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Back Then It Was Culture, Now It Is Animal Torture

Anu Karippal


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One does not have to be a great seer to predict that the relationship between humans and nature will, in all probability, be the most important question of the present century.’ – Philippe Descola, The Ecology of Others, 2013, p. 81.

1Growing up in the biodiverse Western ghats,1 I was drawn into the life of nonhumans as a child, whether it was walking around sitting on our goat or being chased by street dogs on the way to Sunday church service. If you left the door open, a monkey was sure to grab everything in your fridge. Crows were uninvited yet desirable guests who graciously cleaned up the food waste thrown into the backyard; they were also understood to warn the household about the arrival of unexpected guests with a distinct caw that women who mostly use the kitchen space and hence share more time with crows claim to identify. These vibrant forms of interspecies relations are wrapped in vocabularies of love, fear, disgust and admiration. Less spoken about in these interspecies relations are the Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), popular for their majestic attribution, intelligence and social bonding (Poole and Moss, 2008). As elephants are not domesticated biologically through selective breeding2 (Riddle and Stremme, 2011; Munster, 2014) but socially through taming practices, human-elephant relations are not as common as other companion-species relations. Yet, elephants are central to the public life of Kerala, so much so that it would be considered an insult if one had grown up in Kerala and was unaware of the popular Thrissur pooram3, the annual temple festival pageantry held in the Thrissur state of Kerala where many caparisoned elephants are paraded, making it a much-awaited sight.

  • 4 Wild elephants, especially calves, were caught in the forests using vaarikuzhi (pits to trap elepha (...)
  • 5 A skilled human handler of the elephant, usually a male.

2Despite the domestication constraints, Asian elephants and humans have been intimately bonded for a very long time, bound up with humans as war elephants, as divine beings, as labourers under the East India Company, and now as a flagship species of conservation in South Asia and as celebrities in contemporary social media (Menon, 1911; Sukumar, 2003; Locke, 2013; Vijayakrishnan and Sinha, 2019). An integral part of this relation is the human veneration of elephants as symbolic of the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha that is manifest in the central role of elephants in religious ceremonies and temple celebrations (Radhakrishna and Sinha, 2010). While elephants form matriarchal groups in the wild and their social bonding is subject to scholarly attention (Vidhya and Sukumar, 2005), male elephants are preferred in the domestic sphere as they are considered to be aesthetically pleasing for pageantries, tusk being a desirable feature that distinguishes Asian male elephants from females (Vijayakrishnan and Sinha, 2019). Moreover, as elephant ownership was prominent among the landed gentry, given the huge expenses involved in rearing elephants, the best tuskers came to represent a family’s prestige (Vijayakrishnan and Sinha, 2019). The process of domestication4 and the ability to manage an elephant is considered an extraordinary achievement and the interspecies connection between mahouts5 and their elephants is interpreted as one of the strongest possible human-animal bonds (Hart and Sundar, 2000).

3However, such domestication practices are not without their pitfalls. Elephant domestication involves a system of punishment and rewards in confinement that has increasingly come under the radar of the recent debates on animal rights discourse and growing studies on elephant intelligence (Poole and Moss, 2008; Birch, 2022), all of which inquire into the ethicality of elephant captivity (Kulick, 2017). The global recognition of animal rights and species extinction has enabled the emergence of elephants as a flagship species of wilderness and conservation, whereby, as Mann Barua recounts, elephants have become cosmopolitan figures (Barua, 2014). Growing perceptions of the ‘wildness’ of elephants and attention on contested taming practices have not only shaped strict wildlife management policies such as the illegalisation of further capture and sale of elephants in India since 2002,6 but have led to the scrutinisation of human-elephant relations. This probing of quotidian human-elephant relations had created a tenor of fear among my informants; a fear of the legal apparatus and of the activistic/journalistic depictions of human-elephant relations which, according to my informants, were ‘partial’ and ‘non-grounded’, portraying the bond as a relation of violence and suffering. The sense of fear was palpable, where my own presence (being a student from an international institute) was interpreted as potentially causing ‘trouble’, and was treated with caution from the first day, as though ‘I’ reactivated a certain response to the larger entity they felt they need to respond to. In conceptualising the inextricable links between humans and nonhumans, Donna Haraway writes that ‘[i]n urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future…. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present...’. In following Haraway’s proposition to stay with the trouble, my informants’ worry over what I would write about them opened a path to stay with the ‘trouble’ that my presence instigated (Haraway, 2016), to further unpack the moral-sensorial dimensions of human-elephant entanglements in the midst of big debates.

4Throughout this paper, I examine this atmosphere of fear among my informants to unpack the animal rights discourse (although many of my informants were unaware of the specificities of the discourse but experienced it through changing rules and scrutinisation) and look at how they respond and re-orient to the competing moral perceptions about elephants, such as the portrayal of the human-elephant relation as torturous or regarding whether the elephant must ‘roam freely’ in the wild or live with humans. I further show that the notion of elephants as beings destined to be in the wild does not engage with the historically and culturally embedded relationships that Asian elephants share with humans, where nature/culture, wild/domesticated binaries seem to diffuse. Thereafter, I propose that studying human-elephant relations comprehensively requires redirecting focus on the local sensorial and moral realms that permeate the human-elephant entanglements, prompting alternate ways of perceiving interspecies relations beyond the defines of torture and moral totalities. In current times where the elephant has become a cosmopolitan figure for conservation and nonhuman intelligence, it is both academically and politically significant to engage with these debates through an ethnographic approach and explore the possible perspectives on human-elephant relations that ethnography can offer.

Theoretical framework

  • 7 Although most mahouts belong to the lower economic/social strata of society and fall into the “suba (...)

5Using different theoretical approaches within anthropology and from other disciplines was crucial to unpacking the human-elephant relations in Kerala. First, this paper builds on and contributes to the exciting work on interspecies relations in anthropology. With the more-than-human turn in anthropology and the attention to nonhuman agency in Latour’s actor-network theory (2005), scholars have challenged the long-held notion of human exceptionalism, bringing out the complexities of a shared world and questioning the ‘human exploiter-nonhuman exploited’ binary (Pollen, 2001; Ingold, 2007; Kohn, 2007; Fuentes, 2013; Govindrajan, 2015; Mathur, 2021). Much before that, Marylin Strathern (1980) brought out the tensions between the strict binaries of nature and culture when she wrote that the nature/culture distinction is itself a product of culture. Building on this, scholars such as Donna Haraway (2003) in looking at human-dog relations and Agustin Fuentes (2010) in studying human-macaque entanglements suggest naturecultures as a continuum, enlightening us in the inseparability of ecological relationships from the social. Anthropologist Piers Locke who has worked extensively on human-elephant relations draws historical manuals in India to suggest that the human hand is not insignificant in shaping the ranging behaviour of elephants we call ‘wild’ and ‘free-roaming’ (Locke, 2016). Although scholars have demystified the idea of ‘pristine nature’ in academia, such ideas continue to dominate the popular discourse that drives conservation efforts and makes elephants a cosmopolitan category as Barua (2014) notes. Donna Haraway highlights this wild-domesticated tension when she refers to how the trainers of ‘so-called wild animals’ in captivity are accused of introducing non-naturalistic behaviours (Haraway, 2008). These criticisms by the ‘radical animal people’, as Haraway calls them, are further examined by Indian scholars who argue that the hegemonical ideals of conservation from Western or elite Indian perspectives affect the subaltern communities7 of post-colonial India that live proximately with other species (Guha, 1989; Rangarajan, 1996; Guha, 2006). Elaborating on the aforementioned literature and fieldnotes, I show that such cosmopolitanism strips elephants of their local specificities and cultural embeddedness with humans.

6Phenomenologically inspired relational approaches in ecological psychology and animal studies were equally important (Gibson, 1977; Ingold, 2007; Lorimer et al., 2017; Mondeme, 2018; Ford, 2019) in configuring a renewed mode of looking at the ways humans and nonhumans communicate, highlighting the role of the senses in shaping interactions. Ecological psychology recognises the role of the environment in the development of a being (Costall, 2001; Ingold, 2007). Gibson’s theory of affordances suggests that every being interacts with the world, modifying it and it modifying the being (Gibson, 1977), thus elaborating on the situatedness and intersubjectivity of human-nonhuman realms (Csordas, 1994). Drawing insights from this, I probe into the cultural dimensions of the elephants popularly categorised as ‘natural’ and ‘wild’ to posit that the human-elephant interface operates at nature-culture continuums.

7Within the interspecies turn in anthropology and other disciplines, studies that reflect on ethics are primarily addressed through compelling takes such as kinship, the sensorial, perspectivism, the moral relevance of animal intelligence, etc., (Singer, 1990; Kohn, 2007; Dave, 2014; Govindrajan, 2015; Singh and Dave, 2015; Kulick, 2017; Mathur, 2021; Birch, 2022; Wall and Andrews, 2022). Haraway touches upon the moral totalities that drive activistic convictions about domestication when she, following Hearne (2007), argues that training animals is not just about simple domination but a rich and subtle conversation between the animal and the trainer (Haraway, 2008). While Haraway and Hearne make stimulating critiques of such views on domestication and reveal the nuanced affect and affection in companion species relations, analysing the rich and subtle conversations between humans and elephants in Palakkad amidst the ethical questioning of elephant captivity required that I go beyond the existing approaches in interspecies studies and engage with phenomenological approaches to moral experience. I therefore propose that incorporating concepts from the anthropology of ethics and morality—particularly moral assemblage, moral breakdown, sentiments, and attunement (Throop, 2012; Zigon, 2014)—can add a perceptive element to interspecies studies.

  • 8 More about this debate in (Mattingly and Throop, 2018).

8The ethical turn in anthropology reoriented how scholars investigated moral experience that was primarily the terrain of philosophers, offering a pragmatic approach to moral and ethical sensibilities through ethnographic attention (Fassin, 2008; Lambek, 2010; Zigon, 2010; Das, 2012; Robbins, 2012). They advocate for new conceptual tools that probe the anthropologist’s and others’ moral commitments, proposing to interrogate what counts as morality in the various social worlds we and our interlocutors inhabit and the processes through which such moral modalities come to matter (Fassin, 2008; Stoczkowski, 2008; Zigon, 2010). This approach, distinct from considering morality as a normative given, redirects the gaze to the everyday forms of being and living. There is quite a debate among scholars as to where to locate the ethical. Scholars such as Veena Das locate the ethical in the everyday, where a descent into the ordinary is not just a taken-for-granted state of moral affairs but where people cultivate critical attitudes to re-orient oneself (Das, 2012). However, the scholars who distinguish ethics from morality, such as Zigon, warn us how the everydayness of the ethical can make it difficult to distinguish morality/ethics from normative social behaviour, proposing that morality and ethics need to be made explicit as conceptual tools (Zigon, 2010).8

9Zigon uses the concept of moral and ethical assemblage, which he identifies in three fields, the institutional, public discourse, and embodied dispositions. Institutions are formal and non-formal social organisations, and the public discourse consists of media, protest, everyday articulated beliefs and opinions, the arts, etc., and the two fields of morality, although distinct, are in constant dialogue (Zigon, 2010). The third, embodied dispositions, is the unreflective, familiar, and taken-for-granted temperaments of everyday social life which, for Zigon, puts people in a state of existential comfort. Zigon distinguishes ethics from such embodied dispositions as the conscious reflection or the turning of one’s attention inward, where people step out and question taken-for-granted moral engagements with the world, what he describes as ‘moral breakdown’ (Zigon, 2007) leading to heightened moments of self-reflection and transformation of moral lives. Zigon’s notion of ‘moral breakdown’ is a compelling theoretical tool to situate the embodied moral dispositions of fear among my informants that had emerged out of the competing moral discourses regarding elephant captivity and the changing legal apparatus. This approach to morality and ethics is experiential, or for a better word, phenomenological, where we find ourselves in complex relations with other beings and the ethical demands that these relations bring. For my informants who engage in complex relations with elephants, it is the phenomenological nuances of the relation and the attunement with their individual elephants that shaped their moral temperaments (Throop, 2012). This emphasis on the sensorial and moral realms of relation is best explained conceptually by employing concepts of attunement, assemblage, and sentiments to the domain of interspecies, as they provide a nuanced framework to interspecies ethics where senses, sentiments and being attuned shape the fuzzy moral milieu of human-elephant sociality (Throop, 2012; Zigon and Throop, 2014).

  • 9 Although (Singh and Dave, 2015) acknowledge the field of Anthropology of ethics and morality in ana (...)

10This research makes two theoretical contributions. First, by putting the anthropology of ethics and morality to test in the study of interspecies assemblages,9 I show that incorporating different theoretical frameworks opens enriching perspectives towards the human-elephant realm, one that is overlooked by the activistic-moral discourse on elephant captivity. Thus, I propose that the ethical turn in anthropology can be a productive approach to delineating the interspecies field, especially when animal care has become a politically and morally contested issue in contemporary times. Second, this research contributes to the relatively understudied realm of human-elephant sociality. Although much is known about the behavioural ecology of wild elephants and the cultural and historic significance of captive elephants, very little has been done on studying the nuances of interspecies relationships (Lorimer, 2010), perhaps also because of the rarity of human-elephant proximate relations at an extensive scale. Piers Locke’s conceptualisation of ethnoelephantology—the study of the sociocultural intersections of humans and elephants—is a first in this approach, but as he too points out, this is an emerging thematic interest in anthropology where much remains to be explored (Locke, 2013). In addition to the growing biological knowledge of elephants and the historical-cultural embeddedness of human-elephant entanglement, this paper makes significant contributions in providing a grounded, moral-phenomenological perspective to human-elephant relations in South Asia.

Mapping the Chapters

11In the first chapter, I will unpack the ‘trouble’ that my informants feared my presence would cause. Grounded in my informants’ initial conceptions of me as a ‘person from channel’ (a phrase my informants used to refer to journalists) or as a person from the ‘animal protection department’, I depict my informants’ reactions and re-orientations to the everyday surveillance of the human-elephant relations and complicate the fear of activistic/journalistic narratives. The second chapter challenges the strict nature-culture binaries by invoking the sociocultural attributions to elephants and explores how projected ‘wildness’ puts an emphasis on the moral value humans place on elephants. In the third chapter, I build on extensive ethnographic fieldnotes to analyse the moral and sensorial intricacies that shape the attuned relationship between elephants and humans, going beyond the popular narrative of the said relation as torturous.


1 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, Western Ghats, (accessed on 21 February 2023).

2 Due to the limited success of the cross-breeding of elephants in domestic settings and artificial insemination (See Brown, Janine L., “Successful artificial insemination of an Asian elephant at the National Zoological Park.” Zoo Biology 23 (2004): 45-63)

3 Kerala Tourism, Thrissur Pooram, (accessed on 8 March 2023).

4 Wild elephants, especially calves, were caught in the forests using vaarikuzhi (pits to trap elephants) and further tamed in elephant camps.

5 A skilled human handler of the elephant, usually a male.

6 Wildlife SOS, Indian Laws Protecting Elephants, (Accessed on 8 March 2023) - elephant trapping is illegal except in human-elephant conflict situations.

7 Although most mahouts belong to the lower economic/social strata of society and fall into the “subaltern” category, the owners belong to upper class-caste (which also indicates their economic ability to afford elephants). However, neither group’s views are actively considered in the big discussions on elephants.

8 More about this debate in (Mattingly and Throop, 2018).

9 Although (Singh and Dave, 2015) acknowledge the field of Anthropology of ethics and morality in analysing the ethical realms of killing animals, the article’s main approach is through Agamben’s ‘bare life’ and does not engage deeply with the ethics and morality literature.


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