During the Mysore Kheddas, wild pachyderms were driven into the Kabini and forcefully domesticated, writes LAKSHMI SHARATH

As the evening sun lights the backwaters of the River Kabini, we see a lone tusker in the fading light, working hard on the bamboo and attacking it with his trunk.

As the shutterbugs click away, the tusker seems to mind the intrusion and rushes into the forest with a loud trumpet. “You must come here in summer,” the boatman's sales pitch interrupts our reverie, “the river beds are full of elephants swimming across.”

Kabini tales

Later in the evening, as the wood cracked and the smoke curled up andconversations lingered overconservation, I asked our naturalist Vikram Nanjappa to tell me more about the Kabini of yesteryears (Surrounded by the pristine forests of the Kakanakote range, Kabini has its own heritage tag, as it was once the hunting ground of the Mysore Maharaja.)

And, that is when I heard about the khedda operation, a spectacle that has been in vogue since the Wodeyar dynasty's reign began in the 19{+t}{+h} Century.

“Khedda is a process where elephants were captured and trained for war or domestic use,” explains Vikram, adding the Mysore Khedda was largely borrowed from practices followed in East and North India.

“Drummers and beaters would drive an entire herd of wild elephants into a wooded enclosure where domesticated elephants called Kumkis were used to calm them,” adds Vikram.

The trapped, wounded elephants were then lassoed and tied to a tree and sometimes even starved until they became weak enough to be trained.

This system was prevalent in ancient times — Greek traveller Megasthenes mentions this in his records of Chandragupta Maurya's period.

He writes about how female elephants were used as decoys to lure male elephants to enclosures or to deep trenches.

The Mysore Khedda, however, enjoyed royal patronage, and had as added attraction, the river too. “About 36 kheddas were conducted in the Kakanakote forest, and the river drive was started by a Britisher, GP Sanderson, in the honour of the visit of the Duke of Russia in the 19{+t}{+h} Century,” says Vikram.

The kheddas here, which were visual spectacles, lasted for a century, till the 1970s.

“I had tears in my eyes,” recalls Kamakshi Anandakrishna, wife of the former Additional Chief Secretary of the Karnataka Government, who saw the last khedda.

“The drummers drove all the wild elephants into the water as the domesticated elephants surround them. They were then driven into an enclosure and were caught by ropes … some used to fall into the pits and we could hear their cries; it was so sad...”

Today, the site of the kheddas is submerged underwater after the construction of the Kabini dam, and the elephants enjoy a free ride from the Nagarhole forest towards the Bandipur stretch.

Their only intrusion? Shutterbugs like us who don't let them be.