Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Interview with veteran mahout Mew Salangam, in Ban Ta Klang

Mew Salangam, was born 1926 in the village of Ban Ta Klang.

His father had 5 elephants, which he started to work with, when he was 10 years old. After his fathers death, being the only son, he inherited those elephants, and caught another 5 for himself. His last two elephants were passed to his two sons, one living in Chiang Rai, the other in Pattaya.

Altogether he has caught 50-60 elephants, the last catch was about 1970, 40 years ago. Now 85 years, he is one of the five oldest Mor Chang (highranked elephant trainers) of Kui tribe, having the rank Sadam.

There are five ranks within the Kui mahout system:

  • The highest rank is labelled as gold color, and refered to as Ku Ba Yai. Theres is no more Ku Ba Yai living today.
  • The second rank is labelled as silver color, and refered to as Sadam. Mew Salangam is Sadam.
  • The third rank is labelled black color, and refered to as Sah Dien.
  • The forth rank is labelled as rope, and refered to as Cha.
  • The fith rank is Mah.

Since no wild elephants are caught anymore, its impossible for younger mahouts today to reach the highest ranks.

Mew remember the first roundup in 1955, but can not identify himself on the classical black-and-white picture, which are today so common on walls in Surin. His estimation of that occasion is about 300 elephants present.

Mew claims it was held in Tha Tum (Thai: ท่าตูม) and not in Surin town, or in Ban Ta Klang, as sometimes stated. The district is subdivided into 10 subdistricts (tambon), which are further subdivided into 165 villages (muban). Tha Tum is a township (thesaban tambon) which covers parts of tambon Tha Tum. There are further 10 Tambon administrative organizations (TAO).

As far as he know, not one mahout in Ban Ta Klang was killed by an elephant.

Regarding the catching and training of wild elephants in the past, he says that most elephants were caught in nearby Cambodia. During this time, the mahout would respect the jungle in different ways, not speaking loud, and trying not to offend the spirits of the forest. The Kui mostly used a specially designed lasso, which they used to catch a wild elephants leg, while riding on a tame elephant.

Mor Chang Mr Phu Yai Da Salangam with lasso
After cathing selected animals, they would bring them back to Ban Ta Klang, with the help of specially trained elephants, refered to as Phon Chang or Kloh Chang. (In India Kumkhis)

On arrival in Ban Ta Klang, the chief mahouts would blow their Buffalo horn, releasing the prohibit to speak, and now the elephants were not anymore belonging to the forest.
The taming and training would normally last for about three months, and can be divided in four phases:

1) The elephant were caught with a lasso, and tied to a nearby tree. In order to move, a large trained elephant would assist, and the wild elephant would be fastened to the trained one, with ropes.

2) The elephant would then be taken into a traingulair cage, called Yarlong, where a designated mahout would care for it, feed it, and also start to sit on top of the elephant. This phase included 10-20 days.

3) After the elephant had grown to learn its mahout, and become used to have him sitting on its back, the elephant would be taken for walks, roped to a trained elephant (Phon Chang). During this phase, the elephant would be pulled to walk forward on command, and reversed etcetera, also by seing the trained elephants movements, and slowly understanding the different commands.

4) The elephant would now walk on its own, ridden by its mahout, but for safety, with front feet hobbled, and ropes attached from backlegs to saddle. Succesively, more freedom would be given, until the mahout had control of the elephant, and could work it independantly from cages or or other elephants.

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