Gajah: a new parable


back to issue

IN 1872, John Godfrey Saxe I sat in his home in Albany, New York and set out to translate an old Hindu fable. It would befit New York State to set the scene in fall, when the Green Ash and the Red Oak outside would have turned the space between eye and the sky a fiery golden-red. He had, a few years back lost the race for Governor of Vermont, been hounded out from that state by the Republicans and migrated to Albany. There was a need to get his mind away, as far away as geography and his ramblings could take him. Much like Rembrandt, who 250 years earlier in his Viennese studio conjured up the charcoal image of an Asian elephant for the western eye, John Saxe I wrote out the story of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’ for the western minds.


IT was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

Two hundred and forty years after he wrote these lines, there are 1.2 billion people and 30,000 elephants in Hindustan. The citizens of the country still view the beast through varied lenses. The physical elephant exists in four fractured landscapes – the clay hills of the Shivalikterai, the verdant North East, the moonscape of south central India, and the deep southern Ghats. But it also resides in the collective consciousness of at least a billion Indians. Had John Saxe I asked a dozen men or women (the increase in number is only warranted due to such a proliferation of Indians and their views and surely in 21st century India a better gender balance would also be in order) from six different parts of India how they viewed the elephant, he would still get twelve different narratives. The image of the elephant, all these years later, is just as all-pervasive; the knowledge still as imperfect.


The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

‘God bless me! – but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!’

August, 2010, the Government of India through its agency the Ministry of Environment and Forests releases the Gajah report – a volume meant to reshape the consciousness of the Indian and the elephant. Two members of this committee, a historian from Delhi and a biologist from Uttarakhand, view the elephant as a flagship and a keystone species. ‘No animal better symbolizes our cultures and few have such major presence across diverse ecosystems as this flagship species’, the historian avers in the report. ‘The elephant is more than a symbol of our cultures. It is an animal that has fascinated the best of our poets, writers and singers across the ages. Its sociability and intelligence are proverbial,’ the biologist from Uttarakhand is quick to add. ‘Don’t forget’, he reminds, ‘that Elephas maximus is a keystone species in the Asian tropical forest. It can act as an umbrella or flagship for conserving biodiversity. Gajah can help save critical parts of the land mass that will be functional ecosystems representative of Asia’s biomes. And also serve as a living library for science, store of genetic wealth and place where we can continue to learn how nature works.’

Keystone species, one which has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. 30,000 elephants shape Indian tropical forests in ways that a million beetles do not. A flagship species, one that acts as an icon or a symbol for a defined habitat, issue or campaign. The Elephant is an ambassador both for peninsular deciduous and bamboo forests and the Indian link between culture and nature. An umbrella species; one in whose protection many other species indirectly get protected. There is no Project Dung Beetle in India, nor Project Bullfrog; yet these, along with millions of other myriad life get protection under Project Elephant and the elephant reserves.

Elephas maximus, the Great Wall of Indian conservation.


The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried: ‘Ho! – what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ‘tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!’

The farmer from Sonitpur is leading a rally to the office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam at Rehabari in Guwahati. He is a Bodo settler, a tribal who practices Hinduism but his mind is not on Ganesha, the Hindu god, but on the herd that has raided his crop field a fortnight ago. He is part of a larger movement of Bodos who, reclaiming their ancestral land from other communities, marched eastwards from the provincial capital of Kokrajhar and settled in the thin strip of forest that abuts Nameri Tiger Reserve in the Sonitpur district of Assam. It took his clan only six weeks to clear the forests, another four weeks to till the land and now, a year later, the golden sheaf of grain symbolizing the golden Bodo colour dots his landscape.

The landscape that was once that of the elephant and tiger was now his and that of his kin. It was such a shame that the elephants came to reclaim their land. Eleven of them. He had taken to the fields with spears and stones, determined to drive out the last of these wretched creatures from his fields. His neighbours had used small bore musket guns but nothing seemed to work. Next morning, there they were, all eleven of them, herding together under the protective gaze of the matriarch. Now they had to resort to cunning. A jackfruit was cut open, local pesticide poured inside and left in the paddy. Several such poisoned baits replaced the shouting and stone throwing. Next morning, the shouting resumed, but this time of triumph. Lying motionless, were eleven gargantuan figures. Killed by Furidan. The Bodos danced around the corpses. A youngster picked up a piece of chalk and scrawled on the matriarch’s body, ‘Paddy thief! Osama Bin Laden!’ This time they had handled the issue by themselves. Now they were in front of the wildlife office demanding better protection for their crops.

The Chief Wildlife Warden sat with his head in his hands. He had received two calls from the Minister of Forests, three from the local journalist, one from the District Collector of Sonitpur, and one from the Chief Minister’s PS. There were four NGOs waiting for him in the ante room. And now these farmers were shouting slogans outside his window that he could not understand. And it was not yet 10 o clock. A headache, the bloody elephants were creating mayhem in the state.

Spear! The line of fire between man and elephant.


The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

‘I see,’ quoth he, ‘the Elephant

Is very like a snake!’

The biologist crouched on his haunches in the Satkosia valley and studied the tracks before him. Was this the marks of the chain of an elephant that had walked on or that of a snake? There were no elephant pad prints nearby. So snake. But which snake? The fine silt from the Mahanadi blown up into the valley had masked all but a general slithering signature on the sand. It was perhaps not possible to guess. But what he needed to do was to find the animal. He had spent five years doing a Phd in the forests of Chandaka on elephants. Chandaka was easy to track elephants as it was a small forest, almost engulfed by the sprawling city of Bhubhaneswar. Satkosia was another matter altogether. Also, this time his enquiry was not scientific; it was more for national interest. He had been employed by the Steel Authority of India as part of a team scoping out a new mining lease. The company was sure that to get clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests they had to ensure that it was not an elephant corridor. His job was to find where elephants were moving and report back to the operational division manager who would then overlap it onto the large blueprint they had of the forest division.

A decade ago, he would have had no career option after his doctorate but to join the neighbouring college and teach biology. This was much better (far better paid!) and also more challenging (this was part of a 2000 crore rupee plant – not a five lakh rupee high school) and what is more, this was of national interest. So his knowledge, his vast knowledge of elephants could be used to plan the resource mapping using GIS for Odisha and for the rest of the country.

As he went along, he saw the elephant marks. They were marching in a long file north-south. A bloody pain. This was one of the designated mine sites and it would be inconvenient for his office to find that elephants had moved across the landscape just where they needed a clearance. What should he do? Should he report it? Or just overlook it. As he considered, a slight movement caught his eye. The snake (it was a ratsnake) that he was tracking moments ago crawled out of a bush and frantic to escape him, slithered across the elephant tracks and vanished into some scrub once again. But it had done its job. Across the elephant pads was a fine rope mark. The biologist bent down to take his photographic evidence. This could easily pass off as a captive elephant. He had done his job and recorded what he saw. Interpretation of data was the job of his superiors.

Naga-hasthi. Snake. Elephant. A forked mind. A divided path.


The Fourth reached out his eager hand,

And felt about the knee.

‘What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,’ quoth he;

‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a tree!’

The Khamtee walked softly into the forest and cupping his hand to his mouth called to his beast. ‘Chang’ he called the elephant ‘Chaang…’ It was now six months since he had seen the beast that he owned. It was off-season and he would have let it go off into the forests near his home. Better than chaining and keeping the animal nearby. It could feed itself and would be happier in the forest near the spirits of his ancestors. He knew he could get it back when he wanted to…only he had to walk a bit into the forest and track the beast. ‘Chang’, he called again, and then broke into a song that he often sung when he took care of the elephant. He knew the elephant recognized his voice and the song would bring him back. This time, however, the elephant did not come back. It had become what the neighbouring Assamese called a bonghorasia, a creature of the forest, which came for an interlude into human care and then went back.

There was a small group of outsiders camping in his village since the week before and they would not be happy when he went back without the elephant. They were in dire need of a worker for the illegal sawmill that had come up downstream. Logs needed to be got from the Jeypore Reserve Forest. Cutting them down was easy. The Range Officer had already been given his packet and he had arranged to go on leave to Itanagar for four days enough time for the month’s supply. They used to float the logs down the Brahmaputra earlier but there was a greater risk in getting caught then. Also, there was the problem of the siltation all along, the logs could get stuck and extricating them would be even more difficult. It was easier to get an elephant to drag them out of the forest.

In olden days, the emperor used elephants to guard the country. Then the British used it as a beast-machine… now it was a tourism and forest protection beast. But the colonial utility had not fully perished and in Arunachal you could still find elephants for illegal logging hire. The only issue was to find the animal and bring it back from the forest when required.

The Arunachal elephant, the dragger of logs, transporter in the evergreen forests of the North East, the hero of Hastividyaranya, Chang.


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: ‘E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a fan!’

The starlet was finding it difficult in her Gucci heels to keep up with the Ganesh Visarjan. Her boyfriend, hair slicked back with styling gel, face dripping with exertion and hand entwined in hers was more buoyant. ‘Ganapati Bappa Moriya’, he shouted into the Arabian sea as the procession wound its way along the shoreline. ‘Agle Baras thu jaldi Aa’. Come again next year, o Ganesha, he chanted, come again earlier than this time! His view of the potbellied elephant god was that of a provider, a propitiator and not a destroyer unlike of the Bodo in Sonitpur.

The starlet, fresh from doing a campaign ad for PETA on animal rights, was dating the right man. Both were elephant fans. ‘Darling, don’t you think we must Do something about animals in films,’ she asked the hulk near her. ‘I mean, DO something, like meaningful? Not just ad shoots you know. What else do you think we can do?’ Her boyfriend was only on the fringes of Bollywood, a dance extra, but his worship of Ganesha combined with the intoxication of a few bhang modakas that he had consumed, made him bold. ‘Yes, we should tell the union yaar and boycott all movies that use elephants… that’s for sure. Not that Haathi mere Saathi is being remade or anything… but just in case, you know.’

A large, yellow, Chinese made Ganesha idol, not made from wet earth pressed by fervent fingers as of yore but moulded plastic, was being thown into the sea. A loud splash signified a protest from the few resident fish near the shore. A thousand devotees chanted the ditty over and over again.

Fans, devotees, worshippers and a Superstar with an elephant head, Ganesha.


The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than, seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

‘I see,’ quoth he, ‘the Elephant

Is very like a rope!’

Ekadanta, Ekadanta, Vighnaanthakane,’ chanted the devotee. ‘Oh single-tusked Ganesha, the one who puts an end to all obstacles.’ Padmanabhan listened swinging his trunk to and fro, pulling idly at the chain that bound him to the ground and tearing bits of palm frond that his pappan, Kuttan had thrown on the ground for him to feed on. He was twenty-fifth in a line of seventy elephants at the Thrissurpooram. Fifty years ago there had been over a hundred. Today, the number had dwindled only because the mosques at Nelliampathy had started taking elephants for their ceremonies and the Syrian Catholic Church at Puthiyamala was asking for twenty or thirty at a time as well to ferry Christ to the masses. What was essentially a Hindu tradition of going to God all days but one, when God came to you in your homes, had become a way of Kerala.

But today, there was still a day to go for the pooram and this was an unusual ceremony; non-traditional at that and Padmanabhan was viewing the celebrations with some interest. This was the Chandrashekaran Memorial Lecuture at the Vadakkunathan temple. Chandrashekharan was the biggest elephant till he suddenly died in his prime; ‘leant’ in Malayalam, away into the other world. Now the learned, the temple administration and the elephant lunatics of Kerala had gathered to pay homage to the animal in a memorial lecture named after the tallest denizen of the temple.

The Namboothiri of the temple was now speaking. A conservationist from Delhi was sitting beside him. A famous Malayalee vet made up the trio on the stage. The elephants were all lined up on one side and the audience on another. ‘Elephants are divine. Every Malayalee should feed the elephant at least once in their lives.’ Padmanabhan was still chewing the frond. There were rolled up balls of rice and jiggery in a large wicker basket on the side, both unnatural food for elephants. ‘All elephant lovers in this gathering, let us donate generously to the temple fund for looking after these divine creatures.’

The divine creature, shackled to the iron hoop on the granite compound wall, chewed on his fibrous offering and shaking his head to spatter off some vermillion that had oozed its way from its temple to the corner of its eye, contemplated its divinity.

Rope, binding, captivity, prisoner and yet the heartthrob of a million Malayalees…Aana.


And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!


So, oft in theologic wars

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!

There is no advaita or single vedanta to view an elephant. To every Indian, the beast is of different form. Centuries after the parable was first recited from father to son; another century and a half since the liberal American poet had dreamt of it in a foreign tongue, seven seas away from its native land, the elephant remains the enigma that it was. The National Heritage Animal of India. Chandrashekharan Aana of Vadakunnathan temple. Ganapati Bappa Moriya. Osama Bin Laden. Keystone species of dry deciduous and bamboo forests. A headache. A killer. A near person.

Elephas maximus – all this and more.


* This article is a mosaic of a real landscape and imagined characters, portraying the Asian elephant wearing all the masks that it does in modern day India. No character or organization is real and the storyline merely indicative of real time possibilities facing the Asian elephant in the country.