Understanding India: Elephant Bath
Nikki and I were walking around the mahout elephant camp. The behemoths wandered aimlessly with their shackles clanking. We stopped to look around, take photos. The rain had just quit and made the wet dirt smell and the tall trees sag. In front of us, a few yards ahead, an elephant froze. It looked directly at us. Its enormous body was frozen head to toe. The ears no longer flapping. The tail stopped swaying. A mahout told us to move on quickly. When an elephant freezes it’s a sign they are about to charge. The elephant was alerted to our presence and the longer we stood there staring back, the longer it weighed the decision to react. We shuffled off quickly with heads bowed.
In another camp we watched the elephants get a good scrub behind their ears. This camp was different from the others because it was open for tourists and all the workers wore matching uniforms. The elephants seemed lackadaisical in the water, their trunks drifting like snorkels while they lay on their sides. Workers scrubbed every crevice. The elephant basked with eyes closed. Eventually it would rest its trunk on an exposed tusk and breathe deeply. The bather would climb over the elephant like a gymnast with rolled up pants and sleeves. Elephant skin would darken from the wet and then fade into a light grey as the sun warmed and dried it.
A tall metal platform stood across from the performing elephants. A flight of metal steps led to a railed platform. It was like a high dive board at a swimming pool, except under the edge wasn't electric blue water, but an elephant's back. Nikki and I were rushed to hop on. The elephants were about to retire for the day. We ripped off our shoes. Nikki climbed on and sat waiting for me.
I studied the gap between the platform and the elephant. It was a good drop. The kind of drop that breaks bones. Not given much time to strategize, I stuck my leg out and let gravity do the rest. I landed on the back of an elephant. Without warning, we began to move forward. I held on to Nikki for life. I have no idea what she was holding on to. Our driver sat on the base of the elephant’s neck using his feet to direct the elephant in a circle that would lead us back to the platform.
Elephants are incredible in their ability to learn, their ability to communicate and their ability to destroy. In my mind they bumble around in innocent family groups in the forest looking to feed themselves and stay cool. But I’ve seen how easily they rip down trees and crush bodies. Their strength is undeniable. Their size makes the mammoth comprehensible. They are complex destroyers.
We were in India to complete the filming of the documentary Elephants in the Coffee. And now it’s done. It explores the elephant-human conflict that has been happening in India. The coffee you drink has most likely been wandered through by elephants. They are a nuisance to farmers, but also a god in the Hindu belief. You cannot destroy a god. But you can scare it off with crackers and shotgun blasts. The elephant habitat is shrinking. In its place villages and farms have moved in. Elephants walk the same paths they have for hundreds of years, even if houses, crops, or people stand in their way. How could anyone stop them? Electric fences, trenches and steel beams have been used and are being used to keep them out and keep people safe. Nobody wants a god wandering through their crops eating their jack fruit, trampling their livelihood. But a god cannot be stopped.