The warm summer days are in. A carpet of dried leaves obscures the view of the forest floor. The sky is a spotless ocean of blue. The scorching heat depletes water reserves in the forest. The rising mercury levels sucks the water holes dry. River Kabini (also called Kapila) shrinks quite dramatically. On its dry banks is a spread of grass, young and green. In search of food and water of which precious little is available in the dense woods, wild wanderers move to the river in groups. Water is the key to their survival during the hot summer months.
The prey and the predator have to come to the river. This is a good time to spot the shy and the not-so-shy animals by the riverside. While some are out there to beat the heat with a swim, others arrive to quench their thirst. Large herds of elephants and deer are a common sight. On a lucky day, dholes (Indian Wild Dog), gaur (Indian Bison), tigers and leopards could also appear on the scene. Crocodiles sunning on rocks and sand banks are an added attraction. The game is on. Tourists, shutterbugs and wildlife enthusiasts wait in the wings to savour the sight of the Indian jungle and the life within. This is the “game” that we know of in this century.
The word “game” however had a different connotation in the past until the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) outlawed hunting of wild animals. Hunting was a regal sport. Maharajas and British officers had a big appetite for game hunting. Dukes and Viceroys were entertained in “game reserves” and often went on hunting expeditions in the Indian jungles. To have big game like tigers and leopards lying at their feet was a symbol of valour. Apart from shooting down animals in the wild, capturing elephants and inducting them into the royal army was a matter of great pride for the Maharajas.
Capturing wild elephants for domestication was a common ancient practice and invariably involved a gory procedure. Driving elephants into kheddas (enclosures) was one the chief methods employed for capturing herds of wild elephants. Hunting with trained females, pitfalls and noosing from the backs of trained elephants were methods used to capture single elephants.
As per historical accounts, Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali failed in attempts to capture wild elephants for their armies. An attempt to capture these mammoths by a British Army Officer Colonel Pearson was also futile. At Kardihalli, G.P. Sanderson conducted the first successful khedda operation in the erstwhile Mysore State in 1873-1874. He was the officer in charge of the government elephant-catching establishment. He recounts his adventures and misadventures in the jungles in his literary work titled “Thirteen Years Among The Wild Beasts of India”. In his book, Sanderson writes, “Hyder made a trial, a century before, in the Kakanakote Jungles, but had failed and had recorded his opinion that no one would ever succeed, and his curse upon any one that attempted to do so, on a stone still standing near the scene of his endeavors”. Capturing a herd of wild elephants was no easy task. After the first successful elephant capturing operation, the forests of Kakanakote became synonymous with the kheddas. Over the next century, 36 kheddas were conducted until the imposition of the ban.
The elephant capturing party consisted of human beaters, mahouts, guards, helpers and domesticated elephants called kumkis. Once a large herd of elephants was identified for capture, the hunting party surrounded the herd giving them no route for escape. A relatively large fenced enclosure of about 6-8 miles in circumference was erected encompassing the herd. The area was well equipped with cover, fodder and water to make it easy to confine the elephants. When the elephants tried to stray, large fires, shouts, drums and shots were used to scare the elephants and hold them back in the fenced area. The construction of a khedda commenced soon after the elephants were surrounded. The size of the enclosure was about 20-50 yards in diameter and about 12 feet in height. The fortification was strongly backed by sloping supports and binders. The location selected for the construction of the khedda was such that it was hidden behind the cover of the undergrowth and was generally on one of the elephants’ chief runs. The gate was made strong and had iron spikes embedded on it. To guide the elephants into entering the stockade two lines of strong palisades flanked the path of entry. Human beaters drove the petrified elephants into the funnel-shaped path and closed in from behind.
After the elephants were impounded into the khedda, mahouts on kumkis entered the scene. It is said that the wild elephants often calmed down at the sight of their domesticated counterparts. The mahouts used this to their advantage and surrounded the wild elephants. The helper seated at the back used an iron rod to the prod the elephant that would eventually lift its wounded leg and fall trap to the noose in the hand of the rope-tier. Using the same procedure the other three legs and neck of the elephant were lassoed and the wild elephant would eventually succumb to the wounds and pain.
The Kakanakote Kheddas were also famous for the river-drive operations in which wild elephants were driven across the river Kabini into a stockade. It is said that Sanderson designed the river-drive in honor of the Grand Duke of Russia during his visit in 1891. This crude method of capturing wild elephants was a spectacle for the visitors and a matter of immense pride for the officers in charge. Hordes of spectators seated in special galleries for visitors were witness to the event.
Today, the happy hunting grounds of the royalty attract tourists in large numbers. The Rajiv Gandhi National Park (formerly Nagarahole National Park) abounds with wildlife. The century old Maharaja Bungalow and Viceroy Bungalow in Kharapur are a part the Kabini River Lodge, the first resort of the Jungle Lodges and Resorts, a government of Karnataka undertaking.
From my boat cruising on the River Kabini, I saw herds of elephants and alone tuskers walking majestically on its banks. I watched in awe, as they seemed mindless of the people around. This is the closest I can get to the elephants in the wild. I gazed at the old black and white photographs hanging on the walls of the Maharaja Bungalow, formerly the hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Mysore. This is the closest I can get to this piece of history dangling across the jungles of the Mysore State.
This article was published in Deccan Herald on the 11th of May 2010. Below is the link to the online version of the article.