The elephant has been an integral part of Indian culture, history and religious belief since times immemorial. From ancient times till the recent past, it has played a significant role both as a vehicle of war and as a beast of burden. It is no wonder that the elephant has entered the Hindu pantheon in the form of Lord Ganesha, who is arguably the most popular deity in India. The elephant also figures prominently in other religions that originated in India i.e. Buddhism and Jainism.
Ancient Sanskrit literature is a rich source of information on the methods for the capture and care of elephants. The sage Palakapya, who lived in what is now Orissa in the 5th century, is considered the founder of elephant lore as recorded in the Sanskrit classic the Gajashastra. The Ramayana also has references to elephant capture, vividly described by Valmiki. Scenes of elephant capture have been depicted on the walls of the Konark Temple in Orissa. In addition to the records in Sanskrit literature, both the Chola Kings of Tanjore and the Ahoms of Assam have left behind a large collection of elephant literature.
Western writers and commentators on India have left their own written accounts. They include Megasthenes in 200 BC, Strabo in 130 AD and Indicoplenstes in 600 AD. The later European conquerors of India, the British, soon realized the importance of elephants in India and took over the business of elephant capture. They left detailed records on the methods used etc and attempted to standardize procedures for their capture, training and handling in captivity.
Sanskrit literature lists five methods of capturing wild elephants, one of which was the Khedda method. Over a period of time each of these methods came to be associated with certain areas of the country. The Khedda method, associated with the eastern part of the country, was introduced with various modification to other parts of the country as well. The most famous of which was the Mysore State. Some of the most successful khedda operations were staged in the Kakankote State Forrest, now part of the Kabini area of the Nagarhole National Park.
The first person, in the Mysore State, to try and capture elephants in this way was Hyder Ali, the father of Tipu Sultan, in the seventeenth century. He was unsuccessful and no further attempts were made. The British were the first to try again and an attempt by Col. Pearson, a British Army officer, in 1867 also resulted in failure.
The next to try was another British officer, this time from the Canal or Irrigation Department, named G.P.Sanderson. He had no previous experience in capturing elephants, he was however interested and knowledgeable in the habits of wild elephants. After repeated representations which were supported by his superior, the Mysore Government in 1873 undertook to capture wild elephants and he was put in charge.
He was successful in his second attempt in 1874 at a place called Kardihalli. In 1875 he was put in charge of the Elephant Catching establishment at Dhaka for a period nine months. On his return from Dhaka he perfected the khedda system in Mysore. He is said to have brought experienced elephant men from Dhaka who formed the main stay of the operation. In time the Kuruba tribals of Mysore and others learnt the art of elephant driving.
The Mysore Khedda especially the Kakankote Kheddas (now part of the Kabini area of the Nagarhole National Park) were very different from the Assam Khedda. The Mysore Kheddas were large undertakings which required a large number of men and koonkis (tame elephant trained for elephant catching). Wild elephant herds had to be driven in from long distances and were moved in stages and held when necessary in position until the exact time when they would be driven into the stockade in full view of distinguished guests.
This involved months of planning and preparation and large contingents of men and koonkis, as many as forty koonkis and a thousand men would be used. The size of the stockade would extend over five acres. The unique feature of a Kakankote Khedda was the river drive which was first designed and carried out by G.P.Sanderson in honour of The Grand Duke of Russia during his visit to Mysore in 1891. In the river drive the elephants were driven across the Kabini river into the stockade and this proved to be a popular spectacle with special visitor’s gallery being set up to allow people to witness the grand finale of a Kakankote Khedda.
The only other elephant capturing operation that could compare with the Mysore Kheddas as a spectacle were those of Thailand. Here too the Khedda method was of ancient origin and was staged every few years near the city of Ayuthia. It is interesting to note that the kraal method of capturing elephants as practiced in Sri Lanka is comparable to that of Mysore and Thailand.
Fortunately, the Khedda operations are now a thing of the past and the last Khedda was conducted in 1971 just before the building of the Kabini dam. Where wild herds were once driven into captivity is now one of the few remaining safe refuges of the Asian Elephant – the backwaters of the Kabini river in the Nagarhole National Park.