Kothai tickles Sundaravalli’s feet with her trunk. The latter, probably used to her antics, moves her feet away nonchalantly, and utters the elephant version of ‘ah!’. Sundaravalli’s mahout and his assistants are scrubbing her at a shower set up on the banks of river Bhavani and she lies down, her eyes closed, enjoying her spa. She’s come all the way from Alagar Koil to the 48-day annual temple elephant rejuvenation camp at Thekkampatti near Mettupalayam, Tamil Nadu, organised by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR & CE).
Twenty-eight female elephants have come for the camp, started in 2003 under the Government of the late J Jayalalithaa. For the elephants, many of whom live within a temple, the camp is an excursion where they are pampered with good food, long walks, and showers; that too in a forest set-up. This is when they see another being from their species. The mahouts, too, make the most of their break and let their hair down. Every elephant here is unique — the clown, the alpha female, the dancer, the non-nonsense lone wolf… here’s a lowdown on our day at the camp.
- l The camp is on till January 30. The public can see the elephants from viewing sections set up at the entrance of the camp. Entry is free. It is open from 10 am to 5 pm.
Best friends forever
Theirs is a friendship that’ll move anyone to tears. “Are you ready?” asks K Rajesh, the mahout of 40-year-old Andal from Srirangam. He unties Akila, from Tiruchi, who’s munching on grass nearby. Akila runs towards Andal like a toddler does towards their loved one. The two entwine their trunks and walk in circles; Andal lifts her feet and Akila, as if on cue, slides hers in. The two lock themselves in an embrace. “Andal has adopted Akila as her daughter,” explains Rajesh. “She looks out for her. During her walk, if Andal spots Akila at a distance, she stops on the pretext of urinating or admiring a leaf until Akila catches up with her.”
Her reddish-brown hair is the envy of a lot of elephants and humans. Senkamalam from Mannargudi has long, straight hair that she maintains with help from her mahout S Rajagopal. “It takes three hours to bathe her, of which I spend one hour shampooing her hair,” says Rajagopal. While most mahouts trim their elephant’s hair, Rajagopal feels that Senkamalam’s beautiful locks need to be flaunted. The 30-year-old elephant wears her hair loose; it catches the wind sometimes, and moves this way and that. “This wouldn’t have been possible without her cooperation,” says Rajagopal, as his assistant climbs over her to brush her tresses with a wide-tooth comb. We try our best to find out what shampoo she uses, but fail. That’s Senkamalam’s best-kept secret.
I like to move it
Elephants like to keep moving their body. While some keep nodding, others bend their feet at regular intervals. But Devanai is different. The 20-year-old elephant from Tiruchendur keeps rotating her head to a jolly rhythm. She never gets tired of this move; it’s her own little dance. Says her mahout S Senthil Kumar, “She keeps spinning her head either clockwise or anticlockwise, and does so even in the temple.” Senthil says that this may not be an indicator that she’s always happy. “This is just her mannerism,” he says. But it’s nice to assume that she’s dancing to some tune in her head. When does she stop? “Only when she is sleeping,” he laughs.
The bond mahouts share with their elephants is like that of a parent and child. B Jambunathan, Akila’s mahout, is seated at an enclosure for mahouts, some distance from his elephant. “She’s calm; keeps to herself and is kind to others,” he says. Jambunathan’s father, Baskran Nair, was a mahout too. “He took care of Shanthi, an elephant that was gifted by actor Sivaji Ganesan to the Jambukeshwarar temple in Thiruvanaikaval,” he says. Jambunathan grew up with Shanthi. “I returned from school, hurled my bag inside and ran to her, every single day,” he smiles. “I was by her feet till she died of old age.”
Jambunathan starts to say something, but stops mid-sentence. “Achuthan!” he hollers to his brother who’s seated next to his elephant. “Watch her feet!” He turns towards us muttering, “That boy is always on his phone”. Akila had one of her feet on the thick metal rod that’s been sunk into the ground to tether her. “It could’ve hurt her. She’s not used to metal,” says Jambunathan, narrowing his eyes towards Akila. He’s far from her, and yet, right next to her.