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Living and Working with Giants: A Multispecies Ethnography of the Khamti and Elephant in Northeast India, by Nicolas Lainé

Tanka B Subba
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Living and Working with Giants: A Multispecies Ethnography of the Khamti and Elephant in Northeast India by Nicolas Lainé, with a Foreword by Maan Barua, Paris: Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. 2020, 272pp (coll Natures en sociétés, 2), ISBN 9782856539286

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1Reading this book took me back to my childhood when my mother often told me stories in which birds and animals, both wild and domesticated, communicated with humans in the languages of humans. I still remember the story of a domesticated magpie that she often recounted because the bird spoke in my ancestral language. One day, when an eagle snatched it from the veranda of my maternal grandfather’s house, the magpie kept repeating in my ancestral language, as loudly as possible and for as long as it could be heard, how it was being taken away by an eagle and how it would be gone forever. My mother told me how the whole family mourned its certain death by not lighting any lamps in the evening and pledged never to rear a bird again. I remember how my mother talked to our domesticated animals, scolded them and yet fed them before she fed us. When our only cow whom she called Kaali died, I remember her crying incessantly for several hours, asking me to call on some villagers to dig a pit next to the cowshed and to bury the animal there almost as if it were a human being. That evening she did not eat anything, nor was there any food for us children.

2Human-animal relationships can take very strange trajectories, as amply and ably demonstrated by Lainé in the book under review. The mutual attachment, empathy and understanding that grow over time are very specific to species in communication with one another. Neither the human nor the animal in communication is replaceable. And companionship is not limited to this world because it often extends to the next world. In India it is commonly believed that in the next life a human may be born as an animal or a bird, and Indian societies feed and even worship various animals and birds because the latter are considered to be loyal companions to various gods and goddesses. In other words, like the human-elephant relationship discussed in this book, an interspecies relationship can be mythological, religious and interpersonal.

3The book under review provides rich ethnographic details about these relationships, with special reference to the elephant-human relationship among the Khamti tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India. This, the author fears, might be the last bastion of Asian elephants in the world, given that for various reasons their habitation areas have shrunk. These elephants have been regarded as ‘endangered’ since 1986, prompting an Elephant Task Force to be created in 2010 by the government of India. In 1996, the apex court of India put a blanket ban on timber felling, whose impact on the elephant-based economy of tribes is yet to be fully assessed, although it is a well-known fact that elephants were used to pull timber from the forest to the road and to load it onto trucks. During other periods of history they were also engaged in various types of domestic work. The present book is one of the very few sources to help to understand the impact the ban has had.

4In Northeast India, there are mainly four tribes that have a rich culture of keeping elephants, viz Khamti, Rabha, Moran and Singpho, with an age-old tradition of capturing, training and rearing elephants. It is generally known that various kingdoms in mainland India got their elephants from Northeast India and possibly from the above-mentioned tribes: the Khamtis, in particular, are known to have supplied elephants to British rulers in India, which is why they were exempted from paying taxes. Their main habitation today is the Namsai district of Arunachal. They follow the Hinayana school of Buddhism and have monasteries in almost every village where young children are taught about Buddhism in the Pali language. This book is mainly about what the author calls ‘mutual familiarisation’ between elephants and the Khamtis which, the book shows, is a very complex process. The data for this book was collected by the author on the basis of ethnographic fieldwork between October 2008 and December 2010 in Jenglai village of Namsai district.

5In order to understand the complex process of ‘mutual familiarisation’, the author invokes the theoretical contributions by some leading scholars such as Bruno Latour, Tim Ingold, Philippe Descola and Ursula Munster. He proposes an ‘integrated approach’ to understanding the Khamti-elephant relationship, which is mainly about how the two interact, communicate and understand each other. In this approach, elephants are treated both as objects and as subjects of his research.

6The discussion about the Khamti-elephant relationship is split into three parts. The first part deals with the capturing of wild juvenile elephants with the help of domestic elephants and with the socialising of captured elephants. The capturing of elephants requires expertise, planning, propitiating the spirits that protect the forests and consulting the almanac for the direction to be taken or the days on which capturing expeditions are to be organised. Other than for divinations, capturers need the help of village elephants to locate the presence of wild elephants. These are very risky operations; the danger not only comes from the wild elephants themselves but also from underground outfits who have made the surrounding forest their hideout. Besides, the expedition is rather expensive. The cost may vary from 20 to 250 thousand Indian rupees and it may be all in vain if no elephant is caught.

7The second part discusses the transformation of the wild elephant into a village or working elephant. The author shows, through his ethnography, that the initial interaction between the human and the elephant is crucial as it determines to a large extent how future interactions will unfold between them. In the case of Khamti-elephant relationships, socialisation takes place in two stages: the first involves familiarising the animal with basic commands and the second stage exposes the animal to music. In both these stages, the role of chants, bathing and feeding is important in creating a bond between the elephant and the human. The process can be equally and perhaps even more challenging for the human, as they need to win the elephant’s trust. The third part describes how the bond between the elephant and the human lasts throughout their lives, since their lifespan is more or less the same.

8In the concluding chapter, the author argues that logging is a collaborative act on the part of the Khamti man and his elephant. No threat or coercion can make an elephant collaborate with its partner if it is not in the mood to cooperate.

9The best summary and endorsement of the book can be found in the Foreword penned by Maan Barua. He provides a brief summary of the author’s key contributions. The quality of the photographs included in the book is one of the best I have ever seen in published works.

10My only grievance concerns the size of the font, which is not easy to read for someone who has advanced in years like myself and whose eyesight is not very good. The indented quotes are even smaller, making them almost impossible to read without a magnifying glass. For younger scholars, I think this book can be an excellent source of inspiration regarding the quality of ethnographic data to be collected during fieldwork and for ideas on how to present it. I recommend this book to every doctoral student in anthropology, sociology and environmental studies, who is interested in the study of Northeast Indian communities.

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Tanka B Subba, « Living and Working with Giants: A Multispecies Ethnography of the Khamti and Elephant in Northeast India, by Nicolas Lainé »European Bulletin of Himalayan Research [En ligne], 56 | 2021, mis en ligne le 10 septembre 2021, consulté le 20 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Tanka B Subba

Professor Tanka B Subba teaches anthropology at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India, and is co-editor of the book titled Nepali Diaspora in a Globalised Era (Routledge, 2016).

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