An elephant in the garden

9th DecToday we were able to interview Mr Anujan Varma, one of the festival organisers, and Mr Bhaskaran Nair, who is a retired mahout.

We asked both of them about the future of elephants in the festival. Mr Varma felt it was hard to predict. Although it is illegal to capture elephants, when numbers rise, the Forest Department may itself have to capture some elephants due to  human-elephant conflict (as has happened recently in Karnataka) and these elephants may be cared for by individuals in agreements with that department (officially all captive elephants are owned by the Forestry Department). This could feasibly continue the temple supply. The popularity of the festivals might also prove politically persuasive, and for other reasons, there could be many ways of continuing.

In contrast, Mr Nair considered that the festival will not last for another fifteen years, since new guidelines for caring for elephants stipulate that they need so much land, their maintenance cannot be logistically managed.

Many other things were said about the experience of the Vrishchikotsavam – too much for this one post, but more another time.

We also asked Mr Nair, who has a long experience as a mahout, about his impression of how things are changing, and some of the questions I asked yesterday about the elephants’ experiences.

In terms of change, while some of the regulations for the elephants’ treatment are improvements, what has deteriorated is the training of the mahouts, with a shortage of those who have bonded with the elephants over time, and who take time to train these animals, too. Some mahouts now use punishment as a starting point, rather than a last resort. They take short cuts, for example they do not take time to scrub the animals all over, in running water, a process the elephant enjoys, and often sleeps through; instead they are casually scrubbed with a brush (not coconut shell or stone) in a still pond, which provides no such pleasure and leaves folds uncared for and susceptible to infection. The details of the elephants’ needs can often be lost, to the detriment of the elephants’ wellbeing.

In answer to our questions about whether the elephants respond to the music, he was quite positive, however, that they do. They do recognise it as different from other sounds, and they do respond differently from each other. His own former elephant used to sway as the drums built up to a climax. Another elephant used to sway even upon entering the temple here, but no other temples. This implies a recognition of place, though whether this was ‘dancing’ is unclear (it could be an emotional response of some sort). He also thought that some elephants are aware of being watched, and some enjoy it (though not all). Some hope to be fed, and some seem to like attention. On the other hand, when asked what the elephant thinks of the Vrishchikotsavam, he laughs and says that an elephant never chooses the festival.

These examples and other stories served to illustrate the significance of individuality and suggest that gathering the mahouts’ knowledge could be really significant for our understanding of animals, where scientific findings can often be generalized, if clearly evidenced, rather than individualised, through careful, longterm observation.

After the interviews, we met the elephant in the back garden. Of course, we did not really interview him, but we were glad to meet him. He stood quietly, while Jerri fed him some bananas.