The Malayali and the pachyderm

The elephant army of King Puru was the reason for Alexander’s retreat from India many centuries ago. You can imagine that for the uninitiated, this massive animal or many of them can give daymares and nightmares. While the trainers knew that the animal was not really meant for war, it did scare the bjesus out of the Greeks and Macedonians. Many wars were fought after Alexander’s retreat to amass elephants for armies, but that story can keep for another day, I guess.

Well, for the people of Kerala, the pachyderm is a gentle friend, one who graces the many festivals, processions, weddings, meetings and what not, when he is not lugging logs for its owners keep. As you start a drive on the North to South NH 47 highway in Kerala, you should not be surprised if you come across one of these ancient animals, hide fading with age, tusks yellowing but proudly poised, serenely ambling along the road side, with its bare bodied mahout atop it, a coconut palm leaf clutched in its trunk & tusks, nor caring a hoot about the economic riches changing the countryside or the noise & pollution. The trucks belch past spewing acrid black oily smoke with some having names like ‘Ashamol’ stating proudly ‘National permit’ on their foreheads (if one may call it so), the buses careen through the median, cars of various colors and makes speed past and you see the ever present auto rickshaws and two wheelers. Sometimes you would even see a lorry chugging away with an elephant standing on it…Ah, I miss it all…

You can’t help but love this gentle animal. The weary old eyes always intrigued me and as a child I have always wanted a bit of the elephants tail hair – legendary in Kerala for instilling courage and warding away enemies ( I never got one)…We have had so many movies featuring elephants and popular actors like Jayaram even owned one. When you go to Guruvayoor, you can visit the Anakotta or elephant sanctuary which is what the old Zamorin’s Punnathur palace grounds are used for now and where the sixty odd temple elephants live. In the past and even today only the very wealthy can own an elephant due to the prohibitive maintenance costs involved. My wife always tells me about her great grandfather who owned an elephant, and about the massive chain that was used to tie the elephant, lying in the corner of the attic, rusting away…reminding me of the majestic book by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer – ‘My grandpa had an elephant’

Wiki introduces it well; The Elephants of Kerala are an integral part of the daily life in Kerala, south India. These Indian elephants are loved, revered, groomed and given a prestigious place in the state's culture scape. Elephants in Kerala are often referred to as the 'sons of the sahya (sahyadri – western ghats).' The state animal of Kerala is also elephant and the Government of Kerala emblem has also two elephants in it. The most majestic view of the elephants is at the Trichur pooram where two rival groups representing the two divisions of Thrissur - Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi vie with each other in making the display of fireworks grander by the year. Each group displays a maximum of fifteen elephants and the best elephants in South India participate, wearing artistic parasols, several kinds of which are raised on the elephants during the display.

We have in Kerala Auyurvedic ‘elephant treatment’ books and even a monsoon rejuvenation therapy for elephants. Not all 700

of the elephants living in captivity in Kerala may get it, but well, in the days when they had more stature, I believe they were kept happier… Today you can even go on package tours in Kerala called = Spend a day with an elephant!!See them doing their thing in a lovely photo site of Seby Varghese.

Many centuries ago there was a mythical dwarf elephant that graced its forests called the ‘ikallaana’. Oct 4th is Elephants day in Kerala. Between Jan 17th and 20th, Kerala hosts the elephant march from Trichur to Trivandrum, a three day event. If you are a mahout in training, there are training courses and seminars on elephant care. Kerala has a woman mahout!!

The Guruvayoor temple spends about Rs3 crores every year for the upkeep of the 60 elephants they maintain. They do earn a third of their keep as rentals to other temples. Devotees can participate in the upkeep or even donate elephants, but it is not for the faint hearted or the middle class. New temple guidelines stipulate,that any devotee wishing to donate an elephant should also pay Rs 400,000 towards its upkeep. Instead of donating an elephant, a devotee can also make a 'symbolic offer' by paying Rs 500,000 to the temple. The latter provision, temple officials say, makes economic sense for the devotees because an elephant can cost anything between Rs 600,000 and Rs 800,000. "If a devotees offers an elephant to the temple, it could cost him more than Rs 10 lakhs (Rs 1 million) including the maintenance charge of Rs 400,000 we now ask for," a temple official points out. But the new rules have not deterred devotees. Temple officials reveal that eight applications to donate elephants are pending with the temple administration

Malayalis are famed for their sarcasm – Hear this, K P Krishnan, a frequent visitor to the Guruvayoor temple, says its elephants are the best looked-after pachyderms in the country. "The Guruvayoor temple," he declares, "takes care of its elephants much better than the Indian government or Kerala government looks after its citizens."

Malayalam movies have featured elephants in key roles – Gajakesariyogam, Guruvayoor Keshavan, Kudumbasameetham, Anachandam are a few. Keshavan – the most famous of them all, standing over 3.2 meters tall, was known for his devout behavior. Kesavan died on "Guruvayoor Ekadasi," considered a very auspicious day. He fasted for the entire day and dropped down facing the direction of the temple with his trunk raised as a mark of prostration. The anniversary of his death is still celebrated in Guruvayoor. Hundreds of elephants line up before the statue and the chief elephant garlands it. Kesavan was conferred the unique title "Gajarajan" (Elephant King), by the Guruvayoor Devaswom. Devotees never tire of praising the elephant's "majestic look, exceptional intelligence and amazing strength." Pic from Dr KES Kartha

There are so many elephant enthusiasts in India, some as young as Akshay all of 10 years old, who know all the names and details of the popular elephants of Kerala. But the best story I read was the story of the amorous male elephantHowever, he ended up with the 75 year old Maheshwari. Picture shows Bombay Rajkumar being greeted by Education Minister MA Baby. Rajkumar of Bombay who was taken to Kerala to meet up with Rani, resident of Kerala.

Those interested in reading all kinds of Indian elephant news can check this site.

Tail notes –

The word Elephant comes from the ancient word Elephas that Greeks used to describe the Indian pachyderm. It comes apparently from the Sanskrit word Ibha, meaning elephant.

The saying that elephants never forget has been backed by science.
The elephant brain is denser than the human's, and the temporal lobes, associated to memory, are more developed than in humans. Elephant's lobes also have more folds, so that they can store more information. That's why elephants have excellent memory. See my earlier blog regarding the Malayali elephant Murugan in Amsterdam – you can now understand his sad but not fading memories of the Nilambur forests in Kerala while ensconced in the cold climes of Netherlands.

Elephants have a matriarchal society - Elephants often travel large distances in search of food. A typical group of elephants consists of a matriarch grandmother and a number of her daughters and granddaughters. Male elephants leave the family units at an early age and remain single or in small bachelor groups (Kerala used to be a Matriarchal society).

The usage ‘white elephant’ - Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favor, and a curse because the animal had to be kept and could not be put to practical use to offset the cost of maintaining it.

Pictures from the web - thanks to every uploader/owner


maxdavinci said…
briliant again!
My grandfather used to donate a lot to the local temple, and I loved feeding and riding the temple elephant during vacations!

Malayali's love for this majestic animal does not end there.
Where else on earth do you have a program on a popular TV channel like E4 Elephant on Kairali TV.

The names given to these animals are very much like a "tharavaad karanavars".

Even when the animal dies, the reverence shown in the cremation is worth mentioning.

I am sure "Guruvayur Kesavan" wins the prize for popularity if there exists such a prize.
Check any wall hanging poster,painting, if it has an elephant, it could be Guruvayur Kesavan.

You missed to mention the Guruvayur Aanayottam :(

And Maddy,
Isn't there a Buddhist connection?

Andy said…
My dad loves pachyderms. Every Sunday, he sits glued to the TV watching jumbo-based programmes on Kairali TV. He makes it a point to go to the Thrissur Pooram every year, just for the elephants. I sometimes don't apreciate the joy my dad gets in doing that. I do now.
Ms Cris said…
I was about to write the first para was hilarious but instinct told me to google first to make sure! Glad I did! You just became the cause for today's I-know-no-history-cribbing (it being a daily event :D)

Good read!
Indrani said…
Whew!! That was the most interesting elephantine post I have read. Thanks!! :)
Nice one. And right now, a TV serial on Guruvayur Kesavan is to be telecast soon, I understand.
Pradeep said…
The sad part is the way they are treated. There have been many cases of elephants turning angry and attacking people in Kerala. By the way, I am off blogging for a while as I am travelling and saddled with loads of work....
Reshmi said…
Good write-up!
There is a story that Guruvayoorappan diety possessed the body of Guruvayoor Keshavan and the Keshavan is one of the Lord's biggest devotees...

Well, my son is named Keshav;)

harimohan said…
thanks maddy for one more good post on another favourite of mine
nothing beats the grandeur of this animal and its saintly vegetarian status
it should be in the higher planes of the pecking order of karma
i know one patient of mine abilash who since childhood was an elephant fad and today is one of the leading expert in elephant buying etc he is just 22 years old
read on murugan too once more and all the links great work
raj said…
A great writeup on elephants to be treasured. Never knew so much.
Maddy said…
Nikhil - thanks - i am not sure which connection you meant - i read the follows with respect to buddhissm - The elephant is a symbol of the strength of the mind in Buddhism. Exhibiting noble gentleness, the precious elephant serves as a symbol of the calm majesty possessed by one who is on the path. Specifically, it embodies the boundless powers of the Buddha which are miraculous aspiration, effort, intention, and analysis. The stupa are symbolic of the mind of a Buddha with a base of strong elephants.
Maddy said…
max, thanks, you are a lucky guy - i hv never been atop an elephant!

Andy - you should stand close to one to feel the majesty of an elephant!

Thanks Chris, Indrani, Raji, Raj, Hari...

Nikhil - u are right - anayottam is a great event, i hv seen it to!! I am told the most majestic scene is on IMAX movie 'Pulse a stomp of Odessey' where they show about a 100 elephants of Trissur Puram on the gigantic screen with the thundering chenda vadyam by Pallavur Sreedharan..

Reshmi - long time no hear & welcome back to the blogging world! looking forward to interesting pieces from you as well!
Maddy said…
Pradeep - wish u a safe travel and hoping to hear from u soon
Sandeep said…
Second paragraph - "..... with its bare bodied mascot atop it....". Mascot sounds unlikely. Did you mean mahout?
Maddy said…
thanks sandeep - that was a sharp eye - yes mahout is right, the spellchecker corrected it to mascot and i missed it!!
kallu said…
Maddy, i f you've never been atop an elephant... it sort of seems impossible to me if you've grown up in Kerala... you must come to Mudumalai.
Elephant rides are a way of taking a slow amble into the forest -its supposed to be that you spot wild animals too; but you never do.In the evenings they have feeding at the elephant camp where you can see about 20 animals together.

That was a very interesting elephantine post:-)

Did you know that they feed on about 450 kg of grass/fodder everyday. And that is why they have to keep moving around.And so their dung is a very important part of the eco sytem of the forests- it spreads seeds around.
From what I have understood/read the use of elephants in our temple festivals is a remnant of a strong influence Budhhism had during a point of time.

When Buddhism died a slow death in Kerala, some customs were adopted by the society(non Buddist entities).

A beautiful post. Thanks for the useful links embedded. As Nikhil suggests, the Buddhist connection needs to be studied. Thanks once again.