Kochi: If elephants were stocks their price to tail-hair multiples would give a good indication of whether they are over-valued or not.
The four-month-long festival season has started in Kerala’s temples—the season starts in January, peaks in February and March, and tapers off in April—and local organizing committees are shopping for elephants.
And given that pride, and a lot of money from West Asia—where a lot of people from the state work (and from where they repatriate funds to families back home)—is at stake, not just any elephant will do.
The pachyderm of choice has to be tall, have large ears, a trunk that almost reaches the ground, long and unbroken tusks, and an impressive fan of hair at the end of its short tail. The committees—similar to those in Maharashtra that organize the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations and those in Kolkata that do the Durga Puja ones—get to pick on around 800 elephants on offer.
Tusker Tag (Graphic)
On average a tusker that is taller than 9ft, with large ears and a trunk that reaches the ground can fetch its owners—temples, usually, and families that have traditionally made a business of elephants—Rs10,000-15,000 a day during this season. If more than one temple has its celebration on the same day, and there is a bidding war for an elephant, prices can go up to Rs35,000 a day.
“The demand for elephants is just picking up. We have fixed rates of up to Rs10,000 and when there is more than one request for an elephant on a particular day, we have a tender and the highest bidder gets it,” says Madhavan Kutty, secretary of the Thiruvambady temple, which is a major participant at the Thrissur pooram or festival with five elephants.
The auctions are fuelled by wealth from abroad and run on pride. Guruvayur Padmanabhan, a tusker owned by the Guruvayur temple in Thrissur, went for Rs2,22,222.22 in a fancy bid by the Nenmara temple festival committee in Palakkad in 2006.
The elephants have been pushed to iconic status by the temple festivals, known as poorams. The more popular elephants, such as Padmanabhan, now compete with film stars for billboard space. They are ornately decked and paraded to the beats of orchestras, or melam, involving more than 100 percussionists.
The height of frenzy is such that devotees even carry home the mud on which Guruvayur Padmanabhan treads as he is regarded a representation of the temple’s deity. There are even gajamelas, or contests, to honour the tallest elephant.
The Kerala tourism department organized the latest contest at Cherai in December, where the elephants were made to stand in a row with their heads held high for seven minutes—tusker Thechikootukavu Ramachandran was declared the tallest.
Elephants have always been part of Kerala’s mythology, folklore and festivals, but they have become the rage since 2006. Newly affluent residents of the state who now work in West Asia have started pouring money into local temple festivals—partly out of homesickness and partly out of the desire to make themselves and their families stand out from the crowd. As a result, what used to be low-budget celebrations have now become mini extravaganzas.
Smaller temples that earlier had just one elephant carrying the resident deity—one component of these festivals is to have the deities paraded on elephants—now have 7-15, says novelist Madambu Kunjukuttan, a consultant for a popular weekly TV programme E for Elephant which has played a major role in popularizing elephants.
R.K. Damodaran, a poet who participates in most major temple festivals in Kerala, says with sponsors coming forward to fund festivals, money is not an issue for most temples. “The practice of collecting small donations from locals is a thing of the past. Beside non-resident Indians, local jewellery shops contribute through sponsorship,” and their names are displayed prominently on billboards announcing the festivals, he adds.
The elephant owners like to downplay the economics of the process. Some revel in the prestige of owning an elephant but all talk of numbers is avoided because Indian laws do not allow animals to be used for “commercial purposes”.
An elephant costs about Rs25 lakh. Most consume 300kg of palm leaves a day at Rs2 a kg, and 300 litres of water. The most popular elephants fetch their owners a net profit of Rs1-1.5 lakh in the four months from January to April. The smaller ones bring in about Rs50,000.
Some of the families have been in this business for generations. K.N. Venitadiri’s family in Thrissur has supplied elephants and decorations for them for more than 100 years. Venitadiri says it is a tough business because the committees have very specific requirements on the kind of elephant they want.
The festival season will reach a peak with the pooram in Aaratupuzha village in Thrissur in March, which will have the largest assembly of more than 70 elephants.
This is followed by a colourful spectacle of Thrissur Pooram in the heart of the town. The 11-day Irinjalakuda festival in the same district starts a day later and marks the beginning of the end of the season.
It isn’t an easy four months for the elephants, though.
Revered they may be, and the committees may pay huge sums of money for them, but the elephants generally find the season stressful. They walk miles on scorching roads (it is hot in Kerala this time of the year). Or they are carted around in uncomfortable open trucks. They stand for hours without food and water. And most of their handlers are poorly trained.
The demand for elephants also means that most owners rent out elephants under musth—a state that male elephants enter during the mating season. Elephants in this state have to be chained, medicated, and given adequate food and water for three months.
Increasing stress and the growing incidence of musth elephants being rented out has resulted in an increase in the number of accidents involving the animals. In the seven months between October 2006 and April 2007 (the latest data available), around 152 elephants died from bad treatment and handling and 68 handlers were gored or trampled to death.
K.B. Ganesh Kumar, a former minister of the state legislature and president of the Kerala Elephant Owners Federation, says the association plans to start a six-month training programme for mahouts and publish a handbook on the upkeep of elephants for the owners. “We also propose to have a limit on the number of festivals each elephant can participate in,” he said.
Elephants come under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which allows them a high degree of protection. Roy P. Thomas, warden of the Eravikulam National Park in Kerala and author of the Manual of Forest Laws in Kerala, says that as per the rules, the trading of elephants is prohibited and owners have to get a licence from the forest department.
There are strict norms to be followed for using elephants in festivals under the Kerala Captive Elephant Management and Maintenance Rules, 2003. Elephants should be transported in lorries and fed palm leaves weighing 5% of their body weight and around 300 litres of water daily. The elephants should not be made to stand for hours at festivals and should be kept away from fireworks. When in musth, the elephants are to be kept in isolation and treated properly.
While local law does not allow the purchase of elephants, the owners admit there are several loopholes. “Elephants are transported from the Sonepur Mela—the annual cattle fair in Bihar—for “treatment” in Kerala. Once here, another certificate is issued stating that the elephant is responding to treatment but cannot be transported back in a lorry...,” says a person closely associated with the supply of elephants who does not want to be named.
A certificate transferring the ownership of the elephant is obtained from Bihar a few months later. The entire deal costs about Rs30-35 lakh.
The forest department has now begun implanting microchips to identify captive elephants in the state. The chips will keep track of the number of festivals an elephant has been used for.