I was born and brought up in South India, and I remember as a boy driving there with my father and seeing Anamalai for the first time, rising up out of the hot dusty plains. The shape was unforgettable. The mountain silhouetted on the distant horizon looked uncannily like an elephant; its huge curved back and domed forehead running down to the sweep of a trunk. The name Anamalai in the old Dravidian language of South India actually means, "The Elephant Mountain," and for me it has always been a magical place, set apart from the rest of the world.
My father explained to me how you catch an elephant using a pair of binoculars, a pair of tweezers and a jam jar. First, you look at the elephant through the wrong-end of the binoculars. Next -- while continuing to peer through the binoculars -- you pick up the elephant with the tweezers, and then you pop it into the jam jar. The thought has stayed with me, and when asked what I do for a living, this seems as good an explanation as any for the tortuous process of natural history filmmaking.
So when many years after first seeing Anamalai, I was asked by ABC Kane's executive producer Alex Gregory to make a Living Eden on the Elephant Mountan, it was my childhood-dream of catching elephants come true. The binoculars were replaced with a camera, the tweezers by the fiddly editing process, and finally, a television rather than a jam jar to keep the elephants safe and put them on display.
I was lucky enough to work on the film with the South Indian cameraman Alphonse Roy. Alphonse also had family ties with the Elephant Mountain. Alphonse's grandfather was the legendary Doctor Gopalan -- one of South India's most respected wildlife vets. Dr. Gopalan had spent much of his life working in the Anamalai area, treating both its wild and domesticated elephants. As the grandson of the great elephant doctor, Alphonse was treated with considerable kindness -- especially by the old mahouts, the elephant trainers, who fondly remembered Dr. Gopalan.
Alphonse and I share something else in common -- a tremendous respect for elephants. A few years earlier, we had been working together on another elephant film in Bengal in northeast India near Calcutta.
The place was called Midnapur, and it had what can only be described as a serious elephant problem. The rich farmland of the region adjoined a thin belt of remaining jungle. Here, hungry elephants would wait until darkness before coming out to raid the ripening crops. There was very little left for the elephants to eat in their own forests, which had been ravaged by the overgrazing of domestic cattle and goats. They were driven by hunger, and during the harvest, the conflict between the raiding elephants and the farmers defending their fields reached an annual crisis point.
Night after night, elephants clashed with desperate farmers armed with antique rifles, fireworks and burning torches. Each year in Midnapur alone, dozens of people were killed -- some trampled to death, others literally torn limb from limb by incensed elephants. These normally peaceful herbivores had been transformed into traumatized, homicidal rogues by the terrible, festering wounds inflicted on them by buckshot or home made bombs. It was hard to know who to feel more sorry for, the elephants or the farmers.
One night while out filming another raid, Alphonse and I were chased across fields by just such a wounded elephant. We only escaped by jumping into an irrigation ditch where we hid for over an hour -- just our noses poking up above the water level. The four-ton animal, trumpeting with fury just feet away from our hiding place, was absolutely intent on killing us. It was a terrifying experience.
Episodes like this have a certain bonding effect on individuals who go through them together. Also, it is very difficult to see an elephant again without remembering what dangerous animals they can be. But there is something almost addictive about elephants, and Alphonse and I have gone on to make several more elephant films together. They say they never forget. They're also the most unforgettable animals on earth.
So it was both with excitement and caution that Alphonse and I began work on the "The Living Edens: Anamalai." We both felt like we had been waiting all our lives to be here together. Here was an opportunity to record an elephant herd in a way that had never really been done before in India. Admittedly, filmmakers had spent months and years in Africa recording the life of elephants -- but nothing like this had been done in Asia. Asian elephants are very different animals from their African savannah dwelling cousins. For one thing, they are jungle animals, and much more difficult to see and follow in the thick undergrowth. Making a film about the elephants of the tropical forests of Anamalai would present a challenge. It was also dangerous. Although not harassed like the herds of Midnapur, elephants are by nature unpredictable, and those of Anamalai were no exception. You could be standing 10 feet from an elephant and just not know it was there. Despite their size, when they are still they become almost invisible, their great grey shape blending into the jungle.
To help us, we called on an old friend, Dr. Khrisnamurthi -- another wildlife vet who had worked under Alphonse's Grandfather. Doctor K., as everyone called him, knew and loved the domesticated forestry elephants of Anamalai like his own children. His knowledge of the wild herds was second to none, and his advice served us well -- in particular, by putting us in touch with some of the finest trackers in the Forestry Department.
Of all India's tribal people, there are few to rival the Karda for their jungle knowledge and field craft. They are a small dark people with tight curly hair and quite different features from the rest of the population. The Karda are forest people, who traditionally made a living as honey collectors and hunter-gatherers. Acting as our eyes and ears, our guides were experts at both locating our subjects and keeping us safe. They had an almost supernatural sense of when the wind was going to change, always steering us away to safety just before we were detected by the elephants picking up on our scent. There are shots in the film that when I look back, still make me feel uneasy realising how close Alphonse must have been to a female elephant with a calf in order to get such a picture. But if our experience in Midnapur taught us anything, it was to not take risks -- or at least to minimize them. It is not possible to make natural history films without some risks and adventures along the way.
The elephants are the beating heart of Anamalai, and stood at the heart of the film we wanted to make. Apart from man, no other animal influences its world as profoundly as the elephant, and what we wanted to document were the many interactions between the herds and the other creatures who shared their environment. This was the thought we wanted to keep foremost in our minds constantly looking for ways of linking the elephants with the other creatures of the mountain.
It would be impossible to overstate the significance of the elephants to the character and health of Anamalai. In India, the elephant is far more than just another animal. For centuries, they have been revered as a living God, the reincarnation of the Hindu deity Ganesh.
According to legend, Ganesh was the son of Shiva: the God of Destruction. In a rage, Shiva once cut off his own son's head. Overwhelmed by remorse, he vowed to replace it with the head of the next being that passed by, and accordingly, Ganesh received the head of an elephant - making him one of the strangest looking gods of India, but also one of the most powerful.
Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, became the Lord of Obstacles and the Master of New Beginnings. No new enterprise would be considered without a prayer to Ganesh. So the first thing we did when we arrived at Anamalai to start filming was to go to a small shrine, and smash a coconut and light incense to honor Ganesh. What could be more appropriate?
In India, the religious reverence for the elephant as the earthly manifestation of Ganesh has accorded elephants a considerable natural sympathy, and an advantage that their African cousins do not have. In Africa, there is no such tradition as that of the cult of Ganesh. It would be inconceivable for crop-raiding elephants in Africa to be tolerated, which they are in India. Even in the elephant-plagued fields of Midnapur, I never heard anyone blame the elephants directly for their problems.
Filming on Anamalai was a joy. It is a place of extraordinary natural beauty, with lush bamboo groves, high rocky cliff and crystalline waterfalls. Its height above the simmering plains makes it a cool and peaceful oasis from the blistering heat of a South Indian summer. Long ago, I had found an old bungalow on a hilltop in the heart of the mountains, and it was here that we set up camp.
The bungalow dated from the time of British rule, when India was headed by the so-called Raj. A Scottish forest officer had built it over a century ago, and had planted a teak forest all around the spot. The trees were now full grown, and he had been buried in their towering shade. On his gravestone was a Latin inscription, which translates, "If you seek my monument, look around you." He could not have chosen a more lovely spot, and at night elephants would come and rub themselves against the corner of the house, and a sloth bear slept on the veranda. It was the real life Jungle Book.
Alphonse and I worked closely with several India field scientists, and in particular, Saravannakumar. Nobody could pronounce his name, so it was soon abbreviated to Sara. His speciality was frogs, with which the region was especially rich. Sara would frequently present us with a frog that he claimed was new to science. We had no reason to doubt this, but there is a limit to how many frogs you can include in a film about elephants, and so Sara had to content himself by naming his new discoveries. One especially beautiful tree frog had amazingly long legs and large eyes, and was duly named after the reigning Miss India.
After the filming was complete, Sara came back to Bristol to work on the edit. It was his first trip to Europe, and without Sara there, I think the film would have been much the poorer. Sara was able to explain to the editor, Jill Garret, exactly what was happening in each shot, picking up on the smallest nuances of behavior, and giving the whole picture a really tangible sense of place.
There are many more people to thank, and what made it special was to work with a team of people from the area -- people who really knew Anamalai and weren't there to do a job and then leave again. "The Living Edens" has been one of the most successful and long running natural history series on PBS. I think that in large part it is the feeling of actually getting to know a place that has distinguished "The Living Edens" from so many other series. Unless you feel that you're there, it's impossible to get to know a place and to care about it.
I hope those who watch "The Living Edens: Anamalai, India's Elephant Mountain" feel they have been there.
Harry Marshall, 14th January 2000