By Kamala Kelkar
The city has grown too busy for domesticated pachyderms.
“School is boring,” Sahil says in Hindi, neatly dressed in a white, button-up shirt . He’s standing under the busy ITO bridge on the bank of Delhi’s polluted Yamuna River. “Let God decide my fate.”
Unfortunately, much of his fate is out of God’s hands. The son of a mahout, or elephant-jockey, Sahil, who is 12 years old, is also an orphan because of the animals. He grew up living under one of Delhi’s busiest bridges, where was raised alongside trained elephants, horses and camels. His father died in an accident involving one of the family’s elephants a few years ago, and it’s Sahil’s goal in life to follow into his father’s profession. Against his brother’s protestations, Sahil recently dropped out of school to focus on the family trade, but he couldn’t have done it at a worse time.
The industry itself is in terminal decline. If Delhi’s government officials get their way, Sahil seems certain to be the last member of his family to carry on the dying skill of jockeying elephants at weddings and other celebrations in India’s capital.
The creatures are worshipped at Hindu temples and treated like guests of honor at weddings, and their image is an enduring motif of India. Tourists here pay as much as $250 to ride them for a few hours. But a frenzied, ever-growing metropolis is no place to care for the gentle giants, and the Delhi government’s attitude toward the beasts has hardened. Urban elephants have recently been labeled as health and traffic liabilities. Gradually government officials have prevented any more from making Delhi their home. Delhi’s urban elephants are being squeezed out.
“We only allow them in from other states for circuses, but none of them are allowed to take permanent residence,” says A. K. Shukla, the chief wildlife warden at Delhi’s Forest Department, who signs off on elephant permits.
Only 13 of the animals remain in Delhi, ranging in age from their teens to their late 50s. They are all microchipped and owned by a few families, most of whom live together in unkempt fields, under the same bridge where they train camels and horses.
Unlike those in Akhter’s family, most of the city’s ancestral ties to the trade have lost their vigor as domesticated elephant numbers dwindle. Freelance riders often come in from other states where the profession is still flourishing.
Akhter is one of the youngest trainee mahouts, still learning tricks passed on from his father. They all use about 15 unique words handed down from generations past to communicate with the animals. There are usually three mahouts for every trained elephant, each earning about $80 a month plus tips during events, which is enough to survive.
“We sleep right here with the elephants,” says trainer Mohammad Saddam, pointing to cushions propped in the tough grass, surrounded by empty pint bottles of Kingfisher beer. “The work isn’t hard. We just take them to the temples and feed them and wash them.”
Their work may not be difficult, but it is controversial and dangerous. Saddam was reluctant to talk about his job for fear his boss would disapprove.
Elephant attacks, some of them fatal for the mahouts, are not uncommon. And they’re not the only ones who get injured. The animals risk hurting their feet by walking long distances through the capital to their events. Occasionally, vehicles hit them. The mahouts also strike them with sugarcane or chain their feet to the ground if they are being disobedient.
In 2009, elephants were banned from performing in the annual Republic Day Parade in the capital after nearly 60 years of starring in the show because of pressure from activists about public safety and the way the animals are treated.
That combination of pressures mean Sahil will be among the last group of elephants and ancestral mahouts in Delhi. The animals are still beloved by tourists and very much in demand for weddings and Hindu temple ceremonies, but their numbers will almost certainly continue to fade.
“We’ve asked all of the families to take the elephants and leave, but this is their home and they want to stay,” Shukla says. “Now it’s just a matter of survival.” Photos.