India Rajasthan

Elephant riding in Amer: from the Fort to the Shelter

At Amer, near Jaipur, we struggle with the ethics behind elephant riding. A visit to a “shelter” further deepens our bewilderment and shatters our minds.

“I will stop here so you can take photo”, Manoj says while pulling over by the shore of Lake Maotha. The stinging sound of a pungi flute reverberates in our eardrums right as Zeza and I open the door. Dozens of buses, tuktuks and cars drop off their tourists loads here to admire the imposing Amer Fort, cascading down a hill on the other margin. A line of colorful figures moves clumsily up the ramp to the Fort’s main entrance. In a while, we too will be riding the Elephant Cable Car up to the Fort.

Manoj, though, has other plans. As we get back in the car, he has a suggestion to make. “At this time of day, many people waiting to go up to fort on elephant. Very long queue for only 10 minute ride. Instead, I can take you to elephant shelter after fort visit. At that time, most people will have gone away, and you can have longer ride in scenic area. Since you paid for ride already, you must enjoy the most. This is my advice, but if don’t want to take it it’s fine, you’re the boss.”

This is only our third day with our driver Manoj. But his suggestions of schedule changes are becoming more frequent, and we’re growing leery of his intentions. Straight away, this sounds like another scheme for him to make a little extra out of our indulgence. Sneaky Manoj. Precious.

Nonetheless, we agree to his idea. Visiting an elephant shelter strikes us as a more interesting experience than waiting for our turn at the Ivory Roller Coaster. A deeper incursion into the grey area of animal use as working tools for humans, in a country where there is no black and white. Glad we accepted his suggestion, Manoj drops us nearby Chand Pol, the western entrance to the fort.

The elephant parade

We cross the gate. Directly in front of us, across the courtyard, a steady flow of elephants enters the Fort through Suraj Pol, as if coming out of an assembly line. They slowly carry on along the inner wall to an elevated platform, where the tourists drop. Then, they turn around and go back through where they came, their painted trunks hanging low, skimming the dust on the ground. So automated is this chain of movements, one would be forgiven to assume the mahout’s function to be purely ornamental.

We found no signs of abuse on these elephants. That is, other than the uncomfortable howdah with heavy tourists they carry up a hill beneath the baking Sun everyday. Other than the emptiness in their movements, a limited set of them, carved into their brains through years of ankus stabs. Other than the sadness in their eyes, somewhat underlined by the colorful face painting that was supposed to mask it.

Rather unsettled by this bleak scene, we’re positive we don’t want to be a part of it. We’re not cooperating with such a barbaric, soul crushing practice. Manoj will be bitter to see his commission flying off the window, but I’m sure he’ll find another way to collect benefits from us in the near future. Precious.

We pick up tickets and proceed up the stairs to the second courtyard, taking in the views at the Diwan-i-Am. A set of walls slithers along the mountains’ ridgeline, down to the lake and up to the Fort, enclosing the whole of Amer except for a breach on a tight mountain pass to the east, through where the city funnels to the other side. Below, the Pachyderm Parade carries on, seemingly indifferent to the temperature rising as the morning progresses.

tourists riding elephants into indian fort with mountains on the background
Elephants carrying tourists into Amer Fort

Ganesh’s ankus

We cross the courtyard towards Ganesh Pol. The gate is a marvelous piece of work, worthy of the blessing of such a high deity. The God of Wisdom, Remover of Obstacles, stands on his usual perch, above the entrance. Imparting confidence on the ones who cross into a new beginning. Bestowing upon them the purifying scent of his lotus flower, protecting their future with his… ankus? Is that an ankus? Is Ganesh holding in his hand the instrument that symbolizes the subjugation of the same animal he embodies and honors? The irony befuddles us, the hypocrisy disturbs us.

But then again, why should it? It’s a fact that subduing other species, collecting resources out of them and exploring their workpower was a key milestone in human civilization development. So the worship of elephants in Indian religions can be seen as a way of showing gratitude for the labor and wealth they provide. But today, exploring these animals for business purposes it’s undeniably a controversial subject, receiving awareness, especially from western communities, as their education requires “breaking their spirit” through physical abuse.

Can there be truth in this? Maybe. But if so, it’s not just for elephants. What does an elephant have that makes its spirit breaking process so much more empathy worthy than, say, a camel or a horse? The “domestication” card isn’t playable. A “domesticated” species is just one more easily subdued to human will than a “wild” one. It doesn’t mean it’s happier to be carrying humans all around. Yet, there’s an Olympic sport based on forcing a horse to jump over stuff while some bloke just sits on it and gets all the credit. How can we criticize elephant riding when we glorify horse racing?

We spent the whole Fort visit debating this. Yes, the Sheesh Mahal is wonderful, and the Zenana chambers are a stealth architecture marvel. But our attention is elsewhere, going up and down the elephant merry-go-round and coming to terms with the realization that, after all, the irony and hypocrisy lies not on Ganesh’s ankus, but on our own concept of irony and hypocrisy. We had no second thoughts about riding a camel in the Sahara a few years ago. Why should we have them now about riding an elephant in Rajasthan?

No. We’re doing this.

The shelter of horrors

We weren’t exactly expecting a wide, green space where the elephants roamed freely, with a pond or maybe a river for them to bathe, a massage parlor and an espresso machine. Nonetheless, we could not hide our surprise as Manoj drives us into Amer city center. “Here we are, shelter”, he says, pointing out an unpainted concrete block with a massive door and a few wickets. We follow him inside.

As we enter, we realize this is no shelter. It’s a garage. There are 4 elephants, standing in their own delineated area, an individual parking space. Thick ropes act as handbrakes, tightening up their legs. Feeders slice hay and throw it at the elephants’ feet, which they pick up with the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old dressing up for Sunday School. Stool balls fall heavily on the ground with a thud, piling up around their hind paws. I recognize one of the elephants from the Fort by its colorful face painting, throwing his trunk about as in a pendulum clock. A mental patient locked in his cell.

Manoj calls us. “Come, your elephant is ready”. We hadn’t even noticed a 5th elephant in the room, geared up and ready to take us out. I’m so stunned by the whole scene, I shut down. I want to say that we changed our minds, that we don’t want to go. But I can’t speak, I can’t react. It’s like I’m playing a first person shooter, and for some reason my keyboard froze while the action is still unfolding. And so we’re directed up the stairs to the mounting platform.

elephants going up indian fort
Along the ramp up to Amer Fort

The ride

My lethargic state continued as the elephant exits the shelter. But I remember the whole of the ride. The howdah’s incessant rocking, tilting, leaning. The power cables just a few centimeters above our heads. The thuds of the falling turds every 6 or 7 steps. The mahout saying the elephant is a female named Agra, after his hometown, where his family lives. The piercing stares of the locals, that I can’t determine as angry, sad, blank, pitiful or all of these, but that either way compel me to apologize to them. Zeza’s discomfort, asking the mahout to turn back just before we turn the corner. His angry commands to Agra after she would not turn back. Manoj’s confused look as we return after less than 10 minutes. The feeling I’ve been sitting on that howdah for hours as I dismount.

The mahout demands a tip and I hand him 100 rupees, adding up to Zeza’s exasperation. She’s livid that we’ve done this. That we supported such a vile business on the grounds of cheap rhetorical bullshit despite knowing it was not right. And as Manoj wraps up his commission deal with the mahout, we ruminate on our frustrations, finding little comfort in the conclusion that, after all, this is not a grey area, but a pitch black one after all. But India, with her achromophobia, still had a little color to splash this picture with.

The boy and the elephant

All of the sudden, we hear a woman yelling. A boy, no older than 3, naked from the waist down, blasts out from a door below the mounting platform’s stairway. He runs towards the elephants, holding something in his hands. It’s a chapati bread. He places it on an elephant’s trunk, rejoicing as the animal accepts his offering and swallows the bread whole. His older brother, a fun spoiler as only an older brother can be, comes out to take him inside to face his mother’s scolding.

children and elephant at a shelter in Amer, Rajasthan, India
Mahout’s child after giving Chapati bread to an elephant

We made a mistake. Throughout the whole dissection of the elephant to-ride-or-not-to-ride question, we always analyzed this issue through our own perspective. We pulled out our Western monocles, and debated third world issues while drinking Cognac between hollow ideas and snobbish laughs. Not considering all the other variables India throws into the equation.

In Europe, there’s always another option. It may take some time, patience and adaptation, and perhaps relocation, but there’s always something else to do for someone who isn’t comfortable with their job. Or for someone that, hypothetically, becomes unemployed after the company they worked for is forced to shut down for wrongful treatment of animals.

India does not have this abundance of opportunity. Here, an elephant is a liferaft. It represents too much of an immediate, steady income to renounce to over arguments like animal welfare, sustainability, or other ideas that took centuries to develop to their current incipient state in the West, but that are somehow expected to blossom immediately in countries like India.

In this shelter, there are 5 mahouts, 2 feeders and a guy sleeping in a howdah who probably works here too. That’s 8 families, at least 32 people who get their whole income directly out of these elephants. And for many Indians, sadly, the reach of dreams rarely extends beyond the next meal. For these workers, at least part of them, it’s not about managing to pay the bills, or to put the kids through college. It’s about being able to eat today, because someone rode an elephant to the top of Amer Fort. Anyone haunted by the possibility of their family going hungry would not think twice about putting an elephant to work if given the chance. No matter how much spirit breaking it would require.

We’re not trying to justify any kind of abuse. No living creature should be kept in the conditions those elephants are. Tied down in a cramped space among their own waste, slowly going insane. Let loose only to work as beasts of burden for hours below the Sun. A woeful existence for any animal, let alone for one so revered for its intelligence, its importance, its kindness.

What I’m saying is that this is definitely an issue India has to address. But not through some western-imported solution, sure to leave plenty of loose ends and to fail to take the bull by the horns. I mean, the elephant by the tusks.

And Shiva knows India has several other problems to care for before addressing elephant abuse.

We leave the “shelter”, saying nothing to Manoj, who says nothing back. We’re disappointed at him for throwing us into his schemes. But there’s no denying it was an enriching experience. Even if our self respect fell on the ground with a thud. Like an elephant turd.

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