During the golden days of my childhood, I used to spend a great deal of my vacation at my Mother’s place in Thrissur, the cultural capital of my home state Kerala.
So Thrissur is a land of temples and during the summer time most of these temples have their small-big festivals , called “poorams” in the local dialect. These poorams are quite fun and a heaven for the kids. They are quite noisy and colorful, like a carnival ,with road side vendors selling sweets, toys and balloons, cultural programs, small rides for the kids,small road side shows!The temple premise would be reverberating with the sounds of “Chenda melams” , Chenda being a Kerala’s own version of drum.But most importantly there will be elephants.
So in South India, Hindu religious customs are closely tied with Elephants. May be it is because we have a god “Ganesha” who is believed to have the head of an elephant.In temples of Karnataka, you will find trained elephants waiting to bless you with their trunk, when you give them “dakshinas” in the form of money or eatables. And in Kerala, for all the special occasions in the temple, the deity or the ‘mooorthy'(the “statue of the god/goddess”) is carried outside the temple majestically on the elephant back.
One of my cousin brother had taken a fancy to the elephants right from when he was a toddler. In fact in all our pretend plays, where each of us would assume roles like Mother or teacher or doctor or anything likewise, he would insist on being an elephant.So what ever game we played, we had to modify the script to accommodate an elephant. Since he was the youngest and was the most pampered at that point of time( he has lost that “youngest” status since long), we all readily included elephants in anything and everything. Movies with elephants, stories with elephant, pictures with elephant – just anything with an elephant was loved. I am not sure how many times I have sen movies like “Guruvayur kehsavan” or “Gajakesariyogam” or “Kolakomban”, all Malayalam movies staring elephants!
During those days, an elephant from the nearby timber mill used to pass our gate twice daily, possibly taken by it’s caretaker to the temple pond for a bath. We kids used to keep our ears open for the jingles of the chain and would dash to the gate to watch the beast gracefully walk across. Sometimes we used to offer him banana or mangoes, but most often we would just stand and stare.
One summer, three elephants were brought to the temple in our village for the “vela”, the shorter form of “pooram”. One of the elephant was in musth and managed to break off( musth is a condition is when an adult male elephant enter a state of increased testosterone and becomes difficult to control, more than often these beasts escapes from captivity and proceed to cause large scale destruction and in some unfortunate instances it even ends up killing a person or two) . The elephant trainers and caretakers who had accompanied the trio were in a fix. They had to stay back to capture and calm the one which broke off and needed a place to tether the other two elephants. My uncle, most probably because he knew of the fascination of his nieces and nephews for elephants, let the men tie the elephants in our yard. There is a huge yard surrounding my mothers house with a lot of coconut trees, so it was a very convenient place to restrain the elephants for a day.
There were no bounds to our joy. We kids ran between the spots where two of the elephants were tethered, the former just a baby and the latter a big calm handsome bull!
The younger elephant was very restless and was tied to a jackfruit tree with a rope.Yes a rope, since the men had taken it’s chain to capture the escaped beast. May be it was the fact that there was a mere rope that kept the animal in control or may be it was because he was very restless ,plucking down and squashing all the tender jack fruits, our joy dampened. So we confined ourselves before the big bull where the only caretaker who stayed behind was showing us the tricks teh elephant was capable of doing. He used to spell out commands and the elephant would lift his trunk up or make the grunting noise or spray water or pee and poop in turn, all of which we found very hilarious.
But then after few hours the caretaker told us that the elephant in question had killed 5 men previously. I am still not sure if it was the truth or if he got too tired with us kids monkeying around that he just lied to get rid of us. But the revelation was more than enough to sent us all into the safety of our home.
All our excitement and happiness was soon replaced by pure terror as it became darker. We could hear the trumpets of the elephants as we ate our dinner in silence.Our mothers were exchanging their concerns in nervous chatter- “what if the elephants break free? There was one guy in the premise, how will he control both the animals.” and so on.
My grandmother was solely concerned about all those jack fruit the little beast had destroyed and the coconut leaves that the caretakers had knocked down for free. She kept voicing her worry about the cows in the shed that was quite near to jack fruit tree.”What would those mute beings do if that rope breaks?”. And yes, my uncle was reprimanded a lot for his immature action.
At night we kids slept peacefully, but may be it was not very true about the adults in the house, especially the women.Late into the night , the caretakers returned.They had captured and calmed the third elephant and had to start immediately to their next destination .Since they assumed that we all were asleep, they just proceeded to leave the premises with their animals. My aunt, who was half asleep and heard the rattling of the chains, got up with a start and looked out through the window to see an elephant wanting free withing the compound.And yes, she did not see the men behind and did have a shock for her life! She had for a second though that one of the elephant had broke free and was walking around!
My cousin still nurses his love for elephants.One look at his Facebook page would reveal his passion,for most of the pictures he has uploaded or shared are of elephants. His greatest childhood ambition was to be an elephant caretaker or to buy an elephant. Since he is already in his final year of engineering, I don’t expect him to be an elephant caretaker, but who knows he might eventually buy an elephant!