By K A Shaji
He is the most loved as well as feared among the 521 captive elephants, presently under private ownership in Kerala. So, it was with bated breath that Thrissur, the state’s cultural capital, watched the 55-year-old tusker, Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, participating in the Vilambaram ritual marking the ceremonial opening of the annual extravaganza, the Pooram festival, on 14 May. The tusker was in fact paraded, owing to popular demand, after reversing an earlier government order that disallowed its participation in the festivities as parading the partially blind and temperamental animal was against the Elephant Management Rules.
There was a gathering of more than 10,000 people this year at the festival venue, the Vadakkumnathan temple, to which the pachyderm was taken in a truck on the morning of 12 May to symbolically push open the southern entrance of the centre of worship, signalling the start of the festivities. But to the disappointment of scores of Ramachandran’s fans, the tusker was called back within an hour of his arrival, as directed by the district administration which was obviously more concerned about the safety of the devotees than the magnificence of the event.
According to district collector TV Anupama, this celebrated, partially blind and temperamental elephant could run amok even at the smallest sound of a cracker. Other than age-related ailments, Ramachandran has a track record of having killed a dozen people, especially during festivals. However, under extreme pressure from major political parties and religious organisations, the district administration obtained a “fit for all activities” certificate from a team of veterinarians, permitting the elephant’s symbolic participation in the Pooram. For the last several years, Ramachandran has been an integral part of the Pooram festivities.
Mother of all festivals
Thrissur Pooram is billed the “mother of all festivals” in the state and dates back to the late 18th century. It is said to have been started by Sakthan Thampuran (Rama Varma IX), the king of the erstwhile princely state of Kochi.
The most keenly-watched event during the festival is the parading of more than 50 caparisoned elephants and massive bursting of crackers that continues for several hours.
Despite being partially blind and cranky, Ramachandran has been winning the hearts and minds of most of the elephant lovers in Kerala on account of its height and majestic gait, and that’s why the festival committee had exerted pressure on the district administration for facilitating its participation in the festivities, at least symbolically.
It was on 31 October in 1984 that the temple committee at Peramangalam, near Thrissur, bought the tall and handsome Ramachandran for Rs 70,000, disregarding its unruly behavioural patterns. The elephant had been brought to Kerala from Assam.
Ramachandran at present enjoys huge popularity, with several Facebook fan pages and YouTube videos extolling his grandeur. Standing tall at 10 feet and six inches, Ramachandran had turned partially blind after having been poked in the eye many years ago by a mahout. But that has never been a concern for his fan followers, who call the tusker Ekachatradhipathi or lone emperor; some have even christened him Kaliyugaraman (Ram of Kalyug).
"Affection for elephants runs deep in Kerala. Pachyderms are generally graded according to their thalapokkam (height), length, beauty of their tusks and overall shape, and Ramachandran scores high on all parameters. But his beauty blinds his fans to his erratic behaviour," said V K Venkitachalam, secretary of the Thrissur-based animal rights organisation, Heritage Animal Task Force. Last February, the animal was paraded at a house warming function in Guruvayur and it killed two people on that occasion. And after that incident, Venkitachalam and a set of other activists managed to get an official ban on parading the elephant.
But soon after the general elections, fans of Ramachandran and the Kerala Elephant Owners’ Federation clamoured to overturn the ban so that the elephant could be paraded at the Pooram.
Ill-treated by mahouts
"This is not just the story of Ramachandran alone. The whole drama explains clearly the way Kerala has been treating its captive elephants. Ten elephants have died since January this year in Kerala mostly because of physical punishment meted out by their mahouts or owners. Eight mahouts have been trampled to death by elephants in this period," said Venkitachalam.
As per the data available with the Kerala Forest Department, officials have seized six elephants with visible injuries on account of bad treatment since January from private owners and rehabilitated them in an elephant camp at Kottur near Thiruvananthapuram. The camp now houses 36 elephants seized from erring elephant owners ever since it started functioning four years ago.
“Our demand is that the government must immediately improve facilities at the Kottur camp so that it can seize and accommodate all the privately-owned elephants. Elephant owners with only money on their minds are parading them in almost all religious festivals, ignoring the extreme weather conditions and high decibel bursting of firecrackers. Even for occasions like housewarming, elephants are being paraded, inviting huge risks, including mortality,” said activist Purushan Eloor of Save Periyar Action Forum.
But the powerful Kerala Elephants Owners' Federation is in denial mode. The sole organisation of private elephant owners in Kerala has been threatening to withhold from parading elephants under their care, in festivals like Thrissur Pooram, until the government relaxes rules pertaining to even problematic elephants like Ramachandran. “Bajaj Pulsar bikes (a brand of motorcycles) are generally found to be involved in accidents. Will that be sufficient grounds for banning all Pulsar bikes?” asks a defiant federation president P Sasikumar.
More than just an animal
As far as Kerala is concerned, elephants are more than just animals. They are deeply connected to the state’s cultural, religious and social traditions. “More than anything else, changing climatic conditions and events for which they are paraded have made life tougher for elephants in Kerala, and so they often rebel and wreak havoc. But even then elephants are the first priority for those who wish to add pomp and gaiety to festivals and even personal functions,” said Venkitachalam. Most of the temple festivals take place at the peak of summer and the rising temperatures are known to irk the parading elephants. Along with escalating heat, the dust, water scarcity and shortage of fodder that have been a consequence of changing climate, are also making life miserable for elephants.
Elephants have been extending a certain magnificence and splendour to the state’s religious and cultural narratives. However, mistreatment of elephants has become rampant in the past few decades and tamed elephants have been turning violent. During the summer festival season, not a day passes without the news of at least two incidents of elephant violence being reported.
Experts are of the opinion that elephants can never be domesticated and that they can only be kept captive. “The basic truth about captive elephants is that they can never be fully domesticated. The domesticated elephants always nurse a tendency to return to the wild and never return. Thus, they are wild though they appear tamed by obeying certain commands," says Jacob V Cheeran, a retired veterinary professor.
These animals usually turn violent because of being ill-treated. In order to make money, their owners rent out these animals for being paraded, and they are taken from one festival venue to the other and practically have no rest during a festival season. “This is not worshipping of elephants. It’s simply abuse in the name of business and religion,” said Venkitachalam.
Banner image: Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, the elephant that caused the controversy during Thrissur Pooram 2019. Photo by Gasoongi/Deepika.
This article was originally published on Mongabay.com.
Mongabay-India is an environmental science and conservation news service. This article has been republished under the Creative Commons licence.