Jumbo ties: Bhutan, Assam share a long history of joint domestication of elephants

An initiative by the first king of Bhutan fostered cross-border relations between different cultures.

Published : Jul 11, 2023 16:49 IST - 7 MINS READ

A depiction of a kheddah, used to trap elephants, circa 1808.

A depiction of a kheddah, used to trap elephants, circa 1808. | Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In 1911, the first king of Bhutan expressed interest in capturing wild elephants in Bhutan’s territories and its borders. Two years later, during the King’s trip to Dewangiri, he proposed instituting the elephant kheddah (stockade trap) operations with the British districts of Bengal and Assam. In 1914, arrangements for these joint operations were made with the two neighbouring districts. From available British records, these joint expeditions continued for at least three decades right up until 1944.

The first proposal

According to British official reports, in 1911 King Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck, who reigned between 1907 and 1926, expressed his wish to enter into an agreement with the British district of Eastern Bengal and the Assam government. The first point proposed that if the Bhutanese were to follow the elephants and capture them in British territory, Bhutan would be allowed to take the animals back after proving to the satisfaction of the authorities that they belonged to it. The second point mentioned that the Bhutanese “might be allowed to import the captured elephants into British territory and to sell them there free of duty”.

On the recommendation of the British Political Officer, both the governments of Bengal and Assam rejected the first point stating that if such permission was granted, it would be a constant source of friction. However, all the stakeholders agreed to the second.

In the winter of 1913, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck visited Dewangiri Duars, which is present-day Deothang, to meet the British Political Officer, J.C. White. As recorded in the British reports, it was during this visit that the first King advocated the “establishment of a trade mart at Dewangiri, and the institution of elephant Kheddah in conjunction with the neighbouring British district of Bengal and Assam.”

Kheddahs and mela shikars

The system of using a kheddah to capture wild elephants was widely practised in the north-eastern region and was particularly popular in Assam. It involved skilled mahouts on domesticated elephants who drove a parade of wild elephants into man-made enclosures. This traditional method was also practised in Karnataka and as far away as Burma and Thailand.

As the foothills are hot and wet in the summer months, it was found that the best time for kheddah operations was in the cool and dry winter months. The operations usually started in October and ended in March. With the help of native hunters and koonkies, or trained elephants also known as kumkis, the kheddah department caught wild elephants from the jungles of Assam.

In this method, a team of 20-25 people would build stockades around water bodies or in strategic locations and drive herds of wild elephants into and trapped in such enclosures. By this method, it was possible to capture herds of elephants at a time. There is evidence of the department capturing up to 80 elephants at a time in the forests of Sylhet in present-day Bangladesh. The process of elephant hunting took five to six weeks. After that, it was a waiting game.

The second common method of rounding up wild elephants is known as mela shikar. It is one of the oldest methods of catching elephants. One scholar described it as the process under which “wild elephants are pursued by men mounted on tame elephants and are hunted down and noosed”. Mela shikars were quite dangerous and koonkies were used in the process.

Assam-Bhutan joint mahals

As proposed by the first king of Bhutan, in 1914 arrangements were made to establish the institution of joint elephant mahals. Mahal means stable in Hindi but in this context it means mela or festival. The elephant country in Bhutan and the contiguous districts in Assam as far south as the Brahmaputra river was mapped out. It was hoped that these expeditions would be mutually beneficial and consensus was reached that the profit derived from the leasing of the kheddah would be equally shared.

According to the British Annual Reports on Bhutan, the Government of India sanctioned the Assam-Bhutan joint mahals. One such report said: “The agreement is for the seasons 1915-1916 to 1920-1921 in the first instance, and the Assam administration will arrange the terms of the lease of these mahals, subject to confirmation by the Political Officer in Sikkim within one month, and to the consideration of any representations made by the Bhutan Durbar through the Political Officer in Sikkim. For the period 1915-1916 to 1920-21, the arrangements may be confirmed, altered, or discontinued.”

According to the annual reports filed by the British Political Officers, the operation ended on March 15, 1922. Altogether 25 elephants were captured, of which two died. The proceeds from the sale of 23 elephants amounted to Rs.13,140. Bhutan’s share of profits, which amounted to Rs.6,570, was paid to the Bhutan Agent in Kalimpong.

The British report also said that at the suggestion of Government of Assam, a joint elephant mahal was run in Kamrup and Goalpara districts and the adjoining Bhutan territory. A total of 134 elephants were caught in the joint mahal. The revenue of these amounted to Rs.96,279.60. Also, two tusks were sold for Rs.336. Thus, the gross revenue from the joint mahal amounted to Rs.96,609.60. Bhutan received its share amounting to Rs.39,272.40.

In the summer of 1930, the Assam government proposed and Bhutan approved a joint mahal. Held on the Bhutan-Kamrup border, the operation was not a grand success; it resulted in the capture of only two elephants and the revenue amounted to just Rs.1,200. Half of this was paid to Bhutan.

Another report talks of a joint elephant mahal conducted in the cold months of 1937-38 in Darrang and Kamrup districts. The Assam government paid Bhutan Rs.3,707 as its share from the revenue derived from the operations. Similar joint elephant mahals were held in Haltugaon and Kachugaon divisions of Assam.

From the early history of Assam to the colonial period, elephants have been used as beasts of burden. Stories of how they were engaged to clear off dense jungles and for transporting both men and goods in remote areas are common. The rulers and later the British officers used them for hunting. During the colonial period, elephants were used widely to haul logs for railway construction work. As an integral part of the army, they were a symbol of power and deployed in war and against insurgencies. Later, the sale of the elephants caught through the kheddah operations became a significant source of revenue for both Bhutan and Assam.

A hunting expedition with elephants, period unknown.

A hunting expedition with elephants, period unknown. | Photo Credit: The Naturalist Library

Elephant preservation Act of 1879

Historical records show that in 47 years between 1875 and 1939, a total of 12,123 elephants were captured in Assam and generated a gross revenue of Rs.2,919,102. From available British records of Bhutan, in three years (1921-23 and 1930), 161 elephants were captured and generated a total revenue of Rs.1,80,656. It is not clear if joint mahals continued to be held, but the catching of elephants in Assam continued throughout British rule right up to 1947 and beyond. For example, in 1947-48, a total of 233 elephants (141 female, 47 tusker, and 45 makhana or tuskless males) were caught.

Because of the strategic importance of elephants, the British government passing the Elephant Preservation Act of 1879. This act laid the foundation of animal preservation in India. Because of the cultural significance of elephants, Bhutan enacted the Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan, 1995, to protect them. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the Asian elephant as endangered.

Out of the 699–km-long border that Bhutan shares with India, close to 40 per cent is in Assam. According to the national elephant survey of 2016-17, Bhutan had an estimated 678 elephants living in the dense protected forests of South Bhutan, while Assam had 5,700 elephants, making it the area with the largest number of the Asian elephant in India. Assam has also become a key conservation area for the Asian elephant.

King Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck’s initiative to establish kheddah operations between Bhutan and Assam achieved the shared goal of ensuring the long-term survival of the Asian elephant. Besides being an ingenious way to raise revenue, the joint operations fostered friendly cross-border relations between different cultures and nations.

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