The One-Eyed Star Elephant of Kerala

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Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, a Bihari by birth, has a fan following. You may even log onto a Facebook community set up by Malayalees who adore the tusker

Thechikottuvaku Ramachandran, Kerala’s star elephant, is actually a Bihari who used to be called Moti Prasad. It took him some time to get to grips with Malayalam because all he understood in the beginning was Bhojpuri and Hindi. But three decades later, at the age of 47, he is the state’s most loved animal. For evidence, go online. Visit the Facebook page of the online community that admiring Keralities have set up in his honour. Or check out his Wiki page, or any of his video clips on YouTube. The internet is full of stories, both factual and mythical, about him.

Something is always being written about him in local newspapers. Travel through Thrissur and Palakkad districts of Kerala, and you cannot miss huge boards with magnificent pictures of the elephant, all signed off ‘Best wishes from Ramachandran’s fan association’.

Amitabh Bachchan gained his fans as the ‘angry young man’, Shah Rukh Khan romanced his way to stardom, but Ramachandran just grew… and grew. At 3 m and 14 cm, he is said to be the tallest captive elephant in India, and second tallest in Asia. His stateliness is something to write home about: his large forehead held high, he has two long tusks that curve majestically, and a distinctive trunk that no one in his right mind gets in the way of.

All this is key to Ramachandran’s appeal, for his role is ceremonial. His main job is to be caparisoned as part of festive processions of temples in Kerala. Being the tallest, Ramachandran always has the honour of carrying the idol of the deity, a task that gets the tusker VIP treatment for the day. This year so far, Ramachandran has attended 73 festivals and there are more to go. Kerala’s temple festival season begins in January and comes to a close by mid-June. Office bearers of the Thechikottukavu temple trust claim they ensure a two-day gap between festivals for their star idol-carrier to rest. “It’s not true,” contends a local, though, “In peak season, he has to travel constantly with no rest.”

The display of caparisoned elephants at such festivals is crucial to the splendour—and earnings—of temple trusts. They compete to exhibit their own elephants, and Ramachandran would cut a striking figure in any lineup, his head higher than all others in a row. This has led to a ban on him by organisers of some of the state’s major temple festivals. For instance, at the famous Thrissur Pooram where elephants are decorated in magnificent colours, the two temple trusts that compete with each other, Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi, have both barred Ramachandran. Many other temple trusts have done likewise. So now Ramachandran mostly goes to Kerala’s smaller temple festivals. There are few major ones that will risk having him outshine all the rest.

Ramachandran was 18 years old when he was bought by KN Venkitadri, an elephant contractor, at Bihar’s Sonepur festival. Venkitadri asked his office clerk A Sankarankutty to bring the elephant to Kerala, where his name was changed from Moti Prasad to Ganeshan. “It was in 1982 or 1983 that I brought him,” says Sankarankutty, “Venkitadri kept him only for a year and then handed him over to Thechikottukavu temple.” It was the Thechikottukavu temple trust that renamed him Ramachandran. “It was on the day of the assassination of Indira Gandhi,” says Vasudevan Kurumboor, secretary of the temple trust.

Ramachandran had barely settled in when he suffered a cruel blow that was to leave him visually impaired. In the course of a beating inflicted by a mahout with a long stick, the elephant was struck in the left eye. “In a few days, he developed an infection there and lost sight in the left eye,” says Venkitadri, “The mahout was dismissed from the job.” A partially blind Ramachandran was hard to control. “The elephant was always scared,” says Sankarankutty, “He used to throw broken palm leaves and stones at mahouts. He often made attempts to pull and break the metal chain around his legs.”

In his suffering, Ramachandran was no different from any other captive elephant. “Elephant owners and mahouts are not sensitive to the needs of an elephant,” says VK Venkitachalam, president of Heritage Animal Task Force (formerly Elephant Lovers Association), an organisation that has filed seven legal suits across courts in Kerala against the torture of elephants. “They don’t know the language of an elephant. They are not patient enough to observe and listen to the elephant and learn its language.” Most captive elephants brought in from northern states can follow instructions only in Hindi, he says, but mahouts in Kerala lose patience and start hitting them if they refuse to obey orders in Malayalam. “That was what happened to Ramachandran too,” says Venkitachalam. “It might have understood only Bhojpuri and Hindi, but mahouts who knew nothing other than Malayalam tortured it—and it lost its eyesight.” In his own defence, Ramachandran’s buyer Venkitadri says he had given the mahouts in charge some ‘special coaching’ in Hindi.

Venkitachalam cites another case of gross insensitivity. “An elephant was bought by a temple trust from a Muslim merchant and named Devi Dasan. The elephant did not understand this name. It was mast (lost to the call of its mating instincts) and turned violent during a temple festival. Mahouts tried to pacify it by calling its name but without effect. Somebody suggested calling it by its original name ‘Hameed’. So addressed, the elephant turned calm again.” It’s hard to verify a story like this, especially when it’s just one among hundreds of tales doing the rounds in Kerala of such a pachydermous ‘identity crisis’. “In a similar way, Ramachandran might not have understood either the new name or language,” says Venkitachalam.

Ramachandran was eventually brought in line. But even now, despite his stardom, everybody stays at an arm’s length from him. He has the reputation of a ‘dangerous animal’.

Three deaths have been notched up to his account. A 17-year-old boy was killed by Ramachandran during a festival in Palakkadu in 2009. “It was not his fault,” says Mani, who has been his mahout for 17 years. “Somebody lit a trail of firecrackers and threw it on the road near the elephant’s legs. He got scared and ran.”

Later, in a similar incident during a festival in Ernakulum, Ramachandran picked up an old woman with his trunk and threw her down. She died on the spot. Mahouts and fans blame Ramachandran’s visual impairment for all these incidents. “He cannot see anything on his left,” says Mani, “So he gets easily scared.”

Ramachandran’s most widely reported case of alleged violence was against another celebrity tusker—Chandrasekharan, an idol-carrier for the Thiruvambadi temple trust in Thrissur. In 1998, Ramachandran stabbed Chandrasekharan with his tusks so badly that the injured elephant fell ill and died the following year.

The Thiruvambadi trust filed a case against the Thechikottukavu temple, but Ramachandran was ‘acquitted’ by a court in the absence of sufficient evidence to prove the charge against him. Vasudevan Kurumboor, who is president of the Thechikottukavu trust, insists Ramachandran was blameless. It was an accident, plain and simple, he says: “Both the elephants were walking in a row with a few others. Suddenly, another elephant hit Ramachandran from the back. It got scared, turned to its left, and accidentally stabbed Chandrasekharan in its stomach with his sharp tusks.”

But Vasudevan also makes it a point to exercise caution whenever he goes near Ramachandran in the absence of his mahout. “He is very lovable,” he says, “but it is good to be careful.” No less careful is Kareem Sahib, a local Congress leader from Palakkad; as a fan, he often visits Ramachandran to feed him bananas and palm leaves. “I love him a lot,” he says, “but I go near and touch him only in Mani’s presence.”

Thanks to his fans, Ramachandran has plenty of food. Devotees who visit the Thechikottukavu temple often turn up with bananas, sugarcane and palm leaves for him. “The people in the locality are his real guardians,” says Vasudevan, “They always check whether there’s enough palm leaves for him. If not, they will be angry with us.” Apart from this, Ramachandran eats 10 kg of rice and 7-8 kg of chyavanaprasam, an ayurvedic paste, every day.

The star elephant also has a special vehicle—a truck with a huge wooden cage at the back—to cart him around; under a 2002 amendment of India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, it is illegal to make elephants walk more than 20 km at a stretch. He is not allowed to travel during his (remarkably long) mast season from August to December every year. He is kept chained during this period—for the safety, particularly, of the mahouts who deny him his freedom. Ramachandran frequently gets furious. But it is an honourable fury. “He does not allow the mahouts to go near him,” says Vasudevan, “But he is calm with everyone else.”