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The elephant has been an integral part of Indian culture, history and religious belief since times immemorial. From ancient times till the recent past, it has played a significant part both as a vehicle of war and as a beast of burden. It is no wonder that the elephant has entered the Hindu pantheon in the form of Lord Ganesha, who is arguably the most popular deity in India even today. The elephant also figures prominently in other religion that originated in India i.e. Buddhism and Jainism. It is thus safe to argue that the capture of elephants from the wild and its subsequent use by man was pioneered in the Indian sub continent.
Ancient Sanskrit literature is a rich source of the methods for the capture and care of elephants. The sage Palakapya, who lived in what is now Assam in the 5 Th century is considered the founder of elephant lore as recorded in the Sanskrit classic the Gajashastra.The Ramayana also has references to elephant capture vividly described by Valmiki. Scenes of elephant capture have been depicted on the walls of the Konark Temple in Orissa. In addition to the records in Sanskrit literature, both the Chola Kings of Tanjore and the Ahoms of Assam have left a large collection of elephant literature.
Western writers and commentators on India have left their own written accounts. They include Megasthenes in 200 BC, Strabo in 130 AD and Indicoplenstes in 600 AD. Their accounts are however jumbled and at times contradictory to each other. The later European conquerors of India, the British, soon realized the importance of elephants in India and took over the business of elephant capture. They left detailed records on the methods used etc and attempted to standardize procedures for their capture, training and handling in captivity.

Classification of Elephants.
Like all domesticated animals, elephant too were classified into classes according to their physical and emotional qualities. This classification has varied during the ages; the ancient Hindu texts classified them into eight classes according to their build and temperament. However by Medieval times this was whittled down to four main types as detailed in the Ain – i – Akbari of Abdul Fazl, written during the times of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great. The Ahoms of Assam, the great elephant men of the east, in their great elephant literature the Hathiputhis, associated different human qualities with different elephant types and recognized a number of different classes. By the modern ages three main Bandhs or Castes were generally recognized. These were first described in the Matanga Lila of Nilakantha. The Matanga-Lila is considered the best available Sanskrit text on elephantology. However nothing is known of Nilakantha who is mentioned as its author and the antiquity of the work is also not known. The three Bandhs are as follows:
1. Koomeriah – The thoroughbred of the elephants, it was also considered a royal animal and was much prized both for its qualities as well as its rarity. A Koomeriah has short hind legs, a massive body, thick wrinkled skin, a thick trunk and a noble head. It was considered to be dependable and courageous by nature. It was a hardy animal which did not lose condition easily.
2. Mreega – The Mreega was a deer like type animal with long legs, light weedy body and thin skin. It was not considered very hardy and would lose condition if not looked after properly. The bulk of elephants belonged to this bandh.
3. Dwasala – This was the type that was intermediate to both the Koomeriah and the Mreega.

Apart from these bandhs, certain signs were considered good or bad and would influence the selling price of elephants. Some of these signs are:
• Light coloured eyes i.e. pale white eyes with a reddish tinge, were a bad sign and such animals were considered to be very dangerous for their owners. However during Akbar’s time this was considered a desirable quality.
• A black spot on the palate or tongue meant bad luck to the owner.
• Elephants have a total of eighteen toes (five on each foreleg and four on each hind leg), an animal with anything less was considered unlucky and an animal having sixteen toes was considered especially unlucky.
• A broom tail, an abnormally long tail that swept the ground was unlucky.
• An animal with two teat like protuberances under the throat like in goats was considered inauspicious.
• A stump tail would reduce price.
• The tail had to be of the right length – touching the hocks of the hind leg and had to have twenty seven joints.
• The tail at its best had to have glossy, crescent shaped hairs with one slightly overlapping the other.
• Trunks had to be of the correct length – not too long or short.
• Ears not too small.
• Thick, wrinkled skin that hang loosely on the body and which could be caught up in ones hand was very desirable.
• A well developed frontal hump and a hairy head were both good signs.
• A pie bald animal (with black and white spots all over the body) was much prized.

Elephants were bought and sold in annual animal fairs and four famous elephant fairs were held in what is now North Bihar. These fairs are extremely old and are thought to be the main markets for the purchase of war elephants for the stables of the Maurayan King Chandra Gupta. The most important and celebrated is the Sonepur or Harihar Chatra Mela which is still held to this day during the first full moon in November. The other are the Kharga Mela held in January, the Singeswar Mela held in February / March and the Nak – mard Mela held in April.

While the art of domesticating and training elephants developed originally in Asia it slowly spread westwards to North Africa. The use of elephants for war first spread westwards to the Persian Empire and they were used in several campaigns and in turn came to influence the campaigns of Alexander the Great. The first confrontation between Europeans and the Persian war elephants occurred at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, where the Persians were thought to have deployed fifteen elephants, however some sources maintain that the Persians ultimately failed to deploy them in the final battle owing to their long march the day before. Alexander won resoundingly at Gaugamela, but was deeply impressed by the enemy elephants and took these first fifteen into his own army, adding to their number during his capture of the rest of Persia .The art was finally transmitted after the first contact between Alexander the Great and the armies of the Indian Kings – the most notable being the armies of Porus. After Alexander’s death his successors in India who founded the Seleucid and Ptolemaic Dynasties used war elephants extensively. These however were Asian elephants trained and handled by Indians and acquired as tribute or as spoils of war. By the time of the 2 nd Ptolemaic Dynasty in 280 BC the first attempts to capture and domesticate the African elephant was made. These were the smaller forest elephant. The Carthaginians and the Egyptians were the most successful and they began in 277 BC. Their most famous general Hannibal used elephants in his army. The story of Hannibal marching his elephants across the Alps to fight the Romans is well known to every school boy in the world. However the introduction of war elephants was primarily the result of the Greek kingdom of Epirus which used them in the battle of Heraclea against the Romans in 280 BC. They used elephants imported from India via the Seleucid Empire in Syria. The next year, the Greeks again deployed elephants, attacking the Romans at the battle of Asculum and they were ultimately responsible for the Greek victory. The Romans started using war elephants in the aftermath of Scipio Africanus' campaign in Africa, they managed to acquire a number of war elephants, and Carthaginian soldiers trained to ride them and fight from their backs. Alliances with Numidian chieftains like Massinissa also brought an auxiliary corps of elephants into the Roman war machine. However by the time of Claudius the practice had almost died out - the last significant use of war elephants in the Mediterranean was against the Romans at the battle of Thapsus 46 BC, where Julius Caesar armed his fifth legion (Alaudae) with axes and commanded his legionaries to strike at the elephant's legs. The legion withstood the charge, and the elephant became its symbol. Thapsus was the last significant use of elephants in the West. With the decline of the Roman Empire and the extinction of the African Forest elephant due to overexploitation the art was lost, only to be revived in the Congo due to the efforts of King Leopold II of Belgium.

The British Era.
The British were quick to realize the advantages of elephants in India and they used them extensively in both war and peace. The British Army in India used elephants both for its artillery wing and its commissariat. To ensure a steady supply of elephants the British Army set up a regular elephant catching establishment in Dhaka in modern day Bangladesh. However in 1900 they transferred this establishment to Burma as the number of elephants in the Garo Hills, the main catchment area of the establishment, was depleted due to over exploitation.
However a thriving elephant catching industry was present in Assam which supplied the demand for elephants from tea gardens, the timber industry and for other civilian purposes. Elephants were also in great demand by the various Princely States and large Zamindars. After the closure of the Dhaka establishment in 1900 many British adventures entered the elephant catching business which saw a boom due to the sudden reduction in supply. Many of them were Tea Planters who branched out while still holding their current positions in the Tea industry. Most of them went into partnership with the Assamese catchers. Some of the more famous one were:
Dalrymple – Clarke: He was a retired Police Superintendant who went into partnership with some Assamese mahaldars while holding a position in the Tea Industry. He bought elephants and sold them to timber firms in Burma, most notably the Bombay Burma Trading Company which incidentally still exists and owns Tea and Coffee estates in the South.
Errol Grey: He spent thirty years in the business and operated mostly in North Lakhimpur in Assam. He also operated in Upper Burma and the Naga Hills. He retired in 1920 which was another landmark year in the history of elephant capture which we shall hear more about later.
Fred Kingsley: A Tea Planter from Darjeeling who went into partnership with his Assamese Clerk’s father. He started in 1897 and retired after about twenty years in the business. He returned to Darjeeling a rich man where he started his own Tea Estates with his brother. He is credited with being the first to introduce stockades to the Garo Hills and Bhutan. He operated mainly in the Garo Hills, Goalpara and later in the Bengal Duars and Bhutan.
The elephant catching industry, so to speak, was administered and controlled by the British through the Forest Department. Elephant catching areas were identified and divided into leases, these specific leases or lots( Mahals) were then leased out to individuals who were called Mahaldars i.e. lease owners who had to pay a royalty to the Government for each animal captured according to its sex and type. The Mahaldars in turn employed or contracted trained domestic elephants and men to do the catching. It was an intricate system with many stakeholders and more often than not a gamble. While many made fortunes, many also lost all they had. The system was however soon to change.
In 1909 a young officer joined the Assam Khedda Service. His name was A.J.W.Milroy and in time he was to become a legend in Assam whose name is still revered among the elephant men to this day. It was not long before Milroy realized the unnecessary cruelty in the business and decided to step in to clean it up. He realized that to do so the Govt. had to play a bigger role and to take some of the gamble out of the business, which seemed to be one of the factors that contributed to the cruelty.
With the support of his boss the Conservator and the Governor of Assam he drew up a set of rules which were aimed at the rationalization and humanization of the catching operations. These rules were enforced in 1922. He also abolished the old system and introduced the Department Khedda which was a more equitable system. Instead of a flat royalty rate he introduced a share system where all stakeholders from the Government to the stockade man had a stake in the sale price of the elephants caught. The operations were placed under a special officer and the full time services of a veterinary officer were provided. The special officer was assisted by a jemandar or supervisor who was a seasoned elephant man or mahout. The mahaldar was responsible for any breach of rules in his area. The responsibility for a captured elephant until it was sold was fixed on the elephant men. In this way he established a system where the welfare of the elephant came first and foremost. The new system meant the end of the private British adventurer whose main function was to finance the Assamese catchers. Most of them either left the business or went out of business.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 24th, 2011 12:27 pm (UTC)
The depth of knowledge behind this post is staggering. You could write a book, Vikram.
Jul. 16th, 2011 12:43 pm (UTC)
This article is very interesting. As a researcher on this topic, it is a great help for me.
Jan. 15th, 2012 08:18 am (UTC)
A Brief History of Elephant capture and the methods employed - Part -1
My ancestors The Phookans of Charing were Milroy's favourite catchers.Milroy along with support from the Phookans brought about the necessary reforms in the capture operations.
After Milroy passed away the it was P.D.Stracey who with the Phookans ensured that these reforms were followed.
Feb. 2nd, 2012 09:02 am (UTC)
Our papa had worked in F.T.Kingsley' tea plantation;Gopaldhara,Aovgrove and Monteviot during 1920s and still having his handwritten testimonials with me.His english is of very high class which shows his educational background .
Jun. 27th, 2012 10:11 am (UTC)
F T Kingsley
Fred Kingsley was my great uncle. I am in touch with his children, some of whom were very young when he died. We would all love to learn more about him and would be grateful for anything you could tell us. Incidentally, he was educated at St Joseph's, North Point, Darjeeling.
Jun. 28th, 2012 02:02 pm (UTC)
Fred Kingsley
Fred Kingsley was my great uncle. I am in touch with his children, some of whom were very young when he died in Darjeeling. We would all love to hear any more information or anecdotes about him or his family. It would mean a lot to us.

Incidentally, he did benefit from the best education available to him in India at that time: St Joseph's, North Point, Darjeeling.
Jul. 31st, 2012 10:53 am (UTC)
Re: Fred Kingsley
Brenda , a descendant of Dalrymple- Clark is looking for info on him. As you are related to Fred Kingsley maybe you could help her ? Her email is given below :

Jul. 31st, 2012 08:12 am (UTC)
Dalrymple-Clark retired Police Superintendent
Hello Vikram,
I am so excited to have seen the entry below. We have been searching for info on my ancestor in India to no avail for over 20 years and suddently I came across this entry from you. Would you please contact me as soon as it is convenient for you as I am desperate to find out all the info I can about my great-grandfather. I left India in 1966 and I am coming back for the first time in Jan 2013 to try and find out more about my ancestors. My grandmother was a child of his and spent her early life in Kalimpong in Dr Grahams home. I am going to be coming to Kalimpong as well. I know you are pretty busy but I would be so grateful to hear from you especially where you got your info from for your entry and what else you know about Dalrymple-Clark.
Thanking you in advance for your help.

Cheers, Brenda (I have copied the extract from your entry re:DC below)

"Many of them were Tea Planters who branched out while still holding their current positions in the Tea industry. Most of them went into partnership with the Assamese catchers. Some of the more famous one were:
Dalrymple – Clarke: He was a retired Police Superintendant who went into partnership with some Assamese mahaldars while holding a position in the Tea Industry. He bought elephants and sold them to timber firms in Burma, most notably the Bombay Burma Trading Company which incidentally still exists and owns Tea and Coffee estates in the South."
Jul. 31st, 2012 10:56 am (UTC)
Re: Dalrymple-Clark retired Police Superintendent
Hi Brenda , Please see the comment by an Anonymous user above. I have replied to him asking him to get in touch with you . I am sure you would benifit by comparing notes . Fred Kingsley was his great uncle . Will sene you a mail soon.
Jul. 31st, 2012 08:25 am (UTC)
Hi Vikram,

In my excitement in finding your article I forgot to leave you ny email address.

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


Vikram Nanjappa

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