Anthropology / Everything Human

The Death of a Hungry God

PHOTO ESSAY / Field Notes

The Death of a Hungry God

The electrocution of a wild elephant in a village in northeast India illustrates how these formidable beings are experienced as both animal and deity.

One evening in August 2014, a wild elephant was accidentally killed in Gajbari village* in Assam, a state in northeast India. He was a young adult male with tusks, or “tusker,” who, along with two other males, was known to regularly forage at night in the neighborhood. While eating bamboo leaves in someone’s yard, the elephant unwittingly touched a dangerously low-hanging power line and was electrocuted. He died instantly. The next morning, a steady stream of people from the local area visited the body. It was a rare spectacle to see a dead elephant, and villagers were curious to view the animal close-up in daylight. It was also a chance to see and interact with a god.

From 1880 to 2013, 61 percent of Assam’s forests have been lost due to human development, resulting in the destruction, fragmentation, and degradation of elephant habitat. A lack of adequate food and space means that the 5,700 wild Asian elephants scattered across the state have grown more dependent on domestic produce and are encountering people more often. Every night in the months prior to harvest, herds will “raid” village paddy fields, often for rice, which is the primary crop in Assam. Elephants can cause massive economic loss, sleep deprivation, and severe anxiety for impoverished farmers who are desperately trying to protect their farmland. Both humans and elephants become frustrated, aggressive, and sometimes violent with each other when competing over crops, at times resulting in the deaths of either party. The term “conflict” is commonly used to characterize the human-elephant relationship in the 21st century.

Yet the complex nature of the interaction between these two species is not wholly antagonistic, and the status of elephants is not simply that of “agricultural pest.” In 2013 and 2014, I spent 18 months doing ethnographic research on human-elephant relations in Assam. The people I worked with considered elephants as too intelligent, aware, and impressive to be mere animals. Many Assamese spoke of how elephants can perceive the hidden intentions and moral character of people. Villagers approached elephants with respect and sometimes communicated with them through worshipful gestures. Elephants seemed to recognize these acts and reciprocate by not disturbing reverent persons. More than simply animals, elephants in Gajbari and the surrounding neighborhood were living, breathing incarnations of the Hindu god Ganesh.


*The name of the actual village has been changed at the request of the author.


Culture / / / /

  • Helga Vierich

    Of course it is a sacred creature.. all of life is sacred, thus part of the manifestation of God.

    Why don’t some people don’t understand that turning the killing of an innocent creature into some kind of virtue is destructive of the compassionate spirit of the child that is taught this? It is also destructive of the whole culture that normalizes it.

    It is a slippery slope: when societies start to teach children that animals were dumb mechanical creatures; that “nature” was be dominated, “tamed” and controlled to our purpose, we will lay the groundwork for treating some people this way too.

    If it is okay for wildlife to be shot on sight, if it is okay for animals, wild or domestic, to be exploited purely for financial gain, or even for “public benefit” (which includes both commercialized fishing and the actual tourist traps that are our national “wildlife parks”), then it becomes a “thinkable thought” to ruthlessly destroy whole forest ecosystems just to replace them with commercial plantations, or to consider it an amusing mass entertainment to torture a frightened bull to death.

    We have to ask ourselves, just when – and why – did some cultures start to teach their children these things? And does this make it also okey to lock “human vermin” up, use them as slave labour, refuse to help refugee form “shit-hole countries”? Does this make it okay to just lock certain people outside; beyond all hope? is homelessness now equated with “worthlessness”?

    What we do to “vermin” animals, we may eventually do to “worthless” people.