The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 3, 2000

In the land of elephants
By K.R.N. Swamy

IT is interesting to consider, as to how, the elephants — the Elephant God’s well loved representatives, are faring in India since September is Ganesh Chaturthi. The view is not encouraging. With elephants carrying a divine halo, they live longer than their African cousins who occupy a low position, as just one denizen of the forest to lure tourists. Some recent surveys have borne this out that the Asian pachyderms (estimated at 35000 in number), which includes the Royal White elephant of Thailand, will outlast their African counterparts.

The number of elephants in India is "guessed to be about 18000" a considerable reduction in the last 50 years. But in the southern most state of Kerala, we have the maximum number of domesticated elephants — about 550 — and here is situated the largest elephant farm, attached to the famous temple of Guruvayoor in north Kerala. Three kilometres away from the temple, this farm with its 41 elephants (33 male and 8 female) is situated in the centuries old coconut farm of the former Rajahs of Punnathur, the ancient palace providing administrative offices for the farm.

India’s largest elephant farm maintained by Guruvayur Temple, Kerala — Photo by the writerWant to hire an elephant for a religious festival? Or, as a ride for a VIP family bridegroom? Well, you can rent one, if you are in Kerala, where the Guruvayoor temple this auspicious symbol of "obstacle remover" ..It cost just Rs 800. Many ancient temples with elephants have lost their vast acres of temple property to the ‘land to the tiller’ movement. And quite a number of smaller temples have ‘Elephants’ gifted to them, which they cannot maintain. The Guruvayoor temple elephant farms takes these elephants and brings them up. Ranging from baby elephants that are only a few weeks old to grandmotherly pachyderms, the elephants are trained to obey commands and participate in the temple rituals. They learn to move the trunk to the left or right as commanded, kneel down to enable the deity to be placed on the back and trumpet a hearty welcome to the deity.

The farm employees 98 mahouts, , on the basis of three mahouts for the large elephants and two each for the smaller ones. There is a supervisor to take care of administrative matters and a whole time veterinary doctor available to take care of elephantine health problems. It was not possible to find out as to how much it was costing the temple to run this nine-acre farm with nearly four dozen elephants. But a ‘local’ elephant enthusiast added up the costs and opined that it must be between Rs 3 to 5 million every year, a portion of the amount being recovered by the ‘hiring out’ charges.

An idol of Lord GaneshaThe elephants on the farm, also bring in tourist revenue, by participating in the annual elephant race at the Guruvayoor temple. Known in local parlance as ‘Anaiottam’, its only known rival attraction is the annual elephant race at Suran in Thailand. The competing elephants, usually nine of the best, run along the road, starting from a point one furlong away from the main Guruvayoor temple entrance. Entering the temple, they race around the first prakaram (temple corridor) a fixed number of times (7, 9 or 11 .. always a odd number). The elephant that first touches the Dwajastampam (flag mast) is declared the winner. The winner elephant has a number of special privileges, like that of the central place of honour in the annual 10-day-long festival procession and the right to be tethered inside the temple. Besides this, it is the duty of the loser elephants to bring the daily food to the race winner. The mahout of the winning pachyderm gets a sizeable reward.

It is said that the elephant race dates from the 18th century. In those days, the Guruvayoor temple was under the management of another famous temple nearby, the Trikkannamatilakam temple. Elephants for the annual ceremonial flag hoisting of the Guruvayoor temple, a ritual that marked the start of the festival, used to come from the Trikkannamatilakam temple on ‘loan’. One year, in the 18th century, owing to some misunderstanding’, the elephants were not sent for the function. But surprisingly, as the auspicious hour for the ceremonial flag hoisting approached, the elephants from the stables of the Trikkannamatilakam temple broke their tied chains and rushed to the Guruvayoor temple, arriving just in time for the ritual to commence. In honour of this divine intervention, this miraculous run’ of the elephants to the Guruvayoor temple is commemorated in the annual elephant race. The elephants, as befitting a group of very intelligent animals, are keenly conscious of the honour of winning the race. The enthusiasm of the mahouts gets reflected in their behaviour.

A few years ago, the winner and the runners-up (the elephants Ramankutty and Ravindran) began to fight inside the temple. With seven more elephants in the temple corridor, the worshippers began to panic and in the ensuring melee one spectator died and fifteen others were injured. Since then the race is run with more restrictions and precautions. It is befitting that with such a grand tradition of elephant lore, India’s largest elephant farm is maintained by Guruvayoor temple.

— MF