Thirty-five years ago, when a visitor to Peramangalam village near Thrissur in Kerala, overheard a tea shop conversation about buying an elephant for the shrine of the local goddess, he got so excited that he immediately donated Rs 500 towards the cause. Local residents, too, soon pooled enough funds to purchase an elephant for the Thechikottukavu Temple. The chosen pachyderm was tall and beautiful, so much so that the villagers overlooked that its owner was selling it because he was tired of its unruly ways. They bought it for Rs 70,000 on October 31, 1984 and renamed it Thechikottukavu Ramachandran.
Today, the elephant’s popularity, with his Facebook fan pages and YouTube videos, surpasses that of the village and its temple. Standing at 10 ft and six inches, 54-year-old Ramachandran is partially blind, owing to being poked in the eye many years ago by a mahout. But that doesn’t matter to his fans, who call the tusker ekachatradhipathi (the one true king) and kaliyugaraman (Ram of Kalyug), as announced by a golden chain around his neck.
Affection for elephants runs deep in Kerala. They are graded according to their thalapokkam (height), the length and beauty of the tusks and their overall shape, and Ramachandran scores high on all parameters. But his beauty blinds his fans to his erratic behaviour. At last count, as many as 13 people had been killed in accidents involving Ramachandran; the latest incident occurred in Guruvayur in February, at a housewarming ceremony, in which two people died. Following a petition from an animal welfare group, a ban on parading the elephant — found medically unfit by a five-member committee — was placed by the chief wildlife warden.
Yet, within months of the incident, Ramachandran’s (aka Raman’s) fans and the Kerala Elephant Owners’ Federation clamoured to overturn the ban so that Raman could headline Thrissur Pooram, Kerala’s largest and most vibrant temple festival. On May 13, massive crowds will gather at the grounds of the Vadakkumnathan Temple in the heart of Thrissur to witness a spectacle, featuring 30 elephants decked in elaborate nettipattams (caparisons), with performers of traditional instruments, and a deafening fireworks display. Ramachandran signals the start of the festivities on the eve of Pooram, bursting through the south gate of the temple, as thousands of mobile phones are raised up in the air, to capture this moment.
This Pooram, elephant owners and festival organisers have been demanding Ramachandran’s release. “After Ramachandran, they will (ban) other elephants, and destroy temple festivals and their grandeur,” says Chandran Ramanthara, president of the Thechikottukavu Devaswom, which owns Ramachandran.
On Saturday morning, as an outcome of clear pressure from the public and the administration, the Thrissur district collector relaxed the ban for an hour so that Ramachandran can participate in the ritual on Sunday, the eve of Pooram. There are strict conditions though: 10-metre gap between the elephant and the public, barricades around the animal and four mahouts to accompany it all times.
Elephants have great ritualistic significance in Kerala, and are tasked with carrying the thidambu (deity’s replica), during festivals. The number of elephants a temple owns also indicates its wealth.
Ramanthara insists that there have been several attempts by jealous parties to harm Raman. In 2015, shards of glass were found mixed in his balls of rice, leading the mahout, who was a suspect, to commit suicide. Ramachandran’s ban, Ramanthara says, would take a financial toll on the Thechikottukavu Devaswom Board which depends on his earnings. Ramachandran still fetches a whopping Rs 2 lakh a day.
P Sasikumar, president of the Kerala Elephant Owners’ Federation, claims there are ulterior motives at work. “Other elephants have proven to be more dangerous than Ramachandran. So what is the logic in banning just him?” he says.
But the ban won’t be easy to overturn. Kerala’s Forest Minister, K Raju, stated in a Facebook post this week, “When an elephant of such a destructive nature is allowed to parade in an area containing large crowds, even a small disturbance can lead to a huge disaster.” VK Venkitachalam, secretary of the Heritage Animal Task Force, which routinely monitors torture and cruelty of temple elephants, says, “Human safety must precede temple rituals.” According to him, the sole reason the temple organisers are fixated on Raman is because of his “money power”. He says,“He’s getting old and past his retirement age. If you have an old person in your family, would you parade him all over the town?”
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Ramachandran is Still in Business’