Augo Photograph & Essay Augo Photograph & Essay

Left Behind by a New Age in New Delhi

  • Left Behind by a New Age in New Delhi - Augo Photograph & Essay
    A mahout named Mukut bathes Champa the elephant in the Yamuna River near ITO Bridge in New Delhi. In India, the relationship between man and elephant has been established for thousands of years. In modern time, though, this relationship has become complicated.

    Over recent millenia and across the world, horses, cattle, camels, donkeys, dogs, and various other species have been domesticated and incorporated into cultures and economies. This confluence of humankind with the rest of mammalia is embedded in the story of this world. It is celebrated often, and can be found in abundance across the world. It is a part of industry. It is a part of war. It is seen in recreation. It is seen in myth, legend, and nonfiction alike.

    It is a part of the structure of our life on earth.

    So very often, we rightfully find these unions beautiful and harmonious. Sometimes, of course, we are appalled by the tyranny of man, and we see with terrible clarity his thirst for domination manifested in animal violence. In the case of mahouts in a modernized, westernized, capitalized India, during a moment in history that demands, like never before, an honest reflection on our relationship with nature, it is extraordinarily difficult to know what to think.

    We tend to write our stories within the framework of victims, heroes, and selfish aggressors. It is tempting, especially for those who are of the mind to conserve and respect elephants, to apply such a blueprint to the situation of urban elephants in India. Assigning the characterizations to characters here, though, is not as simple as it would seem.
  • Left Behind by a New Age in New Delhi - Augo Photograph & Essay
    Sonu, an apprentice mahout, beats the dust off the back of Gangaram, a 40-year-old male Asian elephant, while Shanvaj, a 9-year-old son of the elephant's permanent mahout, Baboo, watches from the crook of a tree.

    Biologists know that elephants give themselves dust baths to fend off parasites and the sun's direct contact of their skin. However, when animals find themselves caught up in a human business venture, we often see that human standards of cleanliness take precedence over the animal's instinctive and natural functions.
  • Left Behind by a New Age in New Delhi - Augo Photograph & Essay
    Shanvaj's hand grips a fold in Kanchan's skin as he guides her across a field to thicker, taller grass.

    As we find ourselves deepening and maturing the ethics of our relationships with animals, and in the pursuit of identifying and diagnosing the moral flaws that have been established over millennia of intermingling with other species, it is essential that we ask ourselves how to discern between those of us caught up in, even dependent on the imperfect, sometimes abusive culture, and those of us who propagate the imperfect and abusive culture for reasons void of virtue.
  • Religion


    The crook of a tree holds a statue of Ganesha, a Hindu deity. Elephants are strongly revered in India--sometimes worshiped--and are often "rented" for religious ceremonies in New Delhi. Occasionally, stout Hindus will stop to trade 20 rupees for a handful of dirt that an elephant has stepped on.
  • Beat the Heat

    Beat the Heat

    As midday heat settles in on May 24, 2012, Mukut (left) and Haseeb, take refuge in the shadow cast by Champa's enormous body. The mahouts of Delhi have a daily routine that includes four to six hours of cutting tall grass from the banks of the Yamuna for the elephants to eat. During the dry season, they try to avoid the heat by setting out before 6 a.m. On this day, though, temperatures broke 105 degrees Fahrenheit before 9 a.m., well before the mahouts were done harvesting.
  • Teamwork


    As the grass is cut, it is wrapped in bundles and stacked in piles along the riverbank. When enough is harvested to last the rest of the day, the elephants and mahouts work together to carry the bundles back to their camp--about a quarter of a mile away. When a mahout is on an elephant, several different commands are shouted to indicate to the elephant what to do, or what to pick up and hand to the mahout.
  • Sleeping on the Job

    Sleeping on the Job

    Caring for captive elephants requires never-ending attention from mahouts. Mahouts never leave the side of their elephant, and the bond between the two that results is palpable. Here, Rasheed--the camp's oldest mahout--teases the elephant Gulaab with a small bundle of grass before dozing off for an afternoon nap.
  • Heavy Traffic

    Heavy Traffic

    Haseeb rides through tangled traffic on the ITO bridge in New Delhi in May, 2012.
  • Holy Man

    Holy Man

    A wandering "Holy Man" pumps water for a pair of elephants on a hot afternoon.
  • Left Behind by a New Age in New Delhi - Augo Photograph & Essay
    Gulaab's nostril's surface for air while the elephant plays in the Yamuna.
  • Balance


    Rasheed walks along the spine of Gulaab underneath the ITO bridge in New Delhi.
  • Can't Touch This

    Can't Touch This

    Shanvaj, the 9-year-old son of a mahout named Baboo, plays with the tail of Kanchan, a 35-year-old female elephant in an open field east of the Yamuna River on May 17, 2012. Elephants have been kept in captivity in India for over 5,000 years, and jobs as mahouts are generally passed down from father to son. Shanvaj said he loves the elephants, but hopes to become a police officer when he is older--not a mahout.
  • ITO Bridge

    ITO Bridge

    From the ITO bridge, a boy watches another child play with an elephant in the water below.
  • Delhi Dusk

    Delhi Dusk

    Baboo smokes a cigarette as dusk settles over him and Gangaram in New Delhi on May 15, 2012. Mahouts and elephants depend on each other for what they have, but that dependency keeps them each trapped in impoverished and substandard conditions. With their lifestyles now having persisted for millennia and poverty-related problems mounting in India, little hope exists that tomorrow will be a brighter day for either mahout or elephant.