In our ninth Anantara Hotels Resorts & Spas #ElephantProfessional lecture, Dr. Paul Keil told the cross-species tale of Alaka and Malik in an Assamese community.
It was 2002.
Dr. Paul Keil arrived at an elephant camp on the fringes of a reserved forest in Assam, India. Inside the camp lived nine mahouts and four elephants, barely big enough to be called a community.
As an anthropologist, Paul knew that a “specific” is a good insertion point into the social, political, ecological, historical and cultural cavity. Understanding the particular human-elephant relationship happening at this particular place and particular time, therefore, would aid his understanding of elephants as a social subject.
“I learnt about elephants through people and in some way I also learnt about humans through elephants,” said Paul before diving into his pool of memories.
Alaka and Malik
he [Malik] said with this instructive voice, “Paul, one cannot own a god.”Dr. Paul Keil
When Paul arrived at the Northeast Indian camp, he was introduced to Malik.
Malik would undoubtedly be considered part of the Assamese elites where the elephants were part of their family. His father was a wealthy businessman and a successful Mahaldar, who is a lease holder for elephant capture. His maternal grandfather was also a famous Mahaldar and would be called Haati dhoni, meaning someone who captures, trains and sells elephants for a profit.
Just like the riches who used to keep elephants for entertainment, investment or other purposes, Malik grew up with elephants in his backyard in the Guwahati city before his father eventually sold all of them.
After Malik grew up, he retained his passion in elephants and conservation, and had acquired 13-14 elephants by the time he met Paul.
And his favourite was Alaka.
Alaka was about 55 years old when this photo was taken. Screenshot from Paul’s lecture.
Alaka was captured in Bhutan just around the time elephant capturing was banned. At that time, there were two “career paths” waiting for Alaka. One of them was being a logging elephant and to help transport the logs across the forest.
Instead, she had become a kumki elephant.
A kumki elephant is a very specific task elephant, where it assists in the operation of capturing wild elephants or, in other cases, driving them away. “Hiring” a kumki elephant was somehow necessary in the context of Malik’s community, since there were still wild elephants nearby.
Alaka was a skillful kumki elephant. When the mahouts gave her commands to perform a task, such as toppling specific trees in a specific direction, she was capable of executing the commands in a professional manner.
Paul was in awe by how well Alaka or other elephants were able to follow the human commands, especially in the anthropogenic world full of man-made rules.
“Commands are too crude and simple to micromanage the elephants,” compared Paul with the mother-toddler relationship where the mother has to guide the toddler to tasks that he/she has not even gained the cognitive ability for.
But cognitive ability wasn’t the only fascinating aspect about Alaka; in fact, there was a catch. Although Alaka was capable of doing her job, she would only do it in exchange for her fair share of remuneration paid by food. As a result, she would work well with a gentle mahout, whereas a harsh mahout would have a hard time with her.
When it came to the relationship between Alaka and Malik, Paul recalled the time he asked Malik if he would call himself an elephant owner.
To which, Malik replied, “Paul, one cannot own a god.”
Although Alaka did not speak the human language, Malik felt that he and Alaka were mutually protecting each other. By keeping elephants Malik was able to take good care of this endangered species, but at the same time the elephants were not just animals, but were manifestations of Ganesh, a godlike being. In some ways this spiritual relationship also shielded Malik from negative karma and forces.
You can now watch Paul’s lecture in full here.
Disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily represent Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.