A mahout is an individual who drives and handles an elephant. This is typically a male profession, and traditionally, in order to become a mahout, a person had to be born into the family business. There are now programs and camps available to train you in the role of a mahout even if it is not your heritage. If you want to become a mahout, you will most likely need to travel to one of these camps in order to properly learn the trade.
The term mahout is Hindu by origin. A popular profession in India, Thailand, and the surrounding regions, a mahout was predominantly responsible for driving an Asian elephant in order to haul materials such as lumber for construction and other purposes. Generally, to become a mahout, a person had to be born into the position, which was passed down from father to son. A male child was assigned a particular elephant at a young age, which then became his primary elephant as a mahout for the rest of his life.
Due to the fact that Asian elephants were considered as privately owned livestock, there wasn’t much regulation regarding the care and treatment of the animals. Consequently, elephants were often abused or not properly cared for. As a result of this, many projects and programs sprung up designed to protect the elephants and train anyone wishing to become a mahout as to the proper handling and care of the elephants.
Normally, in order to become a mahout, you will have to undergo an apprenticeship with a seasoned elephant driver. During the apprenticeship, you will most likely learn how to use verbal commands to control your elephant. You will also learn how to properly mount and dismount the elephant as well as the technique of neck-riding, a tricky process whereby you can control the elephant with the touch of your foot against its neck and ears.
During your training as a mahout, you will be educated as to the proper way to feed, clean, and care for your elephant. As part of this aspect of your training, you should become familiar with the various characteristics of Asian elephants, such as the signs of illness and their methods of social interaction. Knowing the different elephant behaviors will inevitably help you master the trade. Most likely, you will also be educated as to the plight of the Asian elephant and the abuses they have suffered at the hands of uncaring mahouts. In this way, the people who run the programs and training camps hope to avoid having such atrocities occur in the future.
The elephant holds a great deal of spiritual significance in the Indian and Thai cultures. Consequently, new mahouts are often welcomed with a religious ceremony. This ceremony, sometimes known as the Pa-kam ritual, is designed to evoke the blessings of protection, safety, and happiness from the mahout spirit fathers. Offerings and gifts are usually given to both the spirit fathers and the new mahout.
Depending upon what country you train in, the position of mahout might also be called an oozie or kwan-chang. You should also become familiar with the traditional tools of the profession, which include a large hook called an ankus or thotti as well as long and short poles, called a valiya kol and a cheru kol, respectively. Of course, you must show no fear of the elephant because, like many other animals, elephants can sense fear. Finally, in order to become a successful mahout, you should be prepared to move to a region such as Thailand, Burma, or India, where the occupation is still popular.