Everyone knows that musth is a thing that afflicts elephants, but what exactly is it? I think they were surer of it in the old days, when they thought it was a kind of sexual frenzy to which tuskers, denied the company of cows, were prone. Those were the days when people were content with a less pettifogging, more gentlemanly understanding of things — when malaria was a waterborne malady and men past 40 were given to wind in the joints. The modern craze for exactness was not there.

For once my dictionary (which prefers to spell the word “must”) is unhelpful; it says that “must” is a “dangerour frenzy in some male animals, as elephants”, and adds that the word comes from the Persian and Hindustani “mast”, meaning intoxication.

I haven’t heard of any animal besides the elephant getting into musth, and to me the “in some animals, as elephants” seems needless, cautious vagueness, but the etymological sidelight is illuminating. The Hindustani (and Hindi) “musth” is not peculiar to elephants. Haven’t you heard of the “musth-hawa” of cinematic and folk lyrics? I am not very sure of its precise meaning, and consulting a number of Hindi-speaking people I only get the impression that both in elephants and in winds the adjectival musth is a quality that is at once overwhelming and hard to circumscribe with mere words — but I understand that the “musth-hawa” is a heavy wind, perhaps even a high wind. 

Turning to other Indian languages, other words are used to denote the condition of musth in elephants; in Tamil, for instance, we use the word “matham”. The point I am trying to make is that although such usage is unknown to the idiom of the language, you can use the word “matham” to qualify a heavy, rain-laden wind in Tamil, and make yourself understood: “matham” means an overflowing fullness, even a madness.

I have gone into the meaning of the word at such length because when you want to know what, precisely, a word means, you need to know every shade of its meaning and its equivalents in other languages. Unfortunately, all this etymological industry does not help to give a clearer idea of what musth in elephants is! But it is neither an overflowing fullness nor a madness — and still it could be both a frenzy and an intoxication, though not both at the same time. To be more specific, at times an elephant in musth seems afflicted with a heavy stupor, and at other times with an insufferable irritability.

Having had the opportunity to observe tame and wild tuskers in musth, and to discuss the phenomenon with two men who know their Indian elephant, I have seen, over many years and in widely separated areas, late in March or early in April; this does seem to suggest (making due allowance for the fact that I have visited jungles and elephant camps mainly at this time of the year) that it is early in summer, in spring, that elephants tend to get into musth, in South India at any rate. Not all the adult bulls in an area get into this condition then — only a few do. Musth is definitely not a rut, and it does not seem to have a sexual urge behind it. Even the duration of the affliction is not predictable; it may last for a few days, or for months. As a rule, cow elephants do not get into musth, but there are records of wild cows being in musth — tame cows do not, I believe, get into the condition. Even very old, decrepit bulls may be stricken with musth.

The physical manifestations are easily recognised. With the onset of musth, the temporal region of the head gets slightly swollen, owing to glandular enlargement beneath the skin, and has a visibly tender look; in old bulls, the hollows above the eyes are exaggerated by this swelling of the peripheral flesh. A thick, black, oily fluid oozes out of a pore on either side of the face, between the eye and the ear, and stains the cheek below.

Tame elephants in musth are often dangerous, but the tendency seems to be individualistic; some are quite uncontrollable then, and some are perfectly safe. Last April, I was at an elephant camp where there were three tuskers. The oldest of these, an aged beast suffering from tumours and generally in an enfeebled condition, was in musth; so was the youngest, a just-adult animal that was suffering from an injury. Both these were not tied up and for quite some time we stood close besides them, studying them. The third tusker at this camp, a burly animal in his prime, was not in musth then: even so, he could not be approached by strangers, for he had a summary way of dealing with those he didn’t take a fancy to; since 1959 this tusker has been getting into musth frequently, and is a real source of anxiety to his mahout and others at that camp for he has to be kept tied up and is potentially dangerous.

Tame elephants that are troublesome when in musth are firmly secured at the first signs of the condition, and are fed reduced rations and given sedatives. They are specially prone to attack men then and many mahouts have been killed by their charges when they were in musth.

Wild elephants, on the other hand, do not seem to get into an irritable frenzy when in musth. Very often they seem to be in a deep stupor, though going through their usual activities, almost like sleepwalkers. Both herd bulls and lone bulls get into musth — I have seen, and photographed, herd bulls very much in musth and the near presence of the cows seemed to make no difference to the afflicted animal; it is a fact, though, that the cows are singularly considerate to the herd bull then.

I have never heard of a wild tusker being dangerous to men because of this condition. The rogues that are such a real menace to jungleside humanity in South India are invariably animals suffering from some painful injury or which have recovered from such injuries, and almost always these festering wounds that may take years to get cured are gunshot wounds.

According to a knowledgeable mahout whom I asked, musth is caused by the overheating of the blood owing to the onset of summer, the wrong type of food or some physiological cause. He pointed out that when in this condition, elephants were even more given to long baths, swims and wallows in the mire than usual; I, too, have noticed this tendency. I have seen a wild tusker (much the most magnificent lone bull  I have ever seen — the animal shown in my illustration) repeatedly squirting water over his tender temples and ichor-stained cheeks, directing the water in a jet onto the cheeks — perhaps this black exudation causes cutaneous irritation.

Tame elephants in musth (the dangerous ones) are fed opium to keep them sleepy and safe. As I pointed out in this column two years ago, wild tuskers in musth often display evidence of having used their tusks to dig in the soil; they have firm masses of clay clinging so tight to the ivory that even a swim in the river, or repeated squirtings of water over the tusks, do not wash off the adherent earth. Do these animals seek out some root or tuber, which they dig up and consume, and which has a sedative effect on them, even a soporific effect?