Standing an impressive eight feet from the ground, 40-year-old Lakshmi sways her trunk and flaps her ears restlessly under the tin-roof shed. Next to her is 17-year-old Rupali, who seems calmer, going on with her routine of munching on some fresh grass. Kushma is out for a walk. Lakshmi raises and curls her trunk, beckoning at 70-year-old Palsamy, her mahout, and he places stacks of grass in front of her. “She eats about 250 kilograms a day and weighs around five tonnes,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s palm strands, coconut leaves or simply grass and otherwise, leaves and branches of mango or neem trees.”
Growing up with elephants
Palsamy has been a mahout since childhood and he earlier maintained elephants at the Bodi Palace, before joining R Haresh Babu, a fourth-generation elephant keeper. “I grew up with elephants. As a kid, every night, I would sleep in the shed, spend much of the day with the pachyderms. They are like my siblings,” says Haresh, who now own three elephants. “My great grandfather Duraisamy Konar was a mahout at important temples in Madurai, after which he bought his own elephant. Ever since, we have been following the tradition of keeping elephants at home. At a point of time, there were about 10 elephants with us.”
“My grandfather Raja Ram, who inherited the legacy, became an elephant expert and popular personalities of those days would seek his advice for buying or upkeeping elephants. Film producer M M A Chinnappa Devar was one among them. My grand father chose an elephant for him at Mudumalai camp, where baby elephants above 10 years were given in auction by the Forest department. Back in 1972, an elephant was bought for ₹2,000. Their friendship grew stronger and our elephants even got the chance to act in movies.” Their elephants have been featured in Sivaji-starrer Andavan Kattalai, Karthik-starrer Pandiya Nattu Thangam and All in All Alaguraja, to name a few.
“Raising an elephant has huge challenges, starting from providing food, space, medicines and care for it, to being cautious as to not antagonise the various forest laws that bind us towards the welfare of the animal. One such difficult aspect is transportation of the mammoth creature, which is often done in a haphazard manner,” says Harish’s father R Rengan, who, after much research, has now custom-made a truck for transporting his elephants.
Costing over ₹20,00,000, the truck is equipped with elephant-friendly features such as a retractable platform made of reinforced steel to make it easy for the animal to step into the vehicle, apart from a platform for placing food and iron bars on all four sides to support for the elephant.
“We visited Palakkad, where almost every house has an elephant in the backyard and learnt about the designs that failed, so that the same mistakes are not repeated. We saw a number of possible and successful designs and zeroed in on a combination of two or three models. A couple of accidents involving domestic elephants in the recent past also made us sensitive and aware of the problem,” says Rengan. “Finally, we chose Leyland’s Ecomet 1212 and got them to modify it as per our need.”
The steel platform has iron bars underneath so that it can withstand the entire weight of the elephant. Depending on the size of the animal, the iron bars can be bolted in the desired position so that even in case of a jerk, the impact on the body of the elephant and the vehicle will be minimal. The bed of the truck is given a slight taper for the elephant’s urine to flow out. The food being provided is on a separate raised platform, so that it doesn’t get soiled by dung or urine. “We see our elephants as members of our family and we don’t mind spending for their well-being,” says Rengan, who has trained hundreds of mahouts.
“To become a mahout is no easy task. You need to gain the trust of the animal before tending to it. We habituate the elephants to commands in a mix of Malayalam and Tamil.
Also, one has to be able to identify the mood swings of the creature and symptoms of diseases,” says Haresh, who spends about 1500 a day per elephant. “An injection costs about ₹10,000. So high is the maintenance cost. Yet, we continue to do it as we take pride in our family tradition.” To know more about Haresh’s work in the domain of domesticated elephants, visit elephantheritage.com