An Hour With a King

Madhaviah Krishnan

Madhaviah Krishnan

He was in the water when I saw him first, sitting on the river-bed with his head and shoulders alone showing above the surface, ten yards from the grassy bank. He got up and waded slowly to the land, and as he emerged from the water his gigantic bulk was progressively revealed. This was quite the biggest elephant I had ever seen, and one of the oldest.

Afterwards, by measuring his footprints on the firm soil (twice the circumference of the forefoot gives the height to within an inch or two), I computed his height at about nine and a half feet, but even then I knew that I had seen elephants that were taller, and those with far finer tusks. But for sheer mass and power of build, this tusker was supreme.

He was long and massively round in the barrel, and the muscles of his forelimbs had a biconvex bulge in profile; the trunk was almost as thick as a muckna’s [tuskless elephant], and the head big; and on his face and ears and trunk there was a fine pink speckling, the very tip of his trunk being almost entirely pink. A true ‘koomeriah’ if ever there was one, the finest and most-prized type of elephant in the arbitrary, indigenous system of grading.

Quite obviously he was a patriarch, though his age did not manifest itself in any enfeebled, decadent feature—in fact, what was patently impressive about him was his magnificent might. But in spite of the mass and muscle, the almost fluid coordination of his movements and his easy, reachy stride, the marks of time were upon him unmistakably. The turn over of the top of the ears and their ragged edges, the strong wrinkling of the hide over the body and the callous roughness of the skin at the base of the trunk, the great hollows of the temples and the peaked crown, and the thickened surface veins, all told their own tale. There were ulcers on his front legs, but these signified nothing—I have known elephants develop such ulcers during the hot weather and then get cured of them. I thought he was somewhere between seventy and eighty years old and I do not think I was far out in that guess.

Image Courtesy/ The Estate of M Krishnan

Image Courtesy/ The Estate of M Krishnan

His blunt tusks projected a mere two feet from his lips, and a thick smear of mud clung to the tip of the left tusk, the dip in the river having failed to wash it off—apparently he had used his tusks to dig up clayey soil. As he climbed effortlessly up the bank he was black and gleaming from his recent immersions; on either side of the face, over the cheeks, there was the broad patch of a blacker oily stain, the tokens of musth. His eyes were half-closed, heavy-lidded as in drowsiness, though his stride was long and smooth. As soon as he was up the bank, he did what all elephants do when they get back to the land from water. He stamped down a mound of earth with a forefoot till it was soft and pulverised, picked up a ball of this loose soil in the curl of the tip of his trunk, and threw it over his wet back, the action being repeated till his back, and even his forehead, had particles of soil clinging to the skin.

Elephants throw earth and grass over their backs after a bath; sometimes they suck dry, powdery dust up their trunks and blow it out in a brown cloud over their bodies, and at times they squirt thick, muddy water all over themselves to acquire a thin coat of clay on the hide. It is thought that all this is done to protect the bare back from the heart of the sun and also to allay cutaneous irritations, and no doubt that is so. However, the throwing of loose earth over the back immediately after a bath may have a connected but somewhat different motive.

Once, when there was no one to look, I had the curiosity to take a long dip in a river, and then, on gaining the bank, to break up some soft earth with my heel and throw it over my bare back.

It was about noon then, and there was a fierce sun, but the water was cold and when I climbed ashore I shivered as the wind lashed my wet skin. I still remember how gratifyingly warm the thrown up earth felt against my spine—as the sun dried me and I began to feel the heat, the moist earth on my back felt refreshingly cool. I realise that an elephant’s hide is thicker than mine, but perhaps it is as sensitive to thermal sensations….

…Finally, he swung around and moved off, disappearing into the tree growth up the bank with that uncannily silent, flowing, space-consuming stride of an elephant still in possession of his full muscular power. For a second he was there, looming large against the tree trunks, then the cover had swallowed him up completely…

…A wild tusker in musth seems to be much given to wallows and baths, and at times wanders far from the sympathetic company of his own herd. Of course I do not know whether this great tusker was moving away from a herd or towards it, or even that his isolation was induced by his condition.

All that I could sense from watching him narrowly was that he had walked far in the night, that his eyes were drowsy though his limbs were active enough, and that he seemed to find solace in the feel of cold water splashed against his hide.

About Madhaviah Krishnan
Madhaviah Krishnan (1912–1996) was a pioneering wildlife photographer, writer and naturalist. This material on page 27-29 from the book ‘Eye in the Jungle’ by M. Krishnan is published by arrangement with Universities Press (India) Private Limited.’

Tags: Perspective, better photography, august, Madhaviah Krishnan, Visual Musings, opinion, 2014, elephant, animal photography