A paradise in Punnathur

I am standing watching the big guy eat. He is imperious and regal, not just by size but by his demeanour, grace and dignity. He swings his trunk to and fro in a balletic movement, picks up a cluster of branches and leaves, swishes it gracefully to rid it of mud, faecal matter and insects, until he is thoroughly satisfied, then rolls his trunk inward and stuffs it in his mouth. All his movements are deliberate, assured.

I am in Punnathur Kotta, an elephant farm about 3 km from the famous Guruvayoor temple in Kerala. It is perhaps the only one of its kind in the world: the elephants here are offerings from devotees to the Lord. The place belonged to a local ruler and has an old, badly maintained building with a nalukettu, the traditional hub of a Kerala house. But the elephants looked well cared for, sleek and shining, their coats dappled with the sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy above.

Most are males. We watched the mahouts caring for them. Some were being washed down with hose; others were being bathed in the pond. The mahouts and their helpers first hosed them down while standing in the shallow pond. Then the mahout asked it to lie down. “Iri”(sit) he said. The elephant just looked at him mischievously. “Iri”, he repeated in a louder, more commanding voice, whereupon the animal, slowly lowered his legs, turned to the side and lay down. He seemed quite happy, now that his fit of rebellion was spent. Then they scrubbed him with coconut husks; obviously the hide was thick enough to turn it into an enjoyable process. I am told that in the lean months when the elephants are not needed for temple festivals, they also undergo an ayurvedic or health treatment.

There are about 60 elephants. The elephants here are revered more than ever. People talk of the legendary Guruvayoor Kesavan with awe. I have attended the Thrissur pooram, where many elephants from surrounding temples, heavily ornamented in the  humid heat of March/April, take part in the procession which requires tremendous patience, especially in the midst of the pancha vadyam music performance, with mahouts on top changing parasols, waving fans of peacock feathers, etc. It is an impressive sight.
Many are the stories told of the loyalty of the animals, legends of how they stand watch over injured or dying mahouts until help comes. However I was told that when in heat, they lose all sense of proportion and are known to have even injured or killed their mahouts. So why do the mahouts take up this precarious job? Obviously because they love their charges.

It was no wonder that when I saw the elephants at Punnathoor kotta, I thought of the words from the verse which talks about God’s creatures great and small.

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