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.  

After bath time, a few of the elephants took their stations behind a divider to perform tricks for tourists. I stood as an elephant used its trunk to hang a fake flowered necklace around my neck and then lay its trunk over my head. The trunk felt heavy on my head. I was laughing as it patted my curly hair. It felt like the elephant was blessing me. 
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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.

It took centuries for me to adjust to the elephant’s rhythm. It was a rocking boat in high waves. The elephant’s spine felt thin and its meaty sides would give and take in fat steps. I kept seeing myself sliding off in the dips and slapping the ground. I don’t even ride horses and here I was riding the largest land animal that exists. We came back around to the platform and I again minded the gap. I managed the least graceful dismount in the history of riding elephants.
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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. 

I’ve seen how they tiptoe gracefully on padded wet grass and knock down trees to cross electric fences. I’ve heard them cry out when being dragged to an elephant camp. I’ve seen the children of the mahouts use sticks and rocks to beat an elephant until it moved on. I’ve touched an elephant’s trunk and felt a tough exterior covering squishy fat underneath. I’ve seen water droplets hang like ornaments on wiry elephant hair. I’ve seen elephants toss men into the air like rag dolls. I’ve seen baby elephants walk between their mother and father with matching silver bracelets made of chain. I’ve seen this and more and still I am nowhere close to understanding them. 
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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.  


  1. Huh. Interesting for me to come across your blog at the end of your India posts. (Or maybe in the middle?) I studied in Bangalore for a month in 2012 when I was in school. It was the hardest, most challenging, different, most rewarding, most eye-opening experience of my life. I wasn't my first time out of the country, but it was my most unique time out of the country.
    We visited an elephant camp while we were there and I felt so... strangely connected to the giants. They're so giant and dangerous and full of personality, but they were some of the most playful, gentle souls I've ever come across.
    What a unique, awesome experience for you!

    1. Oh wow! We stayed in India for three weeks. I bet studying there was a unique experience too. And I totally understand what you mean about connecting with the elephants. It is a challenge to describe, but very real.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It makes me feel confident in my perceptions. I was worried I was feeling over-sentimental. Elephants are a unique animal in many ways. They should be cherished! And I have one more blog post about India and that's it. :) Would you go back to India?


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