Fifty-five domestic elephants that had never seen anything more than a hose-pipe shower struggle to have a bath in the one-foot deep water of the Moyar river; mahouts with red and orange mugs sit atop wrinkled elephant tummies with bristling brushes to scrub their skin, even as fellow-mahouts in transparent towels bathe in the water blessed by elephant urine and dung; elephant hooves are treated with ayurvedic oils and weak animals are given IV drips; elephants eat, bathe, sleep, healthily defecate six times a day and just do nothing.... If you need to understand why some of Tamil Nadu's elephants got briefly lucky, there's a small story and a large-hearted soul behind it.
Two years ago, after storming back to power, Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalitha donated a 12-year-old elephant to the Guruvayur temple in Kerala on the advice of her astrologer Unnikrishna Panikker. In July 2003, a hungry cow elephant in a Chennai temple ran amok and the temple had to be closed for a week. Jayalalitha was moved. She declared a month-long annual holiday for temple elephants in the state and ordered a rejuvenation camp. "It is our duty to protect all animals. Especially, protecting the elephant, which is the largest land animal and most helpful to humans, is our important duty," the Puratchi Thalaivi (Revolutionary Leader) observed. Around the same time, the TN government informed the Supreme Court that it was common for labourers in Tiruvarur district—the state's rice-bowl now reeling under a drought—to eat 'robust rats' and denied they had been forced to adopt such habits due to starvation. Several newspapers reported the starvation deaths though. Moral of the story: TN's rats remain robust in drought, not peasants. But shouldn't the fate of rats be of equal concern since they bear the weight of the elephant-headed Ganesha?
For now, however, back to Theppakkadu, 40 km from Ooty, in the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary, where 37 of the 41 temple elephants and 18 of the 40 privately-owned elephants in the state are participating in the 'rejuvenation camp'—sponsored by TN's Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments ministry—till December 15.
First, some elephant facts. It is only the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, that can be tamed, domesticated and put to work. The African elephant is quite anti-social. In India, we have three kinds—wild elephants, work elephants groomed by the forest department, and temple elephants whose condition Chennai-based wandering naturalist Theodore Baskaran describes as "the worst of the lot". Earlier, in a time when people wrote politically incorrect tales like 'Five Blind Men and An Elephant', elephants were also used in war and exported (Hannibal used Asian elephants). Elephant meat was regarded a delicacy. Today, the population of the Asian elephant, an endangered species, is down to 50,000—less than 10 per cent of its African counterpart.
The idea of a holiday for oppressed temple elephants seems fine, but according to Baskaran, author of The Dance of the Sarus, "It is an anthropomorphic projection". Put simply, "we are projecting the idea of a human holiday on to elephants. They don't share human concerns". But, says Raman Sukumar, professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and author of books such as Elephant Days and Nights and The Living Elephants: "Any opportunity for elephants to socialise with other elephants is good." However, at the Theppakkadu camp, the elephants are not really allowed to socialise. In fact, Ashok Uprety, wildlife warden, one of the organisers of the camp, refuses to let the elephants stand together and pose for a photo, since "we don't know how these elephants will behave when they come close to each other".
Uprety also points out that none of the camp elephants has ever mated before.And the sex ratio in the camp is unlikely to precipitate sex. Among the 55 elephants, only four are bulls, of which two are juvenile. Of the remaining two, one is a rogue. "Besides," says S. Shanmugasundaram, forest veterinary officer, "none of these cows is in oestrus (heat)." The oestrus cycle lasts about 22 days, and an elephant is receptive to copulation only on the first day. Crucially, on that day, a bull in musth (period of rut) must smell it. Shanmugasundaram holds forth on elephant sex. "Cow elephants secrete pheromones in their urine while in oestrus. The female sprays the pheromones over its body with its trunk to seduce the bull."
Such techniques would be lost on virgin Andal, the 25-year old elephant of Srirangam's Ranganathaswamy temple. Its mahouts Sridharan and Matru Ganesh though are determined to get her impregnated during the camp, unaware of the intricacies of elephant sex. Uprety says they cannot risk interaction between the forest department bulls and the temple elephants. "Our elephants are let out into the forest every night and they mingle with wild herds. They can't be allowed to socialise with temple elephants, forget mate."
But love has blossomed between the mahouts. Matru Ganesh, Sridharan's assistant, is the only Brahmin mahout in the camp. Why did he turn to a profession of the 'lower' castes and adivasis? "I fell in love with annan (brother) Sridharan. Annan's first love was Andal and now we live as one family." Says Sridharan, who communicates with the filter coffee-guzzling elephant in Malayalam, "Ganesh, Andal and I live in one large hall in the temple."
The anthropomorphic projection Baskaran talks about extends to other aspects of elephant life as well. Since most jumbos belong to temples subscribing to various sects, the elephants bear the burden of sectarianism. So if Andal of Srirangam is a 'Vaishnava elephant', 13-year-old Kalyani of the Perur temple is 'Shaivite', while an elephant from the Syed Sirajudeen Chera Mudaliyar dargah at Kulasekarapattinam, sporting '786' on its forehead, is referred to as a 'Muslim elephant'. Was it circumcised, a friend in Chennai asked earnestly. Andal, sporting a Vaishnavite caste mark on her forehead and swaying her body, told Outlook (interpreted by Sridharan): "I would like to mate any musth elephant, even a Shaivite or Muslim would do."
But really, sex is hardly on their minds. Some elephants are forced to perform circus tricks. For most part of the day, they remain chained to teak trees. When unchained, they don't know how to capitalise. Most find it difficult to walk down a slope for a bath in the Moyar. Some are not keen anyway since the water is too chill. They do enjoy a nutritious feed of horse gram, green gram, rice, salt with a mixture of bio-boost, Liv 52, minerals, multi-vitamins sandwiched inside. They chew upon sugarcane and fodder through the day.
This prelapsarian paradise will last only a month. Then it's back to eating prasadam crumbs in the temple grounds. Meanwhile, the rats are planning to petition the government.