The Sonepur Mela was in the past a major place to sell or buy elephants in India. In 50´s and 60´s apr 500 elephants were sold, and the fair would last for a month.
2000: With the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in force, under its provisions, the sale of elephants was banned in 2015 (see pdf document)
2002: in the 2002 Sonpur Mela, 17% of the elephants had cutaneous filariasis (Ashraf and Mainkar, 2004). As it turned out nearly 50% of the elephants that assembled that year were from Assam.
Our next stop was Calcutta. Johannsen was to await me there. But
when I arrived I could see no Johannsen in the throngs on the quay-
side. I was pressing forward into the babel of incomprehensible sounds,
completely lost, when suddenly a black-bearded Indian wriggled
through the crowd like a weasel, his blue eyes fastened on me. Why,
but it was Kudratl Kudrat was our elephant transporter, who had
travelled to Hamburg with many a load of animals for us, and knew
me well. He pressed into my hand a letter from Johannsen, from
which I learned that that worthy had gone to the elephant market at
Sonpur. So Kudrat and I decided to go straight to the railway station.
Reaching Palezaghat, I heard the cry: 'Ail change, 1 for to reach the
railway station we had to cross the river.
We crossed the Ganges in a diminutive river steamer. Near the
paddle-wheels I noticed natives with long bamboo poles, which they
were poking into the water. When I went across to see what this was
all about, to my horror I saw that they were poking human corpses out
of the way of the steamer's paddle-wheels. The swollen bodies were
those of people who had died and been thrown into the holy river
somewhere upstream, a form of burial, for the great stream would
take them, as Indian beliefs demanded, down to Nirvana.
At the terminal railway station, Digha-Ghat, my faithful guide
Kudrat and I were again met by another Indian, who had a two-
wheeled cart, and in this I was taken to Sonpur, where Johannsen and
I found ourselves the only Europeans among many thousands of
natives. There was a religious festival going on, all somehow con-
nected with the great elephant fair. We bought ourselves a couple of
blankets and some household requirements for our tent. Johannsen
was in a rather morose mood, as he was suffering from stomach cramps,
so I soon decided to take charge of the cooking myself.
Throughout the night the gongs of the priests rang out. They were,
so far, like wonderful bells. But when the next night came and they
still did not cease, I did not find either their sound or the singsong
chanting of the priests at all so romantic. Indeed, I now felt very
sorry for Johannsen, who regularly cursed and complained in his
broad dialect that before all this was over the 'divvel' would have the
best of us, and no 'guid Chreestian' could possibly sleep with that
unholy din going on.
There were soon literally hundreds of elephants up for sale. They
were mainly tame animals, merely tethered by one fore and one hind
leg between a couple of trees, but there were those which were still
not broken in, and these were firmly lashed to really powerful trees
with cables as thick as a man's arm. Day after day fresh herds of ten to
fifteen elephants each came in. They all swam to the fairground across
the Ganges, together with their mahouts. The young animals as far as
possible contrived to cling to their mothers' backs. Many times I saw
the mothers holding the babies with their trunks or pushing them on
in front of themselves.
One day, crossing the river, a large elephant and its mahout were
torn off their feet by the powerful current and swept up against the
massive stone columns of the railway bridge. The mahout must have
been stunned by the shock, for he pitched helplessly into the water.
But though it would have been an easy enough matter to put out a boat
from the shore to save the unconscious man from being swept away
by the current, not a single one of his fellow countrymen made any
attempt to do this, and the Ganges bore the man away to a Heaven
which would certainly at least be better than what he had known on
One has to have technical knowledge to go buying elephants, and
Johannsen happened to be fitted with real 'elephant sense/ Another
factor was that we often enough had to deal with a whole string of
owners who all had some sort of 'mortgage* on the animal. Whenever
we did conclude a purchase we would repair to the tent of the latest
mortgagor, and the Indians would begin testing every rupee either
with their teeth or by tossing it up high, to judge of the ring when it
fell, and when one had to pay out a price of some two thousand
rupees this business could take hours. But in India time is of no great
importance. Only if an elephant broke loose would the owners show
any tendency to 'look sharp,' but then the whole gang of claimants
would be off, with shrill cries, to get their 'property' back.
In the end, during this particular year's fair, over eight hundred
elephants passed through Sonpur market, a traffic which was of course
not without its 'incidents.' One night a regular monster of a beast
broke loose, a male tusker it was too for there are also, of course,
the mukna elephants, which have no tusks. This fellow tore like an ex-
press locomotive across the few yards which separated it from our
tent, plucking the tent pegs out of the ground so that the thing
collapsed on us. The elephants we had already bought set up an excited
trumpeting. We were out of our tent in no time, but the old bull was
already well away over the hills.
All round us were encamped upper-caste Indians, accompanied by
numerous servants. When any newcomer arrived, his servants took
over the rectangular space hired from the market manager, clearing
away tree stumps and refuse, moistening the hard ground with Ganges
water and sweeping it smooth. Immediately the blazing sun dried it
and turned the space to a hard floor. On this a tent was next erected,
and the ground covered with magnificent carpets and rugs. A low wall
marked the boundaries between one of these family camping grounds
and another. They were in gay array all round our encampment. But
I was still such a greenhorn that I never realised that it was a great
insult to an Indian to go across his ground there were no set roads
and thus, as I went my ways to and fro, I unwittingly outraged one
party after another, earning savage looks and muttered curses. At last I
actually saw some Indians get to their feet at once and go away from
A further stupidity followed. I was such a simpleton that I still took
all Indians for poor men, so when I saw that I had caused offence I at
once tried to put things right by offering a tip. This was refused with
great indignation, and it was a very good thing when Johannsen ex-
plained to me that merely to tread, even to cast one's shadow over
ground, if one was unclean that is to say either of a lower caste or
an unbeliever sullied the ground of a caste-conscious Indian, and he
properly had no other course but to abandon it.
While Johannsen sat in our tent and perspiringly pursued his end-
less dealing with the elephant owners, I wandered at leisure to and
fro through the market, ever more thirsty for impressions. 'Kabr da
Sahib! 3 came a cry 'Look out, sir! 1 I pressed back into the dense
wall of sightseers, through which a powerful elephant was striding.
It was a bull. Never had I seen an animal in such heavy chains. From
the powerful tusks to the front legs, from front legs to hind legs, and
back again from hind legs to tusks were really heavy chains, which
rattled horribly to the tread of the elephant's huge feet. On the
animal's neck sat its mahout. On either side ran a man armed with a
long spiked pole.
Some hours later I suddenly heard a great shouting. In a second, all
the mahouts standing near me were on the backs of their own ele-
phants. Something must have happened. Looking in the direction of
the shouts, I now saw a human body, which must somehow have been
tossed into the air, falling to earth again. A moment later, sprawled
out on the scene of this unhappy incident I saw a gruesome sight. That
same bull elephant had just seized his mahout in his trunk, tossed him
into the air, then pinned him to the ground with his long tusks.
Immediately, the savage animal was surrounded by working elephants
which had hurried to the spot, and under the protection ot those
powerful assistants the rebel was chained again. No formalities fol-
lowed, no doctor came, no death certificate was made out. The dead
body was merely put on a stretcher and removed. When soon after I
passed the spot, a new mahout was standing passively in front of the
same elephant, the tusks of which were still red with blood, and
giving the animal its ration of fodder.
But how does a mahout first chain an elephant is the question. This
was an art which I had opportunities of witnessing both here in Son-
pur and elsewhere in India on many occasions. A freshly caught ele-
phant quite naturally opposes any touch of the human hand. It is out
of the question to get up on to the back of such an animal, for the
elephant knows very well what that is all about, and at amazing speed
will twist this way and that to prevent it happening. For this reason,
the only thing a mahout can do is get straight on to the elephant's
neck. But how is he to do even that?
The first thing is to teach the captured elephant to lie down when
told to do so, and to get up again when told. This lesson is achieved by
lowering a saddle-bag arrangement on to its back from a tree-top.
This has a heavy weight in it. When at last the elephant gives way and
settles down, its mahout yells the command for 'Lie down' and at the
same time feeds the animal some paddy, or unhusked rice, well tied
up in a bundle of rice straw.
As soon as an elephant has learned this first lesson, the mahout's
next job is to get close to him. It is most inadvisable to try to do this
from the front, as the elephant immediately fights back with its tusks,
its trunk and its fore legs. So now with the help of working ele-
phants a rope is brought across the restive pupil and fastened down
to the ground then another across the neck. While other men hang
like grim death on to the irons on each leg of the elephant, the
mahout, nimble as a monkey, springs at last to straddle the animal's
In a flash the elephant is on its feet, intent on throwing off the
weight. But now he is given no rest. He is marched round and round
slowly between two working elephants as guards, and this is continued
till he learns to turn to left or right, according to which ear the
mahout tickles with his big toe.
The methods of training differ in detail in Ceylon, Sumatra, Assam
and Burma, and so of course do the commands. But everywhere the
drivers are the same, whether we know them as mahouts, oozies or
kornaks. A well- trained elephant has to know at least a dozen different
commands. There are elephants who know twice as many as this, and
they are spoken of with enormous respect.
Newly caught elephants cannot stand the smell of Europeans. When
at Sonpur I went too near a wild elephant, he suddenly began to flay
the earth with his trunk, as if to cry: 'Now, this is the limit!' This
earth-slapping with the loose trunk sounded like somebody swinging
an end of rubber hose against the sun-baked ground, but a moment
later this young bull had tucked his trunk up high again and then,
head down, he charged violently towards me until, twanging like
violin strings, his leg chains pulled him up short.
At last, Johannsen had bought all he wanted. We dismantled camp,
loaded everything on a number of working elephants and took our
departure. In front went the elephant leader, a tame animal, with me
riding behind his mahout. Next came the smaller ones, to set the pace,
and the procession was brought up by Johannsen on No. 8, to see that
nothing was missing. Our road led through a number of shallow rivers,
at each of which we halted, to give the animals an opportunity to
bathe, a pleasure in which they all shared most readily.
While the larger ones were often satisfied, after a long drink, with
giving themselves a shower with their trunks, the young elephants
tumbled in like excited children, pushing each other under, squirting
water over each other and gambolling about so merrily that we often
roared with laughter. One of the mahouts dived in once with his
elephant and had a fine game, seeing who could remain longest under
water. Of course the elephant won, holding his trunk above water
like a schnorkel tube on a submarine. But when the mahout spotted
the trick and held the trunk down, it turned out that the elephant
could not hold his breath any longer than his mahout could.