The last elephant I encountered blessed me. My father and I were in Chennai, India at a temple teeming with monkeys and humanity alike. I had invoked all kinds of gods and goddesses as I made my rounds of the temple and prostrated before various idols. But the elephant was different. She was big and musty and looked as old as I envisioned the creator to be. I paid the requisite rupees to her minder (what is the going rate for a blessing?) and bowed, secretly worried that the elephant would eat my hair or inflict some kind of damage a western city dweller couldn't even conceive of. The pachyderm raised her trunk and, with a quick whoosh of air, blessed me with a light brush across the top of my head. I glowed for a few minutes afterwards and think fondly of that moment when I see the "moment of blessing" picture in my sister's home. (Useful, since the rest of the trip was a disaster.)
In Indian culture, elephants are ubiquitous in the form of Lord Ganesha, the pot-bellied god riding astride a mouse, symbolizing success and the destruction of obstacles. Lord Ganesha is present in most homes, regardless of the resident's religious affiliation, because he is so auspicious. Actual incarnations of elephants are also ever-present at religious festivals, on movie sets, and at weddings, which animal-rights organizations maintain have taken a severe toll. J.C. Khanna, a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says: "Walking on the streets of Bombay is difficult for a person. Imagine what it's like for an elephant." I lived in Bombay for two years. Being an elephant in Bombay would be tough.
So what if we put the animals back in their original context and took them back to the jungles and deserts? Wildlife cameraman and elephant expert Martyn Colbeck does just that in the Nature episode "Unforgettable Elephants." Colbeck documents life, death, and birth through a combination of still and moving photography, and speaks of elephants in the way that only someone steeped in the pachy-culture could:
"I like to think that like [my] photographs, these elephants will be around for a long time. They're like my second family. I've come to realize just how intelligent, sensitive, and tender elephants are. And now I can appreciate why the Maasai believe that these are the only animals that have souls."
I'm not that steeped in pachy-culture. But I was impressed by the commitment of Colbeck and others, traveling months at a time to document the migration and everyday lives of elephants (from a mother teaching her calf to walk to an alleged elephant kidnapping). He names his elephant compatriots (Ebony, Echo, Enid, etc.) and explains how he had become a member of one herd he'd been following.
Colbeck's passion is undeniable. His observations about elephants resonate with the Hindu belief that Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is also the god of knowledge and wisdom. During moments of "Unforgettable Elephants," I felt the same kind of awe I experienced in the presence of the elephant at the temple in Chennai.