India and Elephants, a relationship that goes back a long way...!
When you travel to India, one of the things you may have in mind is to see Elephants... North India, and especially Jaipur is a well known place to go if you are keen to do that!
Elephants, the biggest mammals on earth have always been part of Indian History and have long been revered by Indians. The elephant-headed god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, is invoked before every new endeavor and elephants add to the aura of temples and bestow blessings on the devoted.
They were probably first tamed by Indians around 4000 BC in the Indus valley. Unlike cows or dogs bred in captivity, elephants, mostly because of their unstable behavior and the high cost of their care and maintenance due to their slow growth, have always been taken from the wild.
Originally captured for the agricultural works, they have been afterwards used for military purposes. Actually Indian civilization was the first to see the interest of its military use on a battelfield. Either as pack animals pulling war machineries, as a charging force to break the ennemy lines, or even as prisoner executioners.
Indeed in European History, the first report about this magestic animals came from Alexander the Great when he faced not less than 200 of these war animals in -326 at the doors of India...He understood quickly the advantages and disadvantages of this war weapons by using them in his army: elephants would frighten the ennemy's horses and infantry still they were subject to panic and were a threat to their own army especially when their mahout were killed.
The mahout, from a Muslim cast, is their sole rider and caretaker. He is assigned an elephant early in its life and both remain bonded to each other throughout their lives.
The royalty of India - Hindu and Muslim- understood long ago as well that concrete and symbolic power was best wielded from the back of an elephant. Kings appeared before their dazzled subjects on elephants whose ivory tusks glittered with gold and silver and whose bodies shimmered in silk and velvet. “An elephant mounted by a king is radiant; a king mounted on an elephant is resplendent,” proclaims one historical manuscript. Used for processions, festivals, fights, games, huntings, elephants became emblems of the power of Maharajas in Rajasthan.
This reasons may have helped their survival in larger numbers than other elephants in Asia. Lastly used during World War II by the Indian Army as pack animals on rough battlefields, their pulling strengh would be gradually abandonned...
Used nowadays for religious processions, festivals and weddings, they work as well for the enjoyment of tourists. Indeed the Amber Fort near Jaipur is the only Fort in India allowing its access by an elephant ride.
However, still leaving in the city, elephants remained a threat for their surroundings and were suffering from bad living conditions and especially lack of water. Due to the pressure of multiple animal welfare associations, the Government of Rajasthan has been regulating Elephant tourism, ensuring that elephants have water and shade, are regularly checked by vets, work only in the mornings for the fort ride and that the ankush( a sharp metal hook) would be replaced by a bamboo stick.
The Government decided silmutaneously to create in 2010 an Elephant village called "Hathi Gaon". Hathi Gaon is a housing project for more than 100 elephants and their Mahouts located at the foot of the hill of the Amber Palace and Fort near Jaipur. The idea of the site planning was to mould a structure and system that would help regenerate the landscape in a decade to approximate the tropical landscapes that are the natural habitat for elephants.
In other words a very good project that unfortunately wasn't well optimized. Numerous out of control elephant activities led lately to many governmental bans and ultimately the closing of the village to tourists.
Some elephant owners constructed their own elephant shelters, abiding by proper regulations and tourists can now interact with elephants in these private farms.