Imagine 50 tuskers. Now imagine catching them.

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: In the secluded jungles of Kakanakote, 80 kilometres from Mysore, inside which flows the Kabini, there has been one sound that has echoed for hundreds of years—the trumpeting of an elephant. The kind of sound that can at once shock, startle, unnerve, excite and delight man.

There is something about the call of the elephant that has the capacity to invoke all these emotions. And to think, in these jungles, they would once have a group of 50 or 70 or 100 elephants calling out in pitches that varied from the shrill to the extra high to ear shattering. And in this din, the voices of a few thousand humans would be completely drowned.

During the massive “khedda” operations.

The khedda was a method of capturing wild elephants en masse. A mammoth catch of a few hundred tons of moving bounty. The method consisted of a heavy square-like stockade built out of sheer logs of wood as gargantuan as the ‘victims’ that they were expected to hold. The stockade had an enormous trap door, which would fall at the precise moment after the last of the elephants had been driven through it.

But executing this exercise was never easy. Preparations began months in advance. Hundreds of men, mostly the local kuruba tribals, scoured the vast jungles trying to locate the movements of various elephant herds under the supervision of mahouts and such other elephant experts.

Once the herds to be trapped had been earmarked, the procedure of keeping them in a physically manageable area began. Hundreds of people camped at various vantage points in the forests for days on end, encircling the herds, from a safe distance though, not allowing them to wander away.

And on the day of the ‘big drive’, men with unique bamboo clappers capable of raising quite a din and drummers with their hands working in vehement unison on the leather surface of their drums would slowly begin closing in on the confused and agitated animals from three sides, in the company of kumkies, as the domesticated elephants aiding in the operation were called.

Instinctively the wild elephants would begin to move towards the only open space available in the front; crowding together, bumping, pushing, shoving and jostling one another. The tension filled drama was of monumental proportions and the air would be thick with palpable electricity of the nervous kind.

Gunshots rent the air adding to the great sense of anticipation, the panicky trumpeting of the hapless creatures adding a touch of poignancy to the scene, amidst all the hysterical human screaming. It took fantastic levels of daredevilry on the part of those who took part in the drive on foot to be in the vicinity of literally tons of angry and agitated elephants, tuskers and all.

For, one wrong move and you’d have them savagely stamping all over you, in a horror scene right out of mythology. As the drive progressed, minute by tense minute, the animals, little realizing that they were going closer and closer to the entrance of the stockade, stayed huddled in fear, always being goaded to keep moving.

And then the most anxious moment would arrive. When the elephants came face to face with the stockade’s entry. The noise levels reached a crescendo reaching up to the skies and the herds would have no choice but to gingerly enter the stockade with the thud of the trapdoor sounding the eternal end to their freedom.

The Mysore Maharaja watched all this intensely from atop his royal perch and so did many of his courtiers and guests.

Wild scenes would then be enacted; of the elephants making one desperate attempt after another to escape; the forceful thudding of their foreheads against the stockade’s sides; the impossibly loud trumpeting emanating from a hundred mammoth throats; their restlessness fuelled by a sort of angry helplessness; with die-hard mahouts perched on the back of kumkies with nary a support, entering the stockade in kamikaze style and the thick vine nooses finding their way around the legs and necks of the denizens of the wild.

For the mahouts and those supervising the operations, it was the end of the show. And so too for the poor elephants, who not too long before all this, had led such beautiful lives of carefree abandon in the mesmerising wilds of Kakanakote.

Postscript: It was a British forester belonging to the Bengal cadre named G.P. Sanderson who is regarded as the progenitor of the ‘khedda’. He would closely observe the movements of elephants in the Kakanakote jungles sitting high up on a hillock in the mid 1850’s. The last khedda operation was held in 1972.