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The Elephant in the Temple

By John Lockwood Kipling

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Yet at the worst there is little more difficulty in decking the elephant than in dressing a fidgety child for church. First he must be washed, sometimes at a well-brink, where, if properly taught, he draws his own water, but an irrigation cut or tank is generally preferred, where the great baby is made to lie down, to raise his head or leg at a word, while the mahout, often assisted by his son, who assumes tremendous airs of authority if he is very young, climbs about his huge bulk and scrubs him with brick-bats. A brick flesh-rubber is in common use for men’s feet, and seems to suit the elephant perfectly. But the creature is generally inattentive during the process, he “plays with the soap” so to speak, blows clouds of vapour from his trunk, lifts up the wrong leg, rolls over at the wrong minute, and is scolded like a child, with now and then, from a hasty mahout as from an irritable nursemaid, a blow. When the washing is finished he slings his nurses up to his neck with his trunk, or gives them a “leg up” behind in the friendly fashion peculiar to him, and shuffles back to the serai or yard to be dressed.

If the occasion be a very grand one, a day or two will be consumed in preparations. First the forehead, trunk, and ears are painted in bold patterns in colour. This is a work of art, for the designs are often good, and the whole serai, excepting always the elephant himself, is deeply interested. His mind and trunk wander; he trifles with the colour pots; so with each stroke comes an order to stand still. Some mahouts are quite skilful in this pattern work.
Then the howdah pad is girthed on with cotton ropes riding over flaps of leather to prevent the chafing to which the sensitive skin is liable. The howdah itself, a cumbrous frame of wood covered with beaten silver plates, is slung and tied with a purchase on the tail-root, and heavy cloths broidered in raised work of gold and silver thread are attached, hanging like altar cloths down the sides. A frontlet of gold and silver diaper with fringes of fish-shaped ornaments in thin beaten silver, necklaces of large silver hawk-bells and chain work, with embossed heart-shaped pendants as big as the open hand, and hanging ornaments of chains of silver cartouches, are adjusted. A cresting of silver ornaments like small vases or fluted soup tureens, exaggerations of the knobs along a horse’s crest, descend from the rear of the howdah to the tail, anklets of silver are sometimes fitted round the huge legs, and a bell is always slung at his side.

The pillars of the howdah canopies, and then the canopies themselves with their finials, are fitted as the beast kneels. A long business, because in India things are apt to be missing when they are wanted, and though much of this brave upholstery fits at the first attempt, there are always, even in the best-regulated elephant stables, little deficiencies to be supplied: and many odd bits of string are used. From the right distance, however, they do not show, and if they should catch the eye, why, “the screw was lost or worn out,” or, “it was always so,” or, “the smith or the tailor has been told a dozen times about it”—and a deprecating smile ends the matter.

At last my lord the elephant is ready, but even now is apt to get into trouble. His natural habit is to fling dust, leaves, and fodder stalks on his back, just as it is the natural inclination of the smartly-dressed little boy to go straightway and make a mud pie. So he must be looked after while the mahout puts on a coat and turban, and, armed with his ankus or goad hook, of gilded steel, and a fly flap of yak tail in a silver handle, is ready to mount.

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