Letter from Burma 13
5 April, 1935
I'll see if I can answer some more of your questions. You asked what tiffin is
actually, and why it is called that. Tiffin is lunch, or any light meal. It originated in India. The word originated when Indian custom superseded the British practice of an afternoon tea leading to a new word for the afternoon meal. It is derived from the obsolete English
slang tiffing, for "taking a little drink or sip".
You asked for information about our elephant, (whom we call Pabum, which means the
wind) and elephants in general, and some of the people who live nearby. I can understand how you feel that your project will be better if you can use real names. Incidentally, the Burman way of giving names is interesting. The day of the week they were born is
always included in their name.
U Baw Sein is one of our mine workers and he is from Ka Ling Chong village, the one closest to the Heida mining site. He also has land of his own and grows betel nut, coconut and durian trees.
Other villages include Heinda, Lower Heinda, Ye Bu Wa, Heinda Byin, Seik Ku, Kay Ta, Myaung Pyo, Taung Tho Lon, Shwe Chaung, Ka Le Gi, Myitta. Ma Cho Tin, our cook, comes from Kay Tu.
Most of the villagers earn their living by farming rice and cultivating plantations. The river is vital to their way of life, for transportation as well as to drink and to water their gardens. And they fish as well. Another of the villagers that I know quite well is Naw Pa Sa Aye. She said to tell you, “We can fish and it is a convenient way to travel. Even when the water is low, we can find resources there to make our income.”
Now for more about elephants. Working elephants are known as khoonkies and it is thought that 10,000 elephants work for teak firms in Burma, and another 3,000 work privately, as ours does.
The two main tasks for elephants are aunging and yelaiking. Aunging refers to the pushing of measured logs by the foreheads of elephants, the most strenuous of all timber operations. Young elephants and pregnant females with sucking calves are not suited for this job.
Yelaiking is a word for an operation to clear the jammed logs in the river or stream, under close supervision of ground staff in order to avoid injuries to humans or elephants by the logs floating by. During heavy downpours and when the streams are in spate, logs scatter all over and get stranded on sand or mud banks. When the spate subsides, elephants collect the scattered logs and put them back into streams. No machine can do this, and nothing can replace the elephants for this work.
Timber extraction involves felling or girdled and seasoned trees. Felling is done in the rainy season by local timber jacks who own equipment such as cross cut saws and axes. The felled logs are taken away from the stumps up to wider or transit paths. This work is called stumping and mostly done by first class elephants, those at their prime of life.
From the transit paths, logs are dragged by 2nd or 3rd class elephants to places where the logs are measured for royalty payment and settled of charges for elephants leased from private owners.
Working elephants are classified by age and working capacity. Calves under four are
known as calves at heel. Sub adults - those under 18 - are called trained calves. Between 5 and 17 calves are mostly used in transporting the personal equipment of the staff involved in timber operations and rations for the elephants in the rainy season and early winter.
The hauling capacity of an prime aged adult is many times higher than their carrying/loading capacity. They can easily haul logs weighting nearly their body weight, but they cannot carry a load weighing half a ton. Maximum load is set at 800 lbs. But the weight limit goes down depending on the temperature, the amount of shade, the strenuousness of the walk, etc. The mahout should unload promptly and massage the elephant's spine for a few minutes at the end of each journey while the elephant cools down. If the load is very great, two of them will be joined together to make the work easier.
Full grown elephants over 18 are sub-divided according to age, intelligence and hauling power. A full grown elephant drags 100-180 tons per animal per year for teak logs, 240 for other hard woods. Those between 18-24 are good for light extraction work, older ones can be employed on hilly terrain. Those between 30-45 are considered prime and able to drag a log, while those between 46-53 are past greatest efficiency. Between 53-60 they are no longer used for heavy jobs - only mild duties, and they are retired at age 60. Some of them live up to 150 years.
Elephants work from from mid June to mid February with a rest of three weeks at the end of October - a maximum of 160 days per year. The pattern is five days work and two days rest a week. When they are returned from rest camp, they gradually build up the number of hours worked for the first month. Not more than eight hours a day in cool weather and five in hot weather. Not beyond 10 a.m. in the morning session or earlier
than 3 p.m. in the afternoon in the hot weather months.
The captive female elephants start having babies as early as eighteen years old and as
late as 50 years old. The females are pregnant for 22 months, the longest for any land mammal. An average baby weights about 170 lbs.
The person who rides the elephant is called a mahout. Usually, a mahout starts as a boy in the 'family business' when he is assigned an elephant early in its life and they would be attached to each other throughout the elephant's life.
Each elephant requires fully six hundred pounds of feed a day, and after work the
mahout feeds and then bathes his elephant, and securely tethers him.
The mahouts have to hand feed the elephants rice, which is tied up in small bundles of
grass or plantain pulp and then put into the beast's mouth. If allowed to feed himself, an elephant blows the rice through his trunk down his throat, without masticating it, and he derives no benefit from it.
Elephants utter peculiar sounds to denote certain meanings. A whistling noise produced by the trunk indicates satisfaction; when they trumpet or utter a hoarse, sharp scream it is a sign of rage; a noise made by the mouth like "pr-rut-pr-rut" is a sign of alarm, so is the striking of the trunk on the ground accompanied by a pitiful cry, whilst a noise like "urmp-urmp" denotes impatience or dissatisfaction. Elephants are never still, their bodies are always swaying to and fro, the ears and tail are constantly flapping or brushing off flies, the trunk is in incessant use, the legs are constantly rubbed one against the other.
Elephants when asleep often snore - they are very human-like in many of their ways; for instance, I have seen them use a foot as a pillow on which to rest their head. They get a piece of wood and use it as a toothpick, they will plug a wound with clay, they scratch themselves with the tip of their trunk, or if they cannot reach the irritable part with that, they take up a branch and use it. An elephant often thrusts his trunk into his mouth and extracts a quantity of water which he squirts over his body, and often over his riders.
An elephant is naturally very gentle, and would not hurt a worm. No elephant will tread upon anything if he can avoid it. They are wonderfully sure-footed, and will go up and down the steepest places which to any other beast would be impossible. The way they
slide down the steep side of a nullah with fore-legs stretched out in advance and the hind doubled backwards dragging them along, or ascend an equally steep place by bending the fore-legs and walking as it were on their knees, has to be seen to be believed.
I will send you a picture of me and his mahout on our elephant.