Uncertain encounters with wild elephants in Assam, Northeast India

Paul G. Keil

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


On the odd occasion, wild elephants in rural Assam, Northeast India, reveal themselves to be more-than-animal. For people living on the fringes of the forest, they are god-like creatures with supernatural powers of perception, able to grasp the hidden intentions and moral character of people. Drawing on ethnographic observations, animist literature, theories of witchcraft, and frameworks that foreground the different perceptual worlds of nonhumans, this paper will unpack how elephants can be divine agents and beings of wonder. Wonder arises at the limits of our conceptual resources and a deep uncertainty is at the core of divine encounters between human and elephant. This uncertainty is driven by three factors: first, regular explanations fail to make sense of elephant behavior; second, the person perceives a hidden connection between both beings that cannot be articulated; and, third, an awareness that the limits and reasons of nonhumans cannot be comprehensively grasped. Uncertain encounters with elephants can be revelatory and open people to unforeseen aspects of themselves and their environment. It is also from this position of uncertainty that anthropologists can better understand informants’ relations with nonhumans.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)196-211
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Religious and Political Practice
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • wonder
  • elephant
  • animism
  • Hinduism
  • multispecies
  • human-animal


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