As this time’s edition was dedicated to ‘lessons in management from the wild’ we were pondering on who we could interview. Many ideas were mooted and discarded as we felt that none of them would really have much weight. Then came the idea of interviewing a ‘Mahout’. It intrigued us to no end how a puny human being could train and control a behemoth of a beast that could make him into a human smoothie in seconds. So the quest for an interview with a mahout began.
Just about the same time, a coincidence occurred when Fayaz and I saw a tusker passing by the office (on Pepiliyana Road) and we went up to the mahout and asked him for an interview. This was not successful but we did manage to hold up traffic for a good ten minutes and get rather rude but creative responses thrown at us.
Scroll to the bottom of this post to read the full interview.
Searching for the ‘tamer’
The search ended when we reached out to the man who knows all about elephants – Thusitha Ranasinghe of Maximus fame – to put us in touch with an experienced mahout. The only request we made was that the mahout should be an experienced one. We heard from Thusitha right away, and there we were, on our way to Pinnawala (home to the infamous elephant orphanage) to meet the ‘tamer’ cum buddy of the beast to find out more about his story, close up…
Entre Mr. U. G Gunaratne Banda
We were put in touch with the Millennium Elephant Foundation and the manager took us to meet the mahout he had in mind for us. Anyone who knows me would tell you that a suicide bomber dying for a cause had nothing on me when it came to animals. I am a certified animal fanatic. We were told that he was the most experienced they had.
We approached the river bank and our first sight of Mr. Banda was of him industriously scrubbing an elephant (with a coconut husk) that was submerged and lying flat having a bath in the river. The elephant looked up, got up and out of the water and I was in shock. It unfolded its massive frame and there stood one of the most beautiful tusked elephants that I had seen. For a moment there, I looked like a Bon Jovi Groupie who had just been able to touch the hem of the overcoat of the lead singer. I was suddenly afflicted with a rather surprising ailment where I could not seem to keep my mouth closed. But everything settled down and we got down to business.
How did you get into the field ?
Banda’s relationship with elephants had begun as a childhood affair, “I have always been keen on elephants. Ever since I was a kid I would go behind my elder brother who was a mahout and watch all that he did. I would also help him with the day to day activities which had to be done to maintain the elephant.” He loved elephants so much that he quit school at the age of 12 and started to be fully engaged with elephants.
However, tragedy was to strike when his brother got killed by the elephant that he was tending. Banda, 18 at the time, never let the incident stop him from taking up the same profession and saw it as a natural progression instead. “I did not look after the elephant that killed him but it was then that I really got into this vocation.”
How do you learn to become a mahout?
“You must learn through apprenticeship. You go and become an apprentice to a seasoned mahout who will take you under his wing. You learn all that you can from him.” said Banda. There is little or no possibility for one to learn the caring of elephants from books – and all you had was the words and deeds of the teacher / master (known is local parlance as the ‘gurunahansey’.
He adds, “It is all to do with experience. You yourself must do the work, which is the only way you will learn. You do need to read books to learn the ali mantara but this is not much. Everything is learnt from observation and then practically doing what you have been taught.” Gurunahanseys do not teach everybody all the secrets they know. They teach all they know only to a select few who are good, talented and who will not abuse the art.
What does it take to do what you do ?
I was curious to find out the pre-requisites if I may, to become a mahout. What is that one needs to be able to control and at the same time, maintain peace with by far one of the biggest creatures in the animal world. First things first, Banda says, “You must first love the elephant. Without this nothing is possible. The you must learn the aspects that you will need to look after an elephant.”
On the other hand, he is also quick to reflect on something he considers key to the relationship, “You must not be overly scared of elephants. They will sense it and bully you.” And this is the reason he attributes to many mahouts ending up as drunkards in Sri Lanka as they turn to alcohol to overcome the fear. He is quick to admit that he too is in fear all the time, but thinks it is good and there is a requirement to be vigilant all the time, “you need to be scared to a certain degree as this keeps you on your toes. It is folly to not be scared.”
Every day is a NEW day !
Elephants are always tied up at night, and the first thing done every morning is to visit and gauge its mood. According to Banda, this is an essential thing to do, and not doing so can be extremely dangerous. “If an elephant is in a good mood it will flap its ears, pass feces and urine and make deep gurgling noises to greet you. If it is in a bad mood it would stand motionless and appear morose.” And if you do find the elephant is a bad mood, the practice is not to release him for the day or even until he gets over the negative behaviour.
What do you do when its in a foul mood ?
At that moment, I felt a little uncomfortable thinking about an elephant being in a bad mood – and was curious to find out what to do ? After all, not like you can do a high five and a motivational speech. Or buy chocolates for that matter.
But maybe not chocolates, but it comes close. Banda says it important to tend to it during this time, “You have to give the food it likes to eat like sugar cane, palm sugar, treacle, banana and kitul. Kitul is their favorite.” He even chants what is called an ‘ali mantra’ (chanting for elephants) before he feeds them. Not just once, but chant is over and over for a 108 times before he feeds. This apparently gets them into good mood !
Considering the elephants are brought up in artificial environment compared to the wild they come from, there are several things that needs a close tab on, including :
- keep the elephant’s stable (called the ‘ali panthiya’) clean and tidy.
- bathe the elephants number of times each day, as there body needs to be kept constantly cooler.
- feed them well : a grown elephant will need to eat 100 coconut branches or a whole kitul tree a day. Banda feeds between 300 to 400 kg a day.
- tackle basic injuries and deceases. He uses sinhala (traditional) medicine which takes time according to him, but heals proper.
For Banda, the basis of the relationship is that a mahout is in debt to an elephant as it is through its effort, sweat and blood that he makes a living. “We try to repay this by looking after it well and keeping it happy. When this debt is paid the relationship has gone its full cycle.”
And duly notes, “The elephant needs to trust you and you must earn that trust as a mahout.”
For aspiring mahouts, he has a piece of advice too, “Give first priority to the animal and well being, and then think about money. If you look after the elephant well, money will automatically follow.”
As Banda left to take care of the dinner of his companion, I could not stop thinking of the similarities of the relationship between Banda and his Karberi Rajah (the name of the elephant), and the one between a boss and his team at the workplace !
The full interview.
Tell us how you got into the field
I have always been keen on elephants. Ever since I was a kid I would go behind my elder brother who was a mahout and watch all that he did. I would also help him with the day to day activities which had to be done to maintain the elephant. I loved elephants so much that I quit school at the age of 12 and started to be fully engaged with elephants. My brother got killed by the elephant that he was tending when I was 18 years old. The natural path was for me to become a full time mahout. I did not look after the elephant that killed him but it was then that I really got into this vocation.
How do you learn to become a mahout?
You must learn through apprenticeship. You go and become an apprentice to a seasoned mahout who will take you under his wing. You learn all that you can from him. There is not much book learning. You must follow the instructions of your gurunahansey (Master) and watch how he goes about his tasks. It is all to do with experience. You yourself must do the work, which is the only way you will learn. You do need to read books to learn the ali mantara (Elephant mantra) but this is not much. Everything is learnt from observation and then practically doing what you have been taught. Gurunahanseys do not teach everybody all the secrets they know. They withhold the Gurumushtiya. They teach all they know only to a select few who are good, talented and who will not abuse the art. The art of handling an elephant can be used to do wrong.
What does it take to be a Mahout?
You must first love the elephant. Without this nothing is possible. You must learn the aspects that you will need to look after an elephant. You must not be overly scared of elephants. They will sense it and bully you. This is why most mahouts in Sri Lanka are more often than not drunkards. They are scared and to get the feeling to subside they intoxicate themselves. Vigilance is essential, you need to always be on the alert and pay attention to detail. I am scared on a daily basis. This is not a bad thing; you need to be scared to a certain degree as this keeps you on your toes. It is folly to not be scared
What is the daily routine and general up keep of an elephant like?
An elephant is always tied up at night and the first thing you do I the morning is to visit the elephant and gauge its mood. This has to be done every day and without fail. If you neglect to do this it can become very dangerous. If an elephant is in a good mood it will flap its ears, pass feces and urine and make deep gurgling noises to greet you. If it is in a bad mood it would stand motionless and appear morose. At times like this the elephant is not released on that particular day or until he stops displaying this type of behavior. It can be just in a bad mood for no apparent reason or if it is a male elephant it can be coming in to musth. This is the period where in the wild bull elephants fight each other for the right to mate. They are very violent at this time. As a mahout I need to be able to pick this, it is an innate ability that comes only with sheer experience. If an elephant is in a bad mood you must tend to it and fuss over it. You have to give the food it likes to eat like sugar cane, palm sugar, treacle, banana and kitul. Kitul is their favorite. You have to chant an ali manthara over the food a 108 times and then feed it to the elephant. This gets them into a good mood.
Then the elephant’s stable which is called the ali panthiya needs to be cleaned out and tidied. Elephants need to keep constantly cool, so we bathe them a number of times a day for long periods of time. The entire body is scrubbed and cleaned. They love the treatment that they get.
Elephants eat a lot. My elephant is full grown; he needs to eat 100 coconut branches or a whole kitul tree a day. Somehow or the other I give him about 300 to 400 kilograms of food a day.
As mahouts we need to know how to tackle basic injuries and diseases in an elephant. The medicine that we have is traditional Sinhala medication. I believe in the traditional medicines as opposed to the western treatments. Sinhala treatment is messy and takes time to heal but it is a complete recovery. When we use Western medicines, t he elephants get recurring attacks. For instance when an elephant is having a stomach ailment we make a medicine called the Dalu paha. It is a mixture of 5 herbal leaves which we mash up together with Epsom salts and give to the animal. It is also important that when an elephant has an open wound to tie a gunny sack around it when it goes for a bath as the fish in the river come, peck at it and infects it.
If an elephant is looked after well it will live to a ripe old age of about 80years. Handling and maintaining an elephant is a full time job. My mind is always on my elephant. When I go home at night I am so tired that I cannot do anything else. That is what it takes to keep an elephant healthy and happy.
I have heard that there are elephant castes. Is this true?
Yes it is true. There are 18 castes of elephants. I cannot remember the names of all of them but the highest caste is called Sadantha and the lowest cast is called Rodi. You do not find Saddantha caste elephants in Sri Lanka. They say that you can find them in the jungles along the foothills of the Himalayas. Many of the elephants in Sri Lanka who are taken for pereharas (Processions) are from the Managala caste and the Hema cast.
How do you identify which caste an elephant belongs to?
There are many physical characteristics you see. For instance a good caste elephant needs to have a trunk and a tail that touches the ground. Good straight limbs with round feet. They need to be big and tall with a good body shape and have light colored areas on trunk and forehead. This is called gomara.
It is not only looks that matter in an elephant and when you are identifying a caste. The elephant must be good inside and outside, otherwise there is no point. It must be obedient and kind, have an exceptional personality and attitude. This is what makes a great elephant.
Tell me a bit about the elephant that you are currently handling
I have close to forty years experience and have handled 15 elephants. This one is my 16th. He is a big tusker and his name is Karberi Rajah. He was presented to the temple of the tooth from India. He is called Karberi rajah as he is from the karberi islands. He is from the Hema caste. He has a leg which is twisted. The leg was in this state when we got him. They said that this was because he had fallen into a deep hole and got the leg injured. It bothers him sometimes as the leg swells up but then we treat it and it goes back to normal. He is a good steady elephant and is obedient. He hoots every morning when he sees me coming. He also cries out when I have to give him a spanking and hangs onto the ankus and asks me not to hit him. He has a crooked tail which is bent in 5 places. This usually means that he will kill five men but as his leg is twisted, he is unable to do any harm.
How do you select and train an elephant
It’s very good and effective if you get a very young elephant so that you can start training it at a young age. When selecting elephant you must first look at whether it is a healthy animal and if physically it is a good specimen. Apart from this it must be mellow and have a good personality. This must come with a mahout’s intuition and instinct. He must just know if the elephant will be a good animal or not. It is an innate ability that cannot be explained.
The attitude of the elephant is very important. There are some elephants that are naturally lazy and will not work unless forced to. Some elephants are workaholics. They live to work and they enjoy it. You sometimes can’t stop them from working. This is not dependent on the breeding or caste they are in. It is the way they have been trained and brought up at a young age.
There is a special language that we use to communicate with the elephant. It is called the ali baasaawa or elephant language. We also use nila points to communicate with the elephants. These are pressure points and when we touch these specific locations on its body with the ankus or our heels. the elephant gets the message. The message depends on where we touch them and which nila points are stimulated. There are different types of nila points. There are some to control, some to stimulate the elephant and some to kill it. There are nila points which can kill an elephant in 15 minutes. When an elephant sometimes just refuses to work, we have no alternative so what we do is we use these pressure points to subdue it and to get it under control.
Elephants can be taught to do anything, may it be to go in processions, logging, murder and even execution. It is a very intelligent animal and can pick a new thing up within days or faster.
Before you start training you need to earn the elephants trust. The only way to do this is to tend to the animal and feed it. A mahout has to develop a bond with the elephant and understand its personality and its nuances. This process cannot be rushed. If it is the elephant must suffer as the only way to get it to listen to you is to hit it and hurt it. This is cruel.
An elephant needs to be taught through showing it what to do and then praising it if it does it properly or reprimanding it if it does not listen. They are so intelligent that it does not take much to train them. Elephants can be trained without any form of negative reinforcement. There is no need to hit or harm an elephant if you get the animal when it is young and if you use ali manthara an elephant can be trained without any hassle. The younger mahouts these days do not know the art and always try to coerce an elephant to perform tasks.
The skill which is the toughest to teach is logging where they have to haul and drag logs at logging sites or saw mills. They carry the logs with their lips so what we do is apply treacle on a small piece of log and get them to bite it. They do so because it is sweet. At first they hold on to it with their lips but when they get tired they hold it fully in their mouth. After this we give them the command to pick the log and they do so in about 5 to 6 days of continuous training. Elephants engage in many different tasks as such learning when it comes to elephants is continuous. They need to learn different skills at different times in their lives depending on the type of work they do.
What is the relationship you have with the elephant?
All a mahout has is his relationship with the elephant. It is very important to cultivate this relationship. It must be strengthened. I build up my relationship with the elephant every day. The elephant needs to trust you and you must earn that trust as a mahout. This is simply done by looking after it and loving it and spending time with it. An elephant will reciprocate and treat you well. It is common to hear of cases where an elephant is known to mourn the loss of their mahout or owner. There are incidents where elephants have cried and gone off their food at the death of their master.
Whatever the relationship you have with the elephant it is still a living breathing thing with feelings. It will also get angry from time to time. This is mostly because we have taxed it too much or not treated it properly. An elephant does not know its own strength and sometimes when it lashes out it kills the human being. This is not done on purpose most of the time.
You see we as mahout are in debt to the elephant. It is through the animal effort, sweat and blood that we make our living. We are constantly in its debt, we try to repay this by looking after it well and keeping it happy. This is the basis of the relationship. When this debt is paid the relationship has gone its full cycle. The elephant decides when it is time to move on. When it is time he will not listen to the mahout and will become difficult to control. A new mahout is then needed to look after him
Although the elephant needs to trust you fully you can never trust any elephant a 100%. The most you can trust an elephant is 60%. It is irrelevant how long you have known the elephant or whether you raised it up since it was a calf. The elephant is and always will be a wild animal and is many times stronger than a human. You must always be vigilant. It is folly to trust an elephant fully.
What was the most memorable incident of your career?
I was once in charge of this tusker (and he points to another large tusker taking a bath). I tied him to a king coconut tree and left it for the night. The next thing I know is that he had torn the tree off the ground and run with it to the city of Kegalle and was running amok terrorizing the entire area. We had to get the veterinary department of the Peradeniya University to come and tranquilize it. He was very head strong but he is a good elephant. It was he who was behind the incident which was the most frightening of my life. We were walking him from the perehera on the road and suddenly he got annoyed and hit me. I was sent flying through the air head over heels to the side of the road. He charged me and I jumped into a nearby marsh. The elephant chased me down and I made it through to the other end, the water and mud was up to my chin. He chased me all the way there and then chased me back across the swamp. I thought it was the end for me. The elephant could not be restrained for more than one and a half days. Every time he saw me he charged. I must have somehow made him angry. Afterwards I tended to it and got its trust and good will back. I met with the owner of the elephant and gave him a stack of beetle, worshipped him and said I just cannot handle this elephant and I was given another one.
What do you think about the Human Elephant conflict?
It’s unfair isn’t it? Elephants have been living in those forests for hundreds of years. Now humans have come, encroached on their feeding grounds. What do you expect? Elephants now do not have enough space to live and so they often come into contact with humans and this leads to conflict. Humans need to understand that they are trespassing on the elephant’s home. The elephants cannot help it. We need to know better
What advice would you give young mahouts?
Treat the elephant well. You earn your living through that animal. Give first priority to the animal and well being, and then think about money. If you look after the elephant well money will automatically follow. Treating the elephant well is the right thing to do and it is only fair.
Be willing to learn and to put in the effort to learn. Be obedient and do what your gurunahansey tells you to.
If you do these things success will follow you, there is no question.
Towards the latter part of the interview we saw Mr. Banda looking towards the elephant in a concerned way and we also noticed that he was getting a bit agitated. Finally my interminable questions stopped and he gratefully got up to go. Then he said that it is time for Rajas dinner and that he must know attend to that. . Although there was much shouting and threatening towards the elephant one could see the look of concern and the faint traces of a smile every time Mr. Banda looked at his charge. His face weather beaten and lined, splits into a smile of pride as I marvel at his elephant…You could not mistake the pride and love on the Mahouts face. Mr. Banda walks the talk, Karberi Rajah was the most well kept and best behaved elephant at the foundation…A credit to the thousands of hours of hard work, care and love put into keeping this modern day mammoth happy. A big job indeed !