‘What they don’t tell you is you never forget an elephant’.

KMB 12,13,14 Dec 041

An elephant never forgets. But as Bill Murray jokes, you don’t forget an elephant. Tripunithura then, is full of memories.

Ritual, blurring into performance, can knit a community together, and that community can, to an extent, include the elephant.

This, at least, is the vivid picture of the past described by the Varma family (Anujan, Prasana, Prashant). This family has lived with and alongside elephants since childhood. While acknowledging the exploitation of the animals, they tell us a story of a relationship that has been eroded, where familial ties with the elephant have been replaced by commercial transactions, to the detriment of animal welfare.

The elephant ritual at the temple in Tripunithura, itself central to the community, is not merely a festival occurrence. On a daily basis, a single elephant circumnavigates the temple – and this also happens during and aside from the festival line-up of elephants (we observed it at 4.30 am, singly circling the shrine). This means that there is permanently at least one elephant in the neighbourhood, and previously, the temple elephants would reside there, or nearby, all year round, many sleeping in the temple grounds (this happened up to the 1960s). In wealthy times, there were many elephants; in lean times, their numbers dwindled. They were chosen, not for their height, or for facebook followers (as now), but for docility. Rather than have fodder brought to the temple, they would walk from house to house, gathering a little at each, and spending time with the families. This walking, and as elephant rituals increased, walking between temples, helped keep the elephants fit, and bonded them with the community. Of course, the changes in road conditions and traffic make this undesirable.

Elephants used to be part of the triumvirate of owner, mahout and animal, each possessing respect, if not equal status. The familial network of elephant ownership was sustained by the intermarriage of Nambudiri (Malayali Brahmins, the temple owners), with the land-owning, matrilineal Nairs. We were told a story of a Cochin king, who, on recognising the family mahout in a visit to a prison, demanded that he be released, since the elephant was now alone. The mahouts would stay with their elephants as a lifelong commitment, often handing over the elephant’s care to sons who had trained under them. Although the relationship was based on dominance, it was also based on a deep bond, with the mahout often sleeping next to the elephant, and spending most of his time alongside the animal. We heard of a mahout, Gopalan Nair, whose relationship with the elephant was so strong that in his old age, he was able to walk partly supported by the elephant’s tusk; on his deathbed, he asked that the elephant be taken away, as otherwise he would be unlikely to obey another mahout.

Another narrative tells of a mahout whose elephant trusted him so completely, that when the mahout lay down to sleep by the road, the elephant lay down and slept beside him, to the confusion of passers-by (this is not what elephants normally do!)

Prasana Varma emphasised the sense of community around the temple, the likelihood of knowing nearly everyone at the festival. As a child, she not only remembered the continuous presence of elephants in the back garden, or visiting the house, but also being happily left in the temple all night, to sleep on the floor in front of the Kathakali performers, or to hang around the grounds, near the elephants themselves. The elephants are remembered as family members.

Of course, this may be a romantic picture and even to advocate for learning from the best aspects of the past can result in accusations of endorsing animal cruelty. Yet all of the family take care not to deny the problems of keeping a wild animal within a domestic setting, and indeed they are passionate about the need for change from the current situation (and listening, too, to elephant biologist nephew, Sreedhar). However, when the relationship between human and animal is so closely interwoven, there is less need for cruelty and distrust, and less suffering all round, than in present circumstances.

These days, elephants are brought to the festival in trucks from across the state. The mahout’s profession has become much more short-term, so that the elephant might have a constant change of mahout, with consequent stress and more aggressive methods of training. The use of chains when walking, while understandable as a safety precaution, has itself caused all kinds of health problems. As mentioned in a previous post, standards of care have fallen, including poor feeding that results in impaction. The keeping of elephants has become commercial, and profitable. Mahout rivalry is similar to that of the Kathakali performers, or the drummers, mirroring similar concerns about profit and status. The elephant ritual, while it is still a ritual here, rather than simply a display (as at Thrissur), has become less embedded in the community. The status of the mahout is low, and little concern is shown for the men (or very occasionally women) who share the elephant’s experience in so many respects; there is a high level of substance abuse among them. When logging was banned, a number of elephants and mahouts migrated from the North to Kerala, in search of work, often forced to beg by the roadside. The logging ban, however necessary, also has negative effects on animal fitness, and on the mahout’s ability to earn money all year round.

While there is recognition that change needs to happen, there is also a need to capture the knowledge of such families as well as that of the mahouts, because they have lived so closely to these animals, without fear, and with a high degree of exchange between them. They, above all, understand what is at stake for the elephant in his treatment at the hands of human beings. At the same time, there is a sense of loss: ‘What I get from the elephant is something very special,’ says Prasana. ‘I can’t put my finger on it. I get a lot from the elephant… but it doesn’t from me.’