ma·hout/ noun (from Hindi mahāvat ) : A person who works, rides, and tends an elephant


Dubare is known for its elephant camp on the banks of River Cauvery in the district of Kodagu, Karnataka. It is an important base for the Karnataka Forest Department’s elephants, many of which were involved in human-animal conflict situations, captured from the wild and brought here to be tamed. I recently visited the Dubare Elephant Camp and stayed at the Jungle Lodges & Resorts property, overlooking the river.

Ekadanta flops on his side in the river as Naveen, his mahout, keeps his balance, at the Dubare Elephant Camp.

Jagadish calls out to his elephant Subramani, who decides to play about in the river rather than return to the camp. He was eventually persuaded to return after about an hour of playing in the water. “He decided to come when he realised that he was hungry,” says Jagadish.

After getting the required permissions from the forest department, I drove to Dubare intending to capture the bond between mahout and mastodon, with photographs and interviews. A mahout is what traditional keepers of elephants are called in India. Many come from indigenous communities, have been mahouts for generations and share a deep bond with their elephant wards.

An elephant ridden by Vasanth and Jagadish passes by the children of mahouts; from left, Naveen, Vijeetu, Ajeetu, Rajas and Aneetu. The elephants are allowed to roam in the forest to feed during the middle of the day. They are met by their mahouts in the evening and led back to the camp.

Kaveri (L) and Manjula (R) walk past two captured elephants. The elephants are kept within a stockade built out of eucalyptus logs. “We treat the elephants with respect and care and they do the same for us. This does not mean we take them for granted and take foolish risks,” says Manjula.

Like human beings, I was to learn that elephants had their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. Some were cranky and potentially dangerous to the uninitiated, while some were good-natured and calm. Others were downright playful and boisterous. The same, I might add, applied to the mahouts.

Here are a few stories of mahouts and their elephants.


Ram, Pavi and Manjunath

Ram was blinded in a battle with another tusker that also cost him a tusk. He was found starving in the forest and brought to the Dubare camp. Ram is a very old elephant and is estimated to be about 65 years old. Manjunath and Pavi look after him. “Ram is like my brother. I tend to all his needs. He is blind and cannot do any work but that’s okay. I still take care of him,” says Manjunath.

“Ram was once the king of the forest. He was a big tusker who loved fighting with other tuskers. Now he is blind and I take care of him,” says Manjunath.

Manjunath carefully leads the blind 65-year-old elephant Ram to the water. “What can I say when you ask me about my relationship with this elephant? He is like my family.”

Manjunath (L) and Pavi (R) boil a mixture of herbs, leaves and mud from the river to make a poultice for Ram, who injured himself while lying down in the river to take a bath. Manjunath discerned that he had sustained an ulcer.

Manjunath applies the dark brown poultice to the affected area. This unconventional but effective remedy is known as ‘bajaara’ has been passed down by generations of tribal mahouts. “It is better than calling the vet who uses allopathic remedies.”

Manjunath and Pavi bathe Ram. “We bathe him twice a day and I think he loves it. Imagine being massaged twice a day. I feel, despite his blindness, that he is a happy elephant. He was once the king of the forest and battled many tuskers but now he is old. One day we will all be in the same place no?” says Manjunath.


Partha’s Journey

Partha is a three-year-old calf who was separated from his mother during a forest fire and was then brought to the camp where he bonded with both his mahout and a bull elephant named Kanjan. 

Partha does not leave Kanjan’s side.

Partha and Kanjan graze near the camp during the day. “Partha and Kanjan are inseparable. For some reason they are always together and Kanjan, who is a bull elephant, looks after him,” says Jayanna, his mahout.

Partha takes shelter under the bull elephant Kanjan during a thunderstorm along with the mahout, Jayanna.


Dobi – The head mahout

J.K. Dobi, the head of the mahouts, belongs to the Jainu Kuruba tribe and learnt the art of being a mahout from his father, who learned it from his father before him. 

“We have been mahouts for as long as we can remember and have served the Mysore and Madikeri maharajas for hundreds of years. Elephants are like gods to me. I do not think we can live without them. I was born with them and we treat them like family members. And like family members, you get all kinds. Don’t forget that many are problem-animals that have killed people and trust only us. They are our livelihood and support us, just as we support them A lot of people think that this is a dangerous job, to tame elephants who have experienced conflicts. It really isn’t, but only if you know what you’re doing. If you are afraid however, you will die,” says Dobi.

J.K. Dobi, the head of the mahouts, strokes Kaveri, a 35-year-old elephant, captured after she raided agricultural fields frequently.

Dobi describes the taming process outside the stockade or kraal of Nanjunda, an elephant captured in Hassan.



Dev was captured three months ago in an area called Chattlle. Over months of raiding agricultural fields for food, two people who came into contact with him had died and many others had had a close shave. Dev was turning out to be a very real danger to farmers, so a capture operation was launched, and he was tranquillised with the help of 4 captive elephants. He was then sent to the Dubare Elephant Camp for training. JT Girish is the mahout assigned to taming Dev.

Dev obeys commands for the first time and allows the mahouts to enter his stockade. The mahouts massage him, singing and promising good treatment as they scrub him down with warm water.

Three generations of mahouts – Urunay, his wife Lakshmi, son Girish and grandson Chandu tend to Dev. Taking advantage of the moment when Dev allows the mahouts into his stockade, the whole family pitches in, bringing warm water to bathe Dev.

Mahouts Karianna (L) and Girish (R), soothe and talk to Dev in a stockade.“When he first came here to Dubare he was incredibly aggressive. We put him in the kraal and its not very big, so he tried to get at anyone who came too close. But now I can hand-feed him and he has been here for three months. You know how we become friends? I never leave his side. We pitch our tent right next to him and do not leave. My entire family is here and they know not to get too close. If they do, they will be killed,” says Girish.

Says Girish, “I have to be very, very careful. All it takes is one misstep. I feed him with my own hands making sure his trunk is out of the way. In this way I talk to him, week after week, night and day and one day he will become my friend. I touch him and work towards touching him all over his body. You won’t believe me, but this makes him trust me. Other people cannot do this, only people he trusts.”

Chandu, whose father and grandfather are both mahouts, wraps rice in straw to feed Dev. Chandu is careful not to get too close.


Kaveri – The gentle one

Kaveri, a 35-year-old elephant is never chained. She was captured about 12 years ago for raiding agricultural fields. The mahouts are comfortable letting their children play with Kaveri. According to them,  she “loves children” and “would not hurt even an insect”.

Kaveri wanders over to her mahout Ranjan who wraps rice in straw before he feeds her with the same. The children of other mahouts, 8-year-old Sahana and 4-year-old Saana, help Ranjan out.

8-year-old Sahana, the daughter of a mahout, strokes Kaveri, who loves children and according to the mahouts, would not hurt even an insect.

Ranjan rides Kaveri in the rain.


Nanjunda and Sharath

Sharath relaxes outside a stockade or kraal housing a freshly caught elephant named Nanjunda. At almost 12 feet in height, Nanjunda is a huge elephant. He was captured in Hassan a month before this photograph was taken, after two people who came into contact with him died while he was raiding some agricultural fields for food. His frequent visits to the fields endangered the lives of many people around the area. The forest department decided to tranquillise him and handed him over to the mahouts at the Dubare Elephant Camp. 

Nanjunda is very aggressive and Sharath is the mahout who has been assigned to him. This is Sharath’s first taming assignment and first elephant.

“He sustained some injuries on his legs and we have to apply a herbal concoction to his wounds every day. I use a stick with a cloth attached to it as if I get too close he will kill me for sure. It takes time but one day he will trust me and other human beings,” says Paapu, a young mahout assisting Sharath.

Preethi (L) and Kaveri (R) play while Sharath bathes Nanjunda.

“I have pitched this tent right next to the stockade we keep him in, and I will not leave his side for 3-4 months. My family lives with me here. I consider it a great privilege to be able to make friends with this elephant, the king of the forest. Some people say we break their spirits but that is completely not true. We build a relationship with the elephant and eventually he trusts me,” says Sharath. “Do not forget that these are big animals who could kill us easily at any time. I talk to him all the time, bathe and feed him. Eventually he will see that I mean him no harm. All our elephants eventually, if they wanted to, could easily escape into the forest. The endeavour is to build a relationship based on mutual respect. I will bond with him for life.”


All photographs have been shot on Lumix.

My appreciation and thanks to the following people for their support, permissions and guidance.

  • Sri Sanjai Mohan – Chief Wildlife Warden and PCCF (Wildlife), Karnataka
  • Sri Punati Sridhar – Karnataka Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) 
  • Karthikeyan Srinivasan – Chief Naturalist, Jungle Lodges & Resorts
  • The mahouts of Dubare Elephant Camp, whose expertise, care and experience deeply benefit the state and its captive elephants.
  • Nagaraju S – Naturalist at Dubare Elephant camp.