I have mentioned the favorite animal in Kerala many a time in what I call 'my attempts at writing'. We love the elephant in Kerala and always look at it kindly and with a great amount of affection. But today it reminded me of a story that my friend told me many years ago and at that time, I penned it into my musings and filed it away. Today, as I was wondering what to post, for I was not in a real mood to post anything heavy, I came across this and decided to air it finally.....At that time, some 8 years ago, I had written it as a converstation between me and my second son Arun.For quite some time I did not believe this story after I heard it from my friend Ram. But Ram has always been a truthful chap, and now I am telling it to Arun… I cannot recite the tale like Ram did, it had its own special tones and flavor when told in Tamil and many of the Mannargudi nuances are now missing…nevertheless, it is an interesting tale.
Arun wonders what a pachyderm is and I explain to him that it is none other than our dear elephant. An elephant is very visible in South India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is part of most pomp and ceremonies, always a part of temple festivities and religious festivals, both Christian and Hindu. We see them now and then, on the road, being walked by their mahouts from temple to temple, doing work like pulling tree logs and of course at virtually every big temple, serenely eating coconut leaves.. In our own village, we have a temple and there used to be a famous elephant called Pallavur Parameswaran.. Arun is astounded. You give names to elephants? I explain that they have an important position in our society and that the most famous of the lot was the Guruvayur Kesavan…an elephant so famous that a movie was made about its life and times. He thinks I am fibbing. Now what more can I do to convince a kid who prefers to believe what Eminem raps? I guess that if I show him Kesavan’s web page, he would believe me, but there is no such website. Google does come to my help though, I find documented references to the great Kesavan and show them to Arun. He is a bit perturbed though. This angle is new to him….Elephants with names, movies about them?
With the help of Google, I show him that there are books on Guruvayur elephants, Kerala elephants and so on…I show him pictures..he finally seems convinced and so we continue with the tale.
Oh, I love the Indian elephant…..Arun asks why I like the India pachyderm more than the African one, I ask him to look at both pictures and decide. The Indian elephant looks more proportionate and rounded, also less ancient, but he does not quite see it that way, so we agree to disagree.
Ram my friend, I met him at Istanbul, is from Mannargudi, a town in the Tanjavur district – Tamil Nadu. Mannrgudi has a great Krishna temple, visited by many devotees. Remember that many stories and life in South Indian villages are related to temple life and this happens to be around the temple elephant.
Krishna Iyer was a miserly chap, not everybody liked him though he was omnipresent and sometimes overbearing. If something important took place, Krishna Iyer would be there to offer his two cents worth of worthless advice. He was generally considered a nuisance though relatively harmless. He presented an interesting picture, bare bodied except for the loin cloth or dhoti, the weather beaten punul (sacred thread) across his chest…and bare footed, adorned with the discolored thorthu mundu (towel) across his shoulder.
Arun has to interrupt, he wants to know what the Punul is, and why he was not wearing any shirt or shoes. I ask him to recall the sights and sounds from our last visit to Kerala and the temples. I remind him that it was the custom around temples, especially for those who were working in the temple and who had to go in and out of the sanctum sanctorium often…It is easier not to have to wear & remove shirts..that he understands, though it was strictly speaking not the right explanation.
Krishna Iyer did not have any living family, he never married, which was good of course since ‘they’ would have had a miserable life. He lived his simple life, eating free temple food or ‘Nivedyam’ wandering here and there and being himself…mostly a general but harmless nuisance.
The temple had its elephant and this was a very calm and nice elephant. He never harmed anybody, the mahout would even take him around the ‘Agraharams’ and the village to bless children with its trunk…in return for some money (meant for the mahout) or some food (plantains usually).
Arun gets the picture..The elephant is a great big animal who is kid friendly like a giant teddy bear and who would put out its trunk when a coin is inserted in the right place…Aha…OK..good ...good ...go on…cut to the chase..
But elephants do become wild at times, especially when in Musth…I have difficulties explaining this to Arun, as it is a not so well understood phenomenon, a time when elephants become crazy and unpredictable. I tell him that elephants have such bad periods in their life, which he eventually accepts. When a captive elephant such as our temple elephant goes into Musth, it is pretty dangerous, there are stories of these ‘rouge’ elephants trampling masses, killing mahouts and so on..
This was a normal day in the Krishna temple in Mannargudi and Krishna Iyer was wandering around. He could not find anybody who would listen to him, but after wandering around a bit, he saw our elephant and his mahout…(No Arun, Ram uncle did not tell me the elephants name. I am not sure if Tamilians names their elephants like us Malayalis).
Krishna Iyer had with him some Nivedyam plantains and he decided to offer what he had to the elephant..he lifted his hand and the Pazham (plantain) to the animal. What followed was a disaster. Nobody is sure if the elephant was in Musth, the mahout is also confused why all that happened, but the elephant simply curled its trunk around our man Krishna Iyer, lifted him high in the air, spun him a couple of times and dropped him on the floor. A very simple maneuver like you see in WWF these days…only thing was that during the high speed spin, Krishna Iyer was spun on his vertical as well as horizontal axis …
Arun wants to know why the elephant did this. I have no idea, He tells me to call Ram uncle in Istanbul and find out. I tell him that probably Krishan Iyer pelted the elephant with a stone when he was a kid..elephants never forget…(remember Agatha Christe's novel??)
Nothing much would have happened to a younger fella, but K Iyer was by then over 45 years old and he had a lot of difficulty getting up from where the elephant had dropped him. He got up once and then promptly collapsed. The mahout hollered his head off and a lot of good and not so friendly people gathered around our fallen man. They decided to take him to the hospital.
The doctor who checked Iyer, was sure that K Iyer had internal injuries. So he was sent of to the district hospital. They checked him again, and admitted the poor chap, did test after test and said that he probably had his intestines twisted. After a while, they discharged him saying that his condition was stable, but Krishna Iyer was in big trouble, he simply could not eat. Whatever he ate, he threw out. So he had to continue on a liquid diet…There was no reason for a major surgery, so nobody did it.
This continued on for many years. The old Krishna Iyer changed, he became a real constipated, cranky nut as months went by. He viewed life through his pain and suffering and spread gloom wherever he went. He consulted many doctors, he even went to Vellore CMCH, but nobody could help. He was a lost soul. He became more religious and started spending more and more time at the temple, but he fastidiously avoided both the elephant and the mahout, and of course we know by now why it was so.
The only man who could tolerate him was the temple priest. They would talk of all the village politics and the worldly issues during the balmy evenings after the last prayers & ‘Poojas’. On one such occasion, the priest jokingly said that the only person who could set Krishna Iyer right was our friend the Elephant. And by then Krishna Iyer was desperate, he did not want any possibilities unexplored (ask any other constipated guy and he will agree). He went in search of the mahout and asked him if there was any hope for him. The mahout asked Krishna Iyer to come back with some plantains for the elephant (the mahout never actually had any plan, he thought this was a good way of getting some grub for the pachyderm). Krishna Iyer did exactly that..He went to fetch some plantains from the temple kitchen.
He came back with the plantains and stretched them out toward the elephant. Mr Elephant, which was dozing a bit, lifted its head and took a long look at the thin specimen of manhood in front of him. They say ( as i mentioned before) that elephants have a long memory, and this time too, its memory did not fail him. He remembered Krishna Iyer.
Arun is wide eyed…no, dad, don’t tell me ‘that’ happened.. I can’t believe this. I said, ‘let me complete Arun, and ask Ram uncle the next time you see him, he is the one who told me this tale’.
The elephant again picked up Krishna Iyer with its trunk, just like the last time, and spun him. twice, thrice and then put him on the ground..Nothing more, nothing less. Only this time he spun him around the other way, anticlockwise ..on both axes.
When Krishan Iyer came to, he felt like a new man. No more pains or discomfort, so he asked for a pitcher of water and drank the whole of it, without any more pain, just like he used to do in his younger days. He was finally cured…BY THE ELEPHANT!!!
Ram insists that this tale is true, he tells me that I can go anytime to his village and ask around or even meet Krishna Iyer. He swears by it..Arun laughed his head off then and giggled for days later thinking about this, in mirth. But when we went to the Pallavur temple later, he would not go near the elephant. Today I am sure Arun a college going student must be thinking it was one of my 'tall' taes.
Maybe we will visit Mannargudi some day, some time, maybe we will meet Krishna Iyer & the elephant, to expore the truth & get further details..until then, this sure is one hell of a tale!!!