Razor blades in food, a celebrity who was almost poisoned, and a caretaker who killed himself in grief — Kerala’s long love affair with Thechikottukavu Ramachandran has just seen a bloody twist.
And the state’s most famous and tallest captive tusker, that has been involved in at least five deaths so far, is in mourning.
Few dare approach the 10.3-ft-high Ramachandran these days, yoked still to his pole in the courtyard of the Thechi-kottukavu goddess temple at Peramangalam in Thrissur.
“After his mahout Shibu died last Saturday, the elephant did not take any food the next day. We could see Ramachandran was looking for Shibu, who had been his shadow for three years,” says temple trust secretary K Vasudevan.
A youth who used to assist Shibu abandoned the job after he died. An old woman employee, V K Madhavi, is the only one the elephant, in the early days of must, now allows to approach him. She feeds him and clears the area around.
The temple trust has approached the All Kerala Elephant Employees Union to find a replacement for Shibu.
They can’t lose any time. In a state where the obsession with elephants even has a name (aana pranthu) and where pachyderms occupy the centrestage at temple festivals, the 50-year-old Ramachandran is the most sought after of them all. In a contest where height matters, he stands 6 cm above the next (Chirackal Kalidasan). During festival season, Ramachandran fetches Rs 1 lakh for a single event. And if more than one temple wants Ramachandran, the Thechikottukavu trust hands him over for the day to the highest bidder after an auction.
The next temple festival season is in January.
Ramachandran boasts a popular Facebook page, as well as a colourful past. V K Venikitachalam, president of the Heritage Animal Task Force, claims Ramachandran killed several people and three elephants after he was brought to Kerala in 1982 from Bihar. Due to the brutal attack from a mahout during its initial days in Kerala, he lost sight in the right eye.
According to Venikitachalam, this has left the elephant edgy. An otherwise quiet tusker, Ramachandran could run amok at even the slightest provocation, he says.
In 2013, Ramachandran was blamed for causing a stampede at a temple festival in Ernakulam district that led to the death of three. After that incident, the elephant was even ‘arrested’ and kept in forest custody. The temple trust eventually paid a surety of Rs 30 lakh to get Ramachandran released after 45 days.
The latest chapter in Ramachandran’s life was as dramatic. On August 7, Shibu reportedly stumbled upon a few pieces of razor blades in cooked rice kept for the elephant. He said he picked the blades out, and rolled the same rice into balls to feed Ramachandran.
“Although we had no reason to suspect him for this conspiracy, Shibu committed a major lapse by not promptly reporting the matter to the temple trust. He informed us only the next day. Besides, he fed the elephant the same food,” says Vasudevan.
A police probe was ordered on August 8, and six days later, Shibu consumed poison and rushed to the elephant floor. Clutching Ramachandran’s front leg, he started crying and pleading his innocence. As the elephant was in must, no one else dared approach it. While the standoff was on, Shibu’s mobile phone, kept some distance away, started ringing. A temple employee approached Shibu with the phone, and as the mahout extended his hand to get it, pulled him away from Ramachandran.
The mahout was rushed to the hospital, where he died.
As the temple trust looks for an explanation, Vasudevan talks about how difficult Shibu’s job was. The temple trust secretary says many would humour him in order to get near Ramachandran during festival seasons. “Mahouts nurture local fans, but Shibu did not entertain them. Hence, a section of the fans was not happy with Shibu,” says Vasudevan.
They are not even entertaining the thought that anyone might have tried to harm Ramachandran. While Vasudevan acknowledges that other elephant owners would gain from keeping the most-coveted pachyderm away from festival business, he believes Ramachandran is too much Kerala’s pride for anyone to harm him.
Still, they are not taking chances. Apart from constant CCTV surveillance, a guard now keeps watch over Ramachandran at all times, while new gates have been installed at the entrance to his enclosure. Besides, the rice to be fed to him is kept locked in a room before being served.
Replacing Shibu won’t be as easy. The All Kerala Elephant Employees Union president Suresh Kumar says mahouts are not too keen to take up the job. Ramachandran’s fame may be mammoth, but Shibu’s story has tilted the scales.