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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Elephants in Temple - Triplicane experience

                                                       Elephant blessing

The news item that TN may ban 'blessings' by temple elephants evokes mixed feelings. PTI reports that the TN Govt. is likely to ban the age old practice of elephants 'blessing' pilgrims in temples.

Wildlife officials have asked temple authorities to put an end to the practice as trainers torture the elephants, compelling them to 'bless' pilgrims, sometimes leaving them injured. Moreover, elephants like humans suffer from diseases like asthma and tuberculosis and it might spread to pilgrims, the authorities said.

Not sure how and from when elephants started to be associated with temples. The largest of the land animals are of the family Elephantidae: Elephas and Loxodonta. They are mammoth and at birth the calf weighs around 120 kg. Their life span is around 50, though some survived for longer years. The tusker is a symbol of wisdom and famed for their memory and intelligence. This is no article on their existence or poaching for ivory but a simplistic impression of what is seen in temples.

Many like seeing the dark skinned creature standing in front of big temples. Some are beautifully decorated and perforce one goes near it, stands before it, pays a small change to the mahout, bends in obeisance and gets the blessing from the elephant. The elephant would move its trunk over our head and place it on our head and people feel that this would cure them of their ills, diseases besides bringing them good luck.

Srirangam kovil yaanai
                                                           Samayapuram kovil munbu
                                Yes temple elephants may not be enjoying their freedom, chained most of the time, beaten sometimes by the drunk mahouts and would end up doing sundry jobs for ekking out a living for the mahout. In recent years, the Govt has been conducting rejuvenating camps at Mudumalai forest. These camps are being conducted at the elephant sanctuary at Mudumalai forest in Nilgiris district, where the department had a training centre for jumbos.

For ages, temple elephants have been a vital part of temple ceremonies and festivals especially in South India. In Kerala, they have a pride of place – as evidenced by the Pooram festivals or the Punnathur kotta, the place for temple elephants at Guruvayoor.
                                                         pooram festivel caprisoned elephants
                                                Huge ones at Punnathurkotta, Guruvayoor

Have seen the exhibition of relationship between temple at Kachi Varadarajaperumal temple and a trainer called ‘aanai kannan’ – there are legends of the elephant once turning wild, collector issuing a shooting order but this kannan bringing the elephant under control.

Residents of Triplicane will ever remember the great majestic beautiful tusker named “Azhwar”. This was one who probably never misbehaved. This gigantic one would be bathed, decorated with thiruman on its forehead and would accompany perumal purappadu. At the end of the purappadu have seen Azhwar offering ‘saamaram’ to Perumal and would walk backwards. It used to carry sacred water (Thirumanjana kudam) from the temple tank, being taken in a procession every morning.

This extremely kind elephant was a favourite amongst children and grown up. I have spent hours standing and watching its activities. Have ascended a couple of times on it also as it went on procession before the Perumal during maada veedhi purappadu. The feeding of the elephant was a much watched event. The mahout used to give it large round balls of rice cake with jaggery, made in the temple. When it came around in streets, people used to offer bananas, jaggery, and sugarcane – it would also eat branches of tree. There were other reports that it was tamed so much that it would happily drink coffee from nearby Vaitha hotel as also take things like kadalai urundai.

The passing away of affable Azhwar in 1977 (14th Feb 1977)  was indeed a very sad event. Many of us wept. The mortal remains were kept for public viewing and thousands came to pay floral homage to it. Thousands accompanied the funeral cart – when it was taken in a lorry and buried at NKT Girls High schoolSome months later (21st June 1977), a small male calf  aged 3 at that time was presented to the temple – Mohan was a playful truant. All of us started enjoying its little pranks. As it grew up, it became violent and more than a couple of occasions, got wild, threw things on its way out violently and went running in narrow lanes of Triplicane, making people feel threatened.

Unfortunately, during that time there were more incidences of elephants turning violent and the then Govt. banned usage of elephants especially during the Iyappa processions and other public festivals. There were complaints from some quarters and the cumulative effect saw the sending away of Mohan to Guindy Park and then to Vandalur. Every time, I go to Vandalur and see a fully grown male elephant, I reminisce that it could be Mohan whom I saw as a small less than 3 ft child elephant.

Without thinking of the rationale, I would every be happy to receive the blessing from the elephant and feel its breathe coming out from its trunk. 

Elephant loving Triplicane resident – Sampathkumar.


  1. rode through a spice garden at kumuli on elephant back this summer. it was an awesome experience.

    Yes Mohan was a lovable elephant. I was there when he was brought to the temple, running here & there in the mandapam; loved to see him being washed and fed by the mahout. the day when he was taken to guindy was one of the sad day in my life...

    I was recently telling my daughter about the mahout going shopping to Mylapore and Mohan dashing against the gate with almost the whole triplicance plus the Ice House Police watching in awe.

    happy to read this article. Carry on sampathji.


  2. I understand where you are coming from, but it is sad that in spite of being fully aware of slavery of these elephants, you feel it is okay to keep them in captivity. I request you to kindly dig deeper into how they are tamed, and also think a little more on what they are deprived of due to lack of freedom.

    Note: Festivals may be pride for humans, it wouldn't mean anything for poor elephants. It is not their natural habitat or life.

  3. I love the ending of your article. I have seen in the manakula vinayagar temple, the little elephant used to be fed fanta and pepsi and over the last few years her health took a toll. Only then did they stop feeding her all that. These are regal, majestic creatures and need to be given their due respect. As much I love to get blessings from them, I also feel they should be treated with a lot of respect.

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