November 2012 report
I travelled to the Bansbari Range of Manas National Park in Baska District of BTAD, Assam to meet my community elder. He is a naitive to the Barengabari Village near the range. I reached my destination on 19th of December 2012 from Guwahati and spent five days to work with my community elder. I had an extensive conversation with my community elder, Purna Chandra Rabha about his life long experience with the elephants. My basic objective was to understand his attitude and expertise about elephants as a traditional icon. He started his training under his father Lt. AndharuRabha, who was a skilled mahut of Manas during fifties. However, his professional life with elephant shaped during the visit of former pri-minister of India Lt. Indira Gandhi to Manas in 1952. He had been hired for two days to look after the department’s elephant during the prime-minister’s trip. Subsequently, he continued his work with the department’s elephants. He remembered the orphaned elephant calf ‘Giribala’ as his first charge. Latter on he developed his expertise with other elephants – ‘Jamuna’ and ‘Sundarmala’. The young Purna Rabha became an inseparable part for the management of captive elephants of Manas. He met the famous Phandi Hasan Ali and requested him to take him as one of the group members in elephant catching operations. Hasan Ali advised him to register himself as a mahut. This was the first elephant hunting trip of Purna Chandra Rabha. He caught 3.5 elephants within six months. Here 3 elephants means three individual animal and 0.5 means one half, that was caught in a share. This one half is termed as ‘Dhora’ . After Batabarimahal, he moved down to Garubhasamahal. Presently, Garubhasa is situated in Chirang District , Assam. Here he caught 7 elephants with Hasan Ali. He became an expert elephant catcher. In 1965 he had joined ‘Gajli Sikar’ trip with Balaram Somuwa of Dumunichowki. Gajli Sikar is primarily taken up during monsoon. He had extensively explored the mahals of Sapkata river of Holtugaon and caught 4 elephants. These areas are bordering Bhutan foot hills in Kokrajhar District of Assam. However, he came back to Manas in 1970 and joined a permanent mahut post of Assam forest department. His folk knowledge about elephant culture, medicine and management had been shaped to its best. During his service, he had gained enormous knowledge on the elephant’s behavior. He had joined a elephant training camp at Simlipal Tiger Reserve in 2004 and Nandankanan Zoological Park of Orissa as a resource person in 2005. Simlipal Tiger Reserve is also famous as a national park and an elephant reserve situated in the Mayurbhanj district in the Indian state of Orissa.
In the next phase, I had discussed about Purna Chandra Rabha’s knowledge on elephant as an animal. He expressed his knowledge in a systematic way. Our conversation started with the anatomical features or the external appearance of the elephant. This is an important part of elephant knowledge to understand the health and identity of individual animal. He has a good understanding about the individual body characteristic of every elephant. He told me that, the continuous interaction helped him to develop such an understanding as his family had been traditionally working with elephants. Elephants are traditionally identified based on their Tusk structures, Body shapes and Tail lengths. Besides this, elephants are managed in 3 broader categories. As ‘Datal’ means Tusker that is a male elephant having long tusks, ‘Makhna’ means a male without tusk and ‘Makhundi’ means female elephants. Based on Tusk elephants are divided as ‘Tal-Betal’, ‘NalDatiya’, ‘VolkaDatiya’ etc. The elephants are further divided as ‘Kumar baan’, ‘Mirgabaan’ ect based on body structure and as ‘Jharudumiya’, ‘Kharadumiya’ etc based on tail lengths. There are several other terminologies used for elephants based on their behavior and use. I had visited Purna Chandra Rabha’s residence in the Barengabari village. Here we have some casual discussion about his personal life and family. I asked his about his attitude towards the present day elephant management and forest departments works. He was very disappointed with the department’s attitude towards the elephants and mahuts. Further, he had shown me some of the ropes used to catch elephants and also used for training. He told about different wooden, bamboo and metal instruments used in elephants. Some of these ropes are known as ‘Phand’, ‘Phara’, Kaas’ etc based on their use. I had take up these ropes and other instruments in details during my next visit.
Excerpts from January 2013 report
For the January month, I had some specific plan to study the mahut knowledge and parts of their professional life in the elephant camps of Manas national park maintained by forest department of Govt. of Assam. I travelled to the Bansbari Range of Manas National Park under Baska District of BTAD, Assam to meet my community elder Mr. Purno Chandra Rabha. He introduced me with his younger brother Mr. Diporu Chandra Rabha. He is also staying is the same Barengabari Village near the range and is associated with state forest department as a Head mahut. I had reached my destination on 18th of January 2013 from Guwahati and spend four days to work with my community elder
I had accompanied Mr. Diporu Chandra Rabha to the elephant camp and spend the whole day observing and discussing with mahuts about their life and elephant management skills. The camp is known as Mahal and situated near the Kasimdoha river. Around 15 to 18 mahuts and ghassis (Grass man) were deputed in the camp with ten elephants. Their day started with caring and feeding the elephants. The elephants were released to the nearby woods for grazing and some of the mahuts and ghassis go out to collect fodder for their elephants. The elephants came back in the late afternoon and they were bathed in the nearby streams. During duty hours for anti-poaching patrolling and tourist safaris the mahuts and their elephants have to be busy for the whole day. I had myself seen the mahuts and ghassis doing different works like cleaning the dung and arranging the fodders in different areas for different elephants. The elephants are tied with iron chains in wooden posts. These are known as khamari.
I have a long conversation with Mr. Diporu Chandra Rabha about different commands used by mahuts. These commands are basically single word used in Assamese, Bangali and Hindi forms. Some of them are ‘Dhap’, stop the elephant and stand still, ‘Baith’ to make the elephant sit , ‘Mail’ to make the elephant stand , ‘Aaget’ to move the elephant forward, ‘Pichu’ is used to move the elephant backward, ‘Terat’ to roll the elephant aside, ‘Sam Terat’ to roll the elephant to another side.. He also argued that various commands associated with different other purposes like elephant catching operations, hunting and war were lost and not known to the both new generations of mahuts and elephants. We had also discussed the attitude of new mahuts and government facilities, which act as a major intervention to retain the art and culture of mahuts life in these forest camps. The next day, Mr. Diporu Chandra Rabha arranged for a live demonstration of commands and also allowed me to command an elephant. It was an adult female named Rukmini.
Excerpts from March 2013 report
For the month of March, I had a specific plan to study the health management of elephants by the indigenous mahouts.. I had planned to work on Rabha community and their traditional links, attitude towards the elephants and their habitats of Goalpara district. The forest tracks southern parts Goalpara district bordering the Garo hills of Maghalaya is dominated by Rabha tribal villages along with some Garo tribal villages. Both these communities share the same space with elephants since time immemorial. The geographical location of the district is between latitude 25° 53’ N and longitude 90° 07’ and 91° 05’ E. The topography of Goalpara District is generally characterized by cultivable plains except for a few low- forested hills. Elephants are one of the major mega fauna found in the region. However, developmental activities and clearing of forest for ‘jhumming’ (slash and burn cultivation) has resulted in degradation and fragmentation of habitat. The problem has been compounded due to the fact that most of the forest area is under community or local control. Only 410 km2 area is under the control of Forest department and the rest is private forest. Due to large deposits of coal and limestone in Garo Hills, many of the elephant areas are in danger.
I meat Joydeep Chockrabarty, who has been working in this region with UK-based North of England Zoological Society and Assam-based NGO EcoSystems-India under Assam Haathi Project . I had a brief discussion with him about the issues related to elephants and tribal communities of this region. He had stated how the local communities interact with the elephants and the conflict pattern evolved from coexistence of both human and elephants. He explained the traditional practice of Rabha communities to mitigate the conflict with elephants. I also discussed about the use of trained elephants or the captive elephants used against the wild elephants during the conflict mitigation practice known as koonki. I asked him to visit some villages located in the wild elephant movement track and refugee areas of the district. These were Bamunghopa, Kalyanpur, Nichinta, Derak and Hatigaon. These villages are populated by Rabha tribes along with Garo, Bodo, Rajbanshi and Jogi-nath communities. Joydeep shown me how they are trying to benefit the local Rabha communities affected by elephants by promoting their indigenous crafts and textiles. He had also shown various educational materials use to create awareness in these villages. On the way to Nichinta village, I had seen a long stretch of degraded forest of Sagunbahi RF due to large scale logging for Sal timbers. Joydeep shown me how local communities use fire against elephants to save their crops including a particular fence traditionally maintained by Rabha communities. During my visit, I talked to various community people to understand their attitude and traditional inter-relations with elephants. I talked to Briliant Ch. Marak (65) of Derak village and Dakeshwar Rabha (83) of Hatigaon village and tried to understand their attitude and traditional knowledge related to elephants.
I did an extensive study to understand the contemporary situation of elephants and their interaction with the local communities of this region. I found that the elephants of southern bank of Brahmaputra can be divided into three distinct populations that is the eastern, central and western population. The Goalpara district is mainly explored by the western population of elephants. The habitat in the western range of elephant population covers a major part of Assam and Meghalaya. The distribution of western population extends from near Guwahati through the foothills of the Meghalaya plateau (Garo and Khasi Hills) including the districts of Kamrup and Goalpara in Assam and Rhi-Bhoi, West Khasi Hills, East Garo Hills, West Garo Hills and South Garo Hills of Meghalaya. They also occasionally move to forests of Bangladesh from the forest areas of Baghmara in Meghalaya. This area also includes the Garo Hill Elephant Reserve spread over 3500 km2 and supports approximately 1700 elephants. The large extended distribution of elephants always interacts with the tribal villages located in their corridors. This is probably the main region behind the strong association of tribal people and elephants both ecologically and culturally. I had read some of the books in vernacular language that records the elephant as a major folk element of Goalparia folk culture. Besides secondary sources, I had also gone through several files of Department of Revenue and Agriculture(Kheddah branch), Department of Revenue and Agriculture (Forest branch), Home Department (Judicial branch), Home Department (Public branch), Home Department (Police branch), Assam Secretariat (Military department), Assam Secretariat (Revenue department), Assam Secretariat (Finance department) including the files of Government of Eastern Bengal and Assam (Financial department/ Forest branch ) collected from Assam State Archive, Guwahati to understand the colonial engagement with elephant in the Goalpara-Garo hills region. I also came to know about several books where elephants were culturally depicted as a folk element.
The cultural tradition of the Rabha community dominated the Goalpara region with other tribal communities like Garo, I seek to study and document is specifically related to the sub theme of Indigenous Knowledge Systems. I had carried out my field work in the March 2013 to understand the position of elephants in the folk or traditional knowledge of the communities living in Goalpara region. I had tried to focus on the traditional knowledge systems of these communities, especially Rabhas and Garos associated with the elephants. The main theme of this observation was based on the co-existence of both the man and elephants in the same landscape. This documentation helps me to understand the Human-elephant relationship and traditional conflict mitigation knowledge to a larger extent.
Excerpts from April 2013 report
For the month of April, I travelled to the Bansbari Range of Manas National Park under Baska District of BTAD, Assam to meet my community elder Mr. Purna Chandra Rabha and his younger brother Mr. Diporu Rabha. I reached my destination on 11th April 2013 from Guwahati and spent five days to work with my community elder. This is a spring season and Assam was celebrating the Bihu festival. I got a chance to ask my collaborator regarding the rituals during such a holy occasion. I had an extensive conversation with my community elder, Purna Chandra Rabha regarding the rituals and medicines associated with elephants. At first he was not ready to explain the holy rituals associated with elephants. Both the rituals and medicine are considered as secret traditional knowledge of Mahut communities. One must go through proper rules and regulations before learning this secret holy practice. I had to convince him to record the practice with various arguments about the documentation needs of such folk knowledge. Purna Chandra Rabha asked me to prepare myself to see the rituals of Mahutji Puja that they perform to get the blessings of forest god. According to him this ritual is performed for lord Siva. The Mahutji Puja is performed in a secret place within the jungle and only few mahuts take part in this small ritual.
They use candle, betel leaves and nuts including a bottle of local wine. However, sacrifice is the main part of ritual and Purna Chandra Rabha brought a cock for the purpose. He prepared for the rituals of Mahutji Puja offering a candle betel leaves and nuts including a bottle of local wine. After that he prayed to god with a kalm of the Quraan Shareef. It was very interesting to see a Hindu puja performed through an Islamic prayer. I asked him for the reason. He said that their previous mahouts did the same. This can be considered as an fusion of both Islamic and tribal rituals. The puja ended with the offering a local cock to the forest god in Mahutji Puja through sacrifice.
I also documented the traditional medicines used by mahuts to cure various wounds and pains of the elephants. Both the Mahut brothers helped me to understand the traditional medicines of elephants. They collected some of the medicinal plants such as Swarnalata or Rabonornari , Bih-Dhakia , Vatomali used as ingredients of the traditional medicines of elephants. Purna Chandra Rabha also explained his experience about feeding salt to the elephants. He spoke about his days with Prakitish Chandra Barua, known as Lalji – a legendary elephant catcher and jumbo expert. Lalji was an eccentric and uncanny hunter who killed over 40 tigers and twice as many leopards. For six, sometimes nine months a year, Lalji left his palace and camped in the jungle, to catch elephants. Ialso plann to meet his daughter Parbati Barua, who has a supernatural understanding of elephants, inherited from her father.
Excerpts from May 2013 report
For the May month, I studied the elephant capture and hunting methods along with the mahut culture as a part of their professional life in the elephant camps of Manas national park maintained by forest department of Govt. of Assam. I travelled to the Bansbari Range of Manas National Park under Baska District of BTAD, Assam to meet my community elder Mr. Purno Chandra Rabha and his brother Mr. Diporu Chandra Rabha. I reached my destination on 10th of May and spent four days with my community elder.
We discussed about the selection of good elephants. The basic characteristics of a good elephant depends on their body features. Body size, Tail length and number of nails were generally considered. The eyes and forehead were also seen. Besides that legs must be examine before selection of the elephants. Mr. Purno Chandra Rabha had told me about the types of Shikar or the elephant capturing operation. The Shikar or the elephant capturing operation is a very specialized task where there was a strong role of each and every mahut, phandi and koonki elephants. The shikar party or the hunting groups have to maintain a specific area of operation known as elephant mahal demarcated by authority. However, before proceed to capturing methods, one must know about the types of elephants used in such operations. The first one is Pad hati . It is generally used in to Gor shikar to protect the gates or to close the entrance and exit. Sometimes they also help in capturing suitable elephants within the stockade. After that the Shikari koonki elephant, which must be a size over 7 to 7.5 ft height used in elephant capture. The Dipu koonki is also another type. It is used in the depot or a main camp to maintain the newly captured animals or to supply of food. They are used in elephant trainings.
Mr. Purno Chandra Rabha discussed about various types of Shikar or the elephant capturing operation. He started with Gor shikar. In this method wild elephants were literally driven into a pen or stockade. The salt leaks were used to determine specific elephant movement corridors. The capture stocked is built using large timbers and tree logs along with 2 gates. One is entrance other is exit. Here the ‘Pad hati’ were use to protect the gates or to close the entrance and exit. The koonki is used to tie the selected sub-adult calves. The Gajli Shikar, which generally done in monsoon, when new shoots of grasses (in assamese Gajali) were available. 3 to 4 mahouts are allowed to catch elephants and a single koonki is permitted to catch 2 new elephants. The Ankur Shikar is a daily business, where authorities maintain a daily record of the capture operation. The last one is Peti Shikar. It’s a six month operation. A depot or a main camp is established in the border of the forest and a specialized hunting group of mahut, phandi and shikari labour enter the jungle for 15 to 30 days. Apart from mahut and phandi, the shikari labour should be well trained and well knowledgeable about elephants and the forest. They have another temporary hunting camp within the forest. Once they capture a new elephant, they have to come back to the depot and submit the new animal in the main camp and go back to the temporary camp.
Apart from this, we had moved towards the cultural life of mahuts. Mr. Purno Chandra Rabha had told me about few folk songs and their importance in mahut’s life and lore. He described the Jora Ghurua process. A bunch of fire is use to show the newly captured elephants to make them acquainted with fire and human. Several folk songs were also sung to soothe the animal during this period. However, the first song is dedicated to God or Allaha. A song may be like this,
Allah allah bolo re bhai,
Hoi allah rasul.
Allah bine kahore nai,
Hoi allah rasul.
Sikar barit jabire bhai,
Hoi allah rasul.
I also went to the Mahut camp of Manas National Park to observe some of the day –to-day activity of the mahuts with Mr. Diporu Chandra Rabha.
Apart from this, we had moved towards the cultural life of mahuts. Mr. Purno Chandra Rabha had told me about few folk songs and their importance in mahut’s life and lore.