad which is a metal cap tapering to a sharp point, fitted on to a stick about four to five feet, plays a key role.
It is by prodding the elephants with the goad that they are made to do certain things by the handlers and mahouts. They also use a special language known in Sinhala as the ali baasawa to command the elephants. This language used by the mahouts is common to all parts of the country and all mahouts should master it. Some of the words used are daha, hida, pimbu and paru (see box for more).
Just as much as a mahout has to learn the special language to command the elephant, he also has to know how to use the goad and prod the wild animal in the sensitive points of the body because in the event the animal is goaded in the wrong way, there could be adverse reactions.
These sensitive or nila points are categorised according to the reaction from the animal. A dangupola means the controlling points, avisseema are arousing points and mara nila are death points. However all the identified nila points of an elephant are not necessarily the goading points.
Even though at the early stages of the training a lot of prodding may be done, once the elephant learns obedience many skilled mahouts manage to control the elephants just by commands, because by this time a close relationship has been built between the elephant and mahout. Some mahouts don’t even use any commands, especially when travelling atop the animals. They merely tap the animal with the feet to get it to do certain things.
The sensitive points or nila are not limited to elephants. It is common to all animal species including us. You must have heard of a traditional form of fighting called angampora. The nila points played an important role in this ancient form of fighting too.
There are about 90 nila points identified on the elephants and a mahout has to know them and also the effects of prodding them.
The mahouts also have specific names for the different parts of the animal such as sonda angilla for finger, sonda nala for trunk top, pasa dhana for knee, issaraha aasane for seat and so on.So, never think that a mahout’s job is easy.
He has to be knowledgeable about the animal as well as be familiar with all the methods of control because he needs to protect the animal from the outside world; both man and animal and also protect man and other animals from this giant of the jungle.
Next time you visit an elephant refuge such as Uda Walawe National Park or Pinnawela, be more observant of the way these majestic creatures are controlled by the mahouts.
Asha Senevirathne : Pix: Iresha Waduge 

The point used to prod is not sharp, but rounded.

Two ola scripts containing valuable information about elephants are Gajahastra and Nilahastra. The Gajahastra spells out how to build a close relationship with elephants built on the understanding of a special language, the elephants’ behaviour patterns, commands to be used, the 35 points of the body which may be subject to injuries and need to be treated and also the medicines to use.
The Nilahastra is different and gives lessons in controlling the animal with the goad, henduwa or spear. It shows the 86 sensitive points that could be goaded.
* When commanding an elephant, only one person should do it. Otherwise the animal could get confused.
* In ancient times, our country was famous for elephant management and the kings had special trainers; Kuruwe people from Kegalle.

* A brass model of an elephant with a number of moveable joints is believed to have been used in the training of mahouts.
* The King of Kandy had a special unit to deal with all mahouts, and the capturing, training and export of elephants. Gajanayake Nilame was the chief of this unit. 


The henduwa 
The hook is used to pull the elephant by its chains. 



A mahout in action at the Elephant Bath,Mawanella.


Language of mahouts 
Diga or Daha diga - stretch forelegs forward 
Ida - move to a side 
Deri - pick up with trunk 
Hida - lie down 
Daha - walk or rise from sleeping position 
There are many more words used to command the elephants. 


Those represented by a circle and cross are points that result in death.
1. Twists its trunk 
2. Straightens his trunk 
3. Frightens 
4. Frightens and makes it trumpet 
5. Frightens and makes it trumpet and stops animal 
6. Brings under control 
7., 8., 9., 10. - Kills 
11., 12. - Brings under control 
13. Rouses 
14. Brings under control 
15. Kills 
16. Kneels 
17. Goes backwards 
18. Controls animal while being tied to a tree 
19. Gives his shoulder 
20. Lowers heel and neck and stops 
21. Brings under control 
22. Kills 
23. Bends head 
24. Stops animal 
25. Rouses, infuriates 
26. Stops animal 
27. Offers seat 
28. Kills 
29. Stops 
30. Brings under control 
31., 32., 33. - Travels 
34. Lowers head 
35. Benumbs 
36., 37. - Stops animal as well as makes animal walk 
38. Lowers the seat 
39., 40., 41. – Frightens 
42., 43., 44., 45. - Walks 
46. Stops animal 
47. Travels 
48. Stops animal or makes it walk 
49. Offers seat 
50. Stays without fidgeting and puts trunk to ground 
51., 52. Gets up and runs 
53., 54., 55. - Turns around 
56., 57. - Kills 
58. Drops on the ground 
59. Turns around 
60., 61. - Rouses, infuriates 
62. Turns around 
63. Rouses, infuriates 
64. Kills 
65., 66, 67., 68, - Stops animal 
69. Kneels 
70. - 71. Kneels 
72., 73., 74. - Travels when two nilas are touched; stops when one nila is touched 
75. Raises forefoot for mahout to mount 
76. Gives forefoot 
77. Raises forefoot for mahout to mount 
78. Kills 
79. Lames and also brings hindfoot forward 
80., 81. - Offers hindfoot and twists 
82. Draws hindfoot backward 
83., 84. - Raises the forefoot 
85. Raises foot; mahout sets his foot upon middle toe nail of forefoot in mounting 
86,87,88,89,90. Kills 
the source is from Sunday Observer 

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