Monday 1 April 2013

The killing fields of Kakanakote

As the evening sets in and the heat subsides, a herd of elephants led by a tusker slowly makes it was to the water body. The fading sunlight and the plumes of dust raised by the pachyderms give a surreal setting.
The quiet flow of the river contrasts sharply with the trumpeting of the elephants. The sound sends a current of alarm to a small herd of deer, which raise their head and get ready to gallop.
When the deer see the elephants headed their way, they soon decided discretion is the better of valour and speed away with an occasion protest.
The deer stop as suddenly as they took to their heels. They look back and see the advancing pachyderms. Giving one last “bark” of  protest, they vanish in the undergrowth.
The elephants are the lords of all they and they barely glace at the two elephants stationed at a safe distance and led by experienced mahouts and forest guards. The domesticated elephants of the Forest Department are carrying tourists, all wide eyed at seeing wild elephants.
It soon strikes me of the irony of life. Here we are seated atop elephants, which has been conditioned to serve human beings, and seeing a group of wild elephants, majestically enter the river and frolic in the water.
The elephants carefully herd a young calf  into the centre and shower it with water in so gentle and captivating a motion that it takes one breath’s away.
As some of the elephants move slowly into deeper waters, I suddenly recollect that this stretch of water perhaps hides a historical past and one which brought name and fame to Mysore.
The spot today is covered in the backwaters of the river and even a Hollywood film was made on it. Several Emperors and Queens, royals and intellectuals and even common men have visited the pot before it was covered by water and enjoyed one of the most enthralling sights of wildlife.
Unfortunately, this rare and spectacular event hid one of the cruelest acts and it led to a of  injuries and trauma. Thankfully, this has been discontinued and it looks as if the waters of the river have deliberately covered  the area as if to throw a permanent curtain over the despicable deed.
The river is Kabini and the ground its backwaters has covered is the very place where Khedda or operations to capture wild elephants were organized regularly in the forests of Kakanakote in the erstwhile Mysore Kingdom.
The Khedda was a painful operation in which herds of wild elephants were driven towards a huge ditch or a wooden enclosure by domesticated elephants. The Mysore Khedda became so well known that it attracted royalty from all over the world apart from bringing a host of Governors-General of India and Viceroys to Kakanakote to witness the spectacle.
Today, the exact places where the Kheddas were organised have been submerged under the backwaters of the Kabini in the Kakanakote range of forests.
Once the private hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Mysore, the place soon became renown for its Khedda operations.
Though the Mysore Khedda was not original in the sense that it borrowed heavily from similar operations in north east India and eastern India, the pristine forests of Kakanakote,  its nearness to Msyore, the royal tag associated with it all went on to make it a once in a lifetime event to witness and participate.
There are several descriptions of the Mysore Khedda and all of them poignantly speak of how wild herds, driven to despair, were pushed towards captivity. The specially hired drummers and beaters would drive an entire herd of wild elephants into a wooded enclosure where domestic elephants called Kumkis were used as decoys to calm them.
The operations sometimes led to elephants suffering injuries. The elephants which were herded into the enclosure were lassoed with huge ropes which then were tightly tied to huge trees. Then followed the most painful period. The elephants would be deliberately starved of given less food so that it would fall in line. Though the Khedda was not a new phenomenon, it was by no means a successful operation. Hyder Ali and Tipu tried in vain to capture elephants but failed. An exasperated Hyder remarked that it would be next to impossible to capture these huge beasts.
Indian history is replete with instances of Khedda being organised by almost all powerful Emperors and dynasties, including the Mauryas. The first written record of the Khedda is made by the Greek Ambassador to the Mauryan Empire, Megesthanes, when he speaks of such an event during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya.
In Mysore, the practice of Khedda once again made a comeback when Tipu died in 1799 and the Wodeyars regained the Mysore Kingdom.
The Wodeyars set apart the forests of Kakanakote, which today is the region between Nagarhole and Bandipur forests, for undertaking Khedda operations. Today, the vast ground is submerged by backwaters of the serene looking Kabini and all traces of Khedda are merely recorded in pages of history.   
Kakanakote has the dubious distinction of having captured and domesticated scores of elephants in 36 Khedda operations from its inception in the 19th century till 1971, when the Government banned the practice.
The first ever successful Khedda operation by the Wodeyars in the modern age was during 1873-74. It was the British officer, G.P. Sanderson, who at Kardihalli, near Kakanakote, conducted the first successful Khedda operation. He succeeded where his colleague Col. Pearson, a British Army Officer, failed.  
Another attraction of the Khedda at Kakanakote was the river-drive operations in which wild elephants were driven across the river Kabini into the stockade.  Sanderson designed the river-drive in honor of the Grand Duke of Russia during his visit to Kakanakote in 1891.
Sanderson was an officer in charge of the Government elephant-catching establishment. His book, “thirteen years among the wild beats of India”, gives a vivid account  of his work in the forests, including Khedda.
The size of the enclosure or the stockade where the elephants were driven into  was roughly 20 to 50 yards in diameter and about 12 feet in height. The wooden stockade was supported by sloping logs, huge barks and binders. The stockades were concealed behind thick undergrowth. Its gate was wide, strong and it had iron spikes to dissuade elephants from ramming it down.
Located just 73 kms from the royal city of Mysore, the thick Western Ghats with its wonderful mix of flora and fauna so captivated the Wodeyars that they named it after a legendary local chief of the tribals of the area called Kaka Nayak, a Kuruba.  
The Nayak’s bravery and wit so impressed the Wodeyar that he named the forest as Kakanakote and the name struck.
Kakanakote soon became famous for it Kheddas. The Wodeyars organized Kheddas to coincide with the visit of members of the British royal families and British Indian officials including Governors, Governors General and Viceroys to Mysore. In fact, no visit to the Mysore Kingdom was complete without Khedda.
The Wodeyars handed over the Khedda operations to the Forest Department which had a separate establishment called Khedda department with a superintendent in charge.
Initially, the Department used the pit method for Kheddas. This method involved digging huge pits which would be covered with twigs and leaves to make it appear as solid ground. By beating of drums elephants were driven and led towards the pit. The elephants that had fallen into the pit would be lifted with the help of ropes and then trained. This method has major shortcomings and invariably the success rate was low. Elephants were often injured.
In 1889-90, the Government of Mysore asked for the services of s of Sanderson to help it capture elephants by Stockade method.
Sanderson was famous by then for his involvement in the capture of a herd of troublesome elephants in the Chamarajanagar forest in 1874. He was then the Superintendent of Dacca Kheddas.
The Bengal Government lent Sanderson to Mysore for five and a half years. Sanderson purchased 12 trained elephants from Dacca and in 1890 he imported 17 more elephants from Burma. These 29 elephants costed the Mysore Government Rs.1, 02,687 and they were used in Kheddas.
Two Khedda drives in 1889-90 and three drives in 1890-91 were conducted by adopting the Khedda method and 159 elephants were captured. Of them, 101 elephants were retained for service and 93 of them were sold.
When the Duke of Clarence and Avendale paid a visit to the Chamarajanagar in November 1889 a special Khedda was organized and 37 elephants were captured. When the Prince of Wales visited Mysore in January 1906, the Khedda operation yielded 87 elephants.
Interestingly, Prime Minister Nehru witnessed the first Khedda held after India gained Independence. This was in December 1948 and Nehru witnessed the capture of 35 elephants. This Khedda was filmed by the Oriental International Film, California.
Operation Khedda was finally discontinued in 1971. Though no elephants are captured today, the area continues to draw elephants. Thus, Kakanakote even today has become synonymous with elephants and there are facilities in the ranges for a visitor to enjoy the sight.  
Summers are the best season to spot the varied wildlife coming to the edge of the Kabini, also called as Kapila, to quench their thirst.
Apart from elephants, sighting fairly large herds of deer is common. The area is also known for tigers, leopards, Dholes or Indian wild dog, Indian bison and other wildlife.
If you look closely at the river, you can also see crocodiles sunning themselves.
Accommodation is available at the forest lodge and travellers bungalow in Kakanakote. The Jungle Lodges and Resorts provide boarding, lodging and wildlife viewing from jeeps and elephants, trekking, and coracle rides.
The Forest Department either at Ashokapuram in Mysore or the Jungle Lodges office at Shrungar Complex on MG Road and Kanija Bhavan on Race Course Road Bangalore may be contacted for more details, including rates and accommodation.
The century old Maharaja bungalow and Viceroy bungalow in Kharapur are a part the Kabini River Lodge, the first resort of the Jungle Lodges and Resorts.

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