Monday, October 05, 2015

In Love With Elephants

TV Satheesh has provided pachyderms for temple festivals, organised foreign tourists to see them, and is a broker, as well

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

The sixteen-year-old TV Satheesh had been pestering the mahout, Unni, to allow him to sit on the elephant Sivankutty. This was at the Hari Hara Sudha Temple at Kochi. Finally, Unni consented. Immediately, the elephant folded his legs and sat down. Satheesh climbed up by grabbing one of the ears.

Usually, there is a rope around the neck, to hold on to, but there was none on Sivankutty. Somebody then gave Satheesh a three-year-old boy to hold. Meanwhile, as Sivankutty stood up, just to tease him, Unni raised his stick. A mahout does this several times a day, but he rarely hits the elephant. But on this occasion the elephant got scared. And he ran away outside the temple and down a narrow street.

I felt terrified that I would fall off,” says Satheesh. “There was nothing to hold on to, and I had the child with me.” A desperate Unni chased the elephant. Down the street Sivankutty ran, scaring away the pedestrians. Thankfully, there were no vehicles. However, after 400 metres, Sivankutty stopped suddenly at a leaking public tap and began to drink water. This gave Unni the chance to bring things under control. Despite this traumatic experience, Satheesh fell in love with elephants.

Today, thirty years later, Satheesh arranges elephants for temple festivals, takes foreigners to places where elephants are staying, so that they can have an interaction, and gets the pachyderms transferred from person to person. For arranging this deal, Satheesh gets a commission from both parties.

However, as per the 1972 Kerala State Wildlife Act, elephants cannot be sold. Instead, they can be leased out. The current prices range from Rs 50 lakh to 10 crore. When a deal is done, there is a ceremony between the lessor and lessee. The lessor has to tell the elephant, “This is your father.” When the pachyderm hears this, it starts crying. “The elephant knows what is happening,” says Satheesh. “The relationship between owner and animal is, indeed, like father and son. So, if a man has a five-year-old son and an elephant, which is 10 years old, then the animal is the elder son.”

Asked how he figures out which are the best elephants, Satheesh says, “I check to see if there are indentations on the temples. The deeper it is, the older is the elephant,” says Satheesh. “Sometimes, there are wrinkles on the legs and the body. Their prime is from 18 to 50 years.”

But what pains Satheesh is the cruelty meted out to elephants. “Sometimes, mahouts destroy one eye, because it becomes easier to control the elephants,” says Satheesh. “There are cruel mahouts who destroy both eyes by hitting them with a stick.”

In Kerala, during the five-month temple festival season, the elephants hardly get a moment's rest. They are moved from place to place by lorry.

It is so difficult for elephants to maintain their balance on a vehicle,” says Satheesh. “If the driver brakes suddenly, their tusks will hit the wooden boards. Their bodies bang on the sides when the lorry turns to the left or the right. By the end of the journey, they are exhausted. And the moment they arrive, they have to be dressed up, to take part in the festival, which has loud music, from traditional drums, noisy firecrackers and the presence of thousands of people.”

The food is also never given on time. “Only when the festival is over, are they fed,” says Satheesh. “They like to eat grass and leaves, but they are usually given the cheaper coconut fronds and palmyra palms, which they don't like. Simply put, they are in hell.”

Despite that, elephants have a golden heart. “Once, a mahout, owing to severe low blood pressure, fell unconscious next to an elephant,” says Satheesh. “Immediately, it ran on the street and blocked traffic and made people aware of the fallen mahout. Subsequently, the man was rushed to hospital, where, thankfully, he recovered.”

An emotional Satheesh says, as he provides bananas to Kandathil Sudhir, an elephant that belongs to his friend, Martin, “This is the beauty of elephants. When they love you, it is wholeheartedly.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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