Elephantology and its Ancient Sanskrit Sources

by Geetha N. | 2012 | 36,369 words

Elephant is considered as an inevitable part of Indian community. So they developed the study of Elephant which is based on Hastyayurveda and Matangalila. Even from the ancient time Indians were awareness about their hygiene and health. They were protected against diseases. They protected not just their own race but also plants and animals. Therefo...

Chapter 6 - Capturing of Elephants

Most of the Gajashastras accept five methods, of capturing wild elephants. This job was carried out at the end of the rainy season. In Matangalila, Nilakantha also mentions the five operations for capturing elephants as follows:—

Varikarma vashavilobhanavidhibhyam canugatya tadai-Vapatena tato'vapadattaa iti-hebhagrah pancadha nindyaste tu yatchottaram kila gaja nashyanti yasmattato varjyavantyabhavavubhavapi visheshadetayoshcantimah[1]

Varikarama, Vashshavilobhana, Anugati, Apata and Avapata are the five method of capturing elephants.

1. Varikarama, (kheddha or trappen)

The word kheddha means driving. In this method, binding the elephants with rather gentle though firm bonds around the girth, at the neck, end at the hind parts, and also bind the iron foot bonds upon them on the two feet. They fastened very long and stout ropes infront, leading them constantly forward by the first class elephant groups. He shall cause them slowly to proceed after loosening the fetter behind.

The best time to conduct kheddha (Varikarama) is in winter, more specially the period January-February when the forest is free from too much moisture and has enough water.

In 1890, G.P. Sanderson who was the manager of elephant capturing at Mysore and Bengal; elaborately describes the kheddha method in ‘Thirteen years among the wild beasts of India’. This method is adopted in modern times (1890)[2]

2. Vashavilobhana

Taking five or six elephants and covering their backs with leather, elephant tenders shall hide under these skins armed with ropes etc. then by striking them with their hands they shall drive the cows straight ahead and shall quickly tie up five or six elephants and they are trained by the elephant-cows. This type of catching is known as Vashavilobhana or cow seduction.

3. Anugata

Bherituryakakahaladininadairvidravya nagan brisam
bhianashu sada sasainyamanudhavanto bhata nirbhayah
yavad pada parishramena kalubhah stabdah syuretanstada
bbadniyudchatura javatanugatakhyos
ƒ am. gajanamgrah[3]

The third type of catching is named anugata with the help of kettle drums (sounds) musical instruments, drums etc. used for driving elephants the herders, always with a crowd swiftly and fearlessly pursuing the greatly frightened, animals, when the young elephants are lame with weariness, then quickly and easily catching. This method is known as anugati in Sanskrit and pursuit in English. Only, elephant kids are caught by this method.

4. Apata

Placing three on stalks of lotuses, bamboo, plantain trees, white sugar can etc. and tying those ropes also to a stout tree, then trained and experienced person lying in wait in concealment shall quickly catch the elephants while they are engrossed in eating, throwing them down by drawing the ropes taut. This kind of catching is known as assault or apata.

5. Avapata

The fifth method of catching is known as avapata or ‘pit’. In this method, making a four hastas (six feet) deep hole, two hastas broad; and five hastas long concealed with bamboo shoots and grass mats, covering it over with earth, and bestrewing it with food on the surface.[4]

According to Nilakantha the last two methods and specially the fifth are objectionable and not to be recommended because they are very dangerous to the elephants.

Narayanadikshita in his Gajagrahanaprakara enumerates ten methods in contrast to the five. Among them the first two methods are Vrittibandha, and Vrikshabhanda. These are differentiated by the fact that the former gives simple method of catching while the latter gives comparatively complex method. The capture in both is effected mainly by the fortitude and dexterity of the men engaged in the game.

Rajju-banda is the third capturing method, fourth Vari-bhandha, Anugata-bandha; Laghu-bandha, Codana-bandha, Vana-bandha and Pancalika-bandha are respectively.

Anugata-bandha and the ninth Vana-bandha are particularly the same. The eight Candana-bandha is similar to the method khedda. The last one is known as Pancala-bandha is novelity and this method is not adopted by any region for catching elephants, it could be better, assumed that the method is the result of the author’s own imagination.

Arakkal Hassankutty states that December to April is the period for catching elephants. He further adds that the fallen elephants should be rescued before 24 hours; otherwise it may die.

Naradamuni in his Gajashiksha mentions four methods of capture; they are durga-bandha, vari-bandha, karini-bandha and garba-bandha.

Durga-bandha is the way of catching the elephants by putting barricades on their way and driving them into an enclosure. The Varibandha is blocking the escape of the elephants when they are entering a lake or large pond for drinking and sporting in the water. Entering the males by the trained females and match the elephants with their help are called Karini-bandha. The Gartha-bandha is by making the animals full in the artificially dug ditches.[5]

This different method followed by common people is elaborated here as a way to understand the similarities as well as dissimilarities hidden in their preparation.

Arthashastra mentions the catching time of elephants. It occurs in grishma season. Twenty years and above are the age considered for catching. Diseased, pregnant, cow-elephant accompanied by a calf, those lacking teeth etc. are to be forsaken.

Manasollasa describes 4 types of catching. They are Vari-bandha, Vasha-vilobhana, Anugata-bandha and Apata-bandha. It is:—

Vashabandha varibandho
bandashcanugatah parah
Uttamastriprakarah syat
bandhah karatinamayam

It states that the last two methods are not considered as good.

apadashca'vapatashca dvau
bhandhanu ninditau matau
vinashyanti gaja yasmat
tasmat tau parivarjayet

Gajagrahanaprakara describes that:—

anugata-bandhasyapi prayogavid bhupatshreshtah
labhate hytutam siddhim sahasa hastigrahnakale

It is also mentioned in the MU.

apadakhyah samakhyato
bandho’ yam hastibandhakaih
nindhitashca bhavatyesha
simhasamashayitah sada

In Arthashastra, Kautilya mentions-elephant catching tools such as scavenger, bamboo, madines is ankusha venuyantra dhika mupakaranah[10]

Essential Qualities of Mahouts

The catching elephant must be protected. Then there would be a warder for the elephant, he is known as mahout. Elephant driving is an art. There are two mahouts for an elephants, major mahout and assistant one. They must be strong in belief, healthy and kind hearted.[11]

According to Matangalila three types of mahouts they are:—Rekhavan, Balavan and Yuktiman.


Rekhavan always keeps a balance in his duty, according to the elephant’s character. He gives them enough food and water in proper time. He delights the elephants with good words. He remains a best friend and a good keeper.


The yuktiman minds not only elephant matters but also his own interest. He keeps the elephants in care but with a selfish mind.


Balavan does his duties not for elephant’s well-being for his own self. He has interest in taming elephants by beating. He does not give food and water in time to them. Always gives advise to them.

Among the three, Rekhavan is the best one. The second place is held by Yuktiman, Balavan is a dangerous person both for men, and elephants.[12] They are respectively known as in Sanskrit Uttama, Madhyama and Adhama.

The best mahout is intelligent, brave, kinglike, righteous, devoted to his lord, pure, veravious, free from voice, mortificated by self, courages, energetic, merciful, well trained, renowned for curing diseases, and possessing all knowledge about elephants.

The characteristics of a mahout are–

Shikshaprakrama dakshamam kushagada Sanjarana prakriya bhedanjam baludesha kalanipunam danakriya. dakshinam arohaneshvarohaneshu kushalam santamvayomarmanam njataram munayo vadanti nripate tvadhoraham dantinam[13]

There are four types of elephant castes, they are Bhadra, manda, mriga and sankirna. Elephant training is in three ways, three directions, three methods of sitting in front, end also five behind, six kinds of wielding the hook, five types of walking, eight ways of mounting and ten methods of dismounting. The eight way of mounting is, by the two ears, the four legs, the face, and the dismounting is by tail, the four legs, the face, the two sides, and the two ears thus the wise declare the ten ways.

The method of sitting is between the backbone and the neck, there is a hump three ways of sitting infront of it, arranged in order as best middling and worst.[14] The six ways of sitting are named differently pascatymasana, anatajankasana, utkatasana, kurmaasana, and mandukasana.

Nilakantha described it:—

ekah prasaritah padastadanyo natajanukah pashcatyamasanam jneyamekham Janugatam budhaih Vamshasyobhayath prasarita padamajanudvayalkunjitam Vidyadanatajanukasanamidam tattutkatenotkatam, etattutkadajanukam tadaparanamram hi kurmasanam

Vidyat samhatanamrajanu yugalammanduka samnjam hi tat[15]

Who controlling the savage elephant speedily brining on must in those, in whom it is not accomplished, making elephants that have no swiftness in desires killed in striking and is clear at mounting elephants, he is considered as a good elephant driver. These are the best characteristic marks of the elephant drivers.

There are three fold driving methods. The first one is by words, known as caressing, which is not produce fear, or unpleasant reaction in the elephant.

Training of Elephants

Nilakantha describes three fold driving methods–i.e.,

  1. Caressing,
  2. Indicating and
  3. Abuse.

The first one is directing by words, known as caressing, which is not to produce fear, anger, or unpleasant reaction in the elephants. The second driving method is by feats (courage), named indication and the third driving method is by hooks named abuse.[16]

These training methods are named differently in Sanskrit ie. upalalana, prajnapana, and sandarshana. These words suggest that the undertaker of an elephant; shall teach, him what he is intended to do. The double sound hum means to sit down. To make him take hold of something quickly he shall say ‘Take, take’ and to make him lift with his trunk; ‘up up’ means to step; ‘come come’! means to come, and ‘go go’, means to go. These smaller words indicate the instructions to him what he done.

Both his feet inserting in the neck chain with stokes of his firmly implanted toes and heels and with his thighs highly binding, with firm mind; fixed securely like a post the driver shall take a good hold of the hook in his right hand and with the other hand likewise a staff of reed or the like, and with concentrated mind shall gently make the elephant go. The three folds are slow, fast, and running. According to the situation their legs may be tied with a rope. The gates are also classified again into five ways as forward, backward, circular, crosses wise and pivoting.[17]

There are three ways of sitting infront of it, arranged inorder. Best is between the backbone, middling seat at the neck and worst is of hump. One sitting method is called pashcatyamasana in Sanskrit, it is why one foot is stretched out another has the knee bent.

The spirit entered in to the hooks like thunder bolt, half moon, nail and ketak thorn and took his station there, inorder to control temperature the must maddened and extremely roguish elephants.

Six months of training had been given for hook applications in some of the body parts. For eg. the two vitanas, the vidhu and the neck and two outer corners of the eyes and the two temporal bosses.

To go forward a pricking is to be hook, touching the face infront, to guide backward, downward, scratch, there, to make him rise an upward scratch, and to guide him down, a down ward pressure, but guide him to the left, a pricking on the right side, and so there are other ways of wielding these hook according to circumstances.

Wielding is of six ways. They are barely couching pressure, heard, striking pressure after brandishing and again violent swinging around after brandishing. Koshataki powder, kshara, the three spices yellow arsenic white mustard and semecarpus amacardium, mixed with the kind of salt called ‘pungent’ and the fruit of embelia ribes, when this is smeared on the hook, they declare that it well helps to controls an elephant.

The ninth patala of Gajashiksha gives an account of various phases of training which is divided into seven types. The first type is called khelanashiksha. There two training period given up to the end of the four year of their age. At the beginning of the fifth year, training must be given to them in running. Unfortunately the manuscript breaks of in the middle of the description of this dhavana shiksha. The other Shikshas are unknown or not mentioned in the work.[18]

The elephant’s training is a very serious thing and is atigabhira or Shramasadhya to achieve with great efforts only through training the elephants can be rid of their natural wild qualities and made useful to men. First of all, therefore, a lot of captives are to be sorted out and classified into three categories.

Those are found easily trained and well behaved even before the training come under the first division; these which are subdued after a little threatening under the second and those who require chaining and severe punishment four months to get her under the third. The misleading ones and those which bear their anger for a long time are to be removed from the training camp.

The training is to be grouped into five calves upto the age of ten called tavanka or vatsa from the first group. Those within the age of ten to twenty called kalabha from the second, those between twenty to thirty named dvirada from the third those who between age of 30-40, of which are called, matanga. From the fourth and those upto the age of 50 named karin come under the fifth group. These groups must have separate stables and training yards.

The training time is in the early morning and in the evening. The trainees are placed between two lines drawn to their right and left. They are arranged in rows according to their number. Armed men guard the trainees during the training. The first thing to remember is to begin with gentle and kind words, patting with hands and using soft names to address the novice. After a few days the calves are able to stand, discarding their restlessness. Immediately they are taught to spread out and roll up as well as to hold up and bring the trunk to stand for a moment on three legs, also on two legs, and to take long and close strides forwards and to step backwards, to old the come and such things at the tip of the trunk and hand it over to the man on the back, to receive from throwing mud and on themselves when the mahouts sits on the back. These appear under the simple training laghushiksha when the trainees are established the laghushiksha they are given more advanced training gurshiksha. This training makes them capable of with standing hunger and thirst enduring strain and carrying great burdens. They also discard their natural laziness and timidity and are trained to walking-calls like vega-gati or drutagati, calana-gati, dhavanagati, or vahana-gati.[19]

They are also taught to run in circle and also in serpentine. They are called mandala rekha caturashrareksha and trikonarekha. They are also trained in holding weapons by their trunks and protecting for trees and treasury of the king. Names pertaining to the country of their origin according to their imagination of the mahouts are to be given to each elephant.

The two fold training mentioned two eyes for the human beings. The point is that the training is imparted treats the protection of the life of elephants as having paramount importance. The training should be claimed to bring them joy and strength.

M.S. Joy, author, Ana, mentions the training time of elephant is fixed both in the morning and evening which extends of to one hour daily. If they obey then they should be pleased with came or another tasty food. First training is occurs in the cage after that they had to be lead for both. The newly tamed elephants had given more attention especially in the first two years. The elephant’s reaction is of seven types. That is extreme, shallow, deep confirmable contrary to meaning, harsh and perfect. Each of them reacts according to their own character.

Always the newly captured elephants will be furnished by thinking of its past life. So it is essential to protect them from diseases. Elephant keeping in various seasons and Kerala Style-Ayurvedic treatment etc. is explained in the next chapter.

Footnotes and references:


Matangalila. 10. 1.56.


Ana. 10. 101.


Matangalila. 10. 11.60.


Ana. 10. 105. 108.


Gajashiksha. 60. 64.


MU. 3. 186. 46.




Gajagrahanaprakara 2. 174.18.


MU. 3. 216.48.


Arthashastra. 32. 468.




Ana. 12. 137-138.


Matangalila. 12.2.82.


Ana. 12. 138.


Matangalila. 12. 15-16. 87.


Matangalila. 12. 8. 84.


Matangalila. XII. 13. 86.


Gajashiksha. IX. 75-83. 37-38.


Gajagrahanaprakara. 4. 429. 536.44.

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