A mahout is an elephant rider, trainer, or keeper. Usually, a mahout starts as a boy in the family profession when he is assigned an elephant early in its life. They remain bonded to each other throughout their lives.
Another term is cornac or kornak, which entered many European languages via Portuguese. This word derives ultimately from the Sanskrit term karināyaka, a compound of karin (elephant) and nayaka (leader). In Telugu, a person who takes care of elephants is called a Mavati; this word is also derived from Sanskrit. In Tamil, the word used is pahan, which means "elephant keeper", and in Sinhalese kurawanayaka ("stable master"). In Malayalam the word used is paappaan.
The most common tools used by mahouts are chains and the Goad Aṅkuśa (or ankus, anlius) – a sharp metal hook used in the training and handling of the elephant by stabbing the elephant in the head, and in areas like the mouth and inner ear, where the animal is most sensitive.
In India, especially Kerala, mahouts use three types of device to control elephants. The thotti (hook), which is 3.5 feet in length and about 1 inch thick; the valiya kol (long pole), which is 10.5 feet in length and about 1 inch in thickness; and the cheru kol (short pole).
Elephants, and therefore also mahouts, have long been integral to politics and the economy throughout Southern and Southeastern Asia. The animals are given away per request of government ministers and sometimes as gifts. In addition to more traditional occupations, today mahouts are employed in many countries by forestry services and the logging industry, as well as in tourism.
In India there has been controversy over elephants attacking mahouts and villagers due to the torture some elephants endure from their mahouts, especially during festivals. More than 90% of the elephants in Kerala, for example, are not obtained legally.
The Singapore Zoo features a show called "elephants at work and play", where the elephants' caretakers are referred to as "mahouts", and demonstrate how elephants are used as beasts of burden in south-east Asia. The verbal commands given to the elephants by the mahouts are all in Sinhalese, one of the two official languages of Sri Lanka.
A shop display advertising "Mahout" cigarettes features prominently in the background of the "rain dance" sequence of the 1952 Gene Kelly film Singin' in the Rain. The word "mahout" also features in the lyrics of the song "Drop the Pilot", by Joan Armatrading.
George Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant" discusses the relationship of an elephant to its mahout: "It was not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone 'must.' It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of 'must' is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours' journey away..."
- "Mahout". Absolute Elephant Information Encyclopedia. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
- Weeratunge, Chamalee, The Elephant Gates. Greenleaf Book Group, 2014, p. 104. (Google eBook)
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 424. .
- Fowler, Mikota, eds. Biology, Medicine and Surgery of Elephants. John Wiley & Sons, 2008, p. 54.
- Ajitkumar, Anil, Alex, eds., Healthcare Management of Captive Asian Elephants Kerala Agricultural University, 2009, p. 165