A palace for pachyderms (Travel/Mood Story)

Fifty years ago on June 26, the first group of 16 elephants moved into their new home at Punnathoor Kotta near Guruvayoor, Kerala. Today, the palace, which once housed members of the royal family, has 64 elephants living in its premises. Rajeev Nair writes

There are the rogues and the wicked, the tame and the grateful, and the champions and the film-stars… in elephants.
And they are all there at Punnathoor Kotta, some three kilometres away from Guruvayoor, a township in Kerala, India.
Every elephant, here, comes with a story. Of love, hate, fame and the inevitable — death. If the killers feel remorse, they aren’t showing it. Nor does the sheer fear of watching the huge mammal who has a history of blood on his ivory tusk encourage you to see the animal in a kinder light.
Palpable fear is a self-conscious reality, even in front of a chained elephant. And you are not comforted any bit when the mahout explains that the elephant, if it indeed wills, can break free of the huge chain that shackles it to the tree.
They say, fear breeds hatred. At Punnathoor Kotta, it can turn to awe, even empathy. And that very minute, the he-elephant Nandan, who was having a leisurely bath, rolls on his body and sits up.
The ruckus makes you nearly bolt, and you realise, once again, that with elephants it makes better sense to keep a comfortable distance.
The mahouts disagree. They rest by the pachyderm’s huge hind-limbs, some even sleep in the shade of the elephant’s hind-quarters. They know that their means of livelihood could anyday be smeared by the red of blood but it is a pact man and animal have forged.
In death and life, together they will stay.
Elephant tales need not be all this melancholic. It can be one of cheer too. Like that of Asiad Appu alias Kuttinarayanan, who gleamed in Indian national spotlight for his uncanny resemblance to the Asiad Games mascot, Appu.
He grew up to become one eunuch of an elephant — neither he or she, neither blessed with an awesome tusk nor becoming a leading matriarch. And he died, one limb limping from a sad fall. Joy to gloomy melancholy again — oh yes, isn’t it nature’s rule?
Punnathoor Kotta is rich in proffering elephant tales. Well, the palace, which Malayalam film-goers might recognise as seen in the super-hit film, Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha, in itself boasts many stories.
Once under the possession of Punnathoor Valiya Thampuran Godhashankara Valiyaraja, the palace has interested historians for a debated visit of Tipu Sultan. The ruler, from neighbouring Karnataka, had made a victorious run through much of northern Kerala. A local guide points at a wooden sculpture on the main door of the palace. It is a series of dancing figures; one is cleanly chopped away. He says it was from a swipe of Tipu Sultan’s famed sword.
The palace once featured awesome murals; today, the walls bear graffiti. For some time, the mahouts used to stay in the palace. Now, it is all dirt and dust, and efforts are on to restore the building.
The palace passed on to receiver administration following the death of the Valiyaraja in 1968. Punnathoor Kotta, just over 20 kilometres from Trichur, was eventually converted into an elephant yard in 1955. On June 26, the first batch of elephants, 16 in all, led by the legendary pachyderm, Guruvayoor Keshavan, stepped into its portals. Since then, the number has gone up, so have the comforts for elephants.
At Punnathoor Kotta, the animals are fed palm trunks and leaves, which arrive by tonnes daily. They are bathed by mahouts, and often taken out for processions.
Many elephants were donations to the Guruvayoor temple, and they automatically came under Punnathoor Kotta. Elephant care is costly business, and now it is mandatory for donors to also furnish Rs4 lakhs (approx Dhs40,000) as elephant maintenance expenses, says a mahout. This has dampened donor enthusiasm, he adds.
The current crowd favourites at Punnathoor Kotta are Jayakrishnan and Lakshminarayanan, both tiny-tots about 6 years old, gifted by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Dr J Jayalalitha and Malayalam film actor Suresh Gopi, respectively. The two look pampered, and mahouts won’t exhaust with tales of their little pranks.
The wide courtyard of Punnathoor Kotta has elephants either caught from the forests in Kerala (that practice is banned now) and many more that come from Bihar and Assam. There are specialists middle-men who facilitate elephant purchases.
Less graceful than Kerala elephants, according to mahouts, the Bihar ones are relatively shorter. A perfect elephant, which has its trunk sweeping the ground and 18 nails on its limbs, can be bought for about Rs14 lakhs (approx Dhs140,000), says a mahout.
Elephant-owners, normally, earn back the money by despatching the pachyderms for pulling logs or doing tough menial tasks, and renting them out for film-shoots or processions; the latter fetches about Rs2000 to Dhs4000 (less than Dhs200 to 400).
At Punnathoor Kotta, the elephants are spared of the tough tasks; they are mostly used for processions.
Sometimes, an odd one would go cranky during its outing. The situation could go out of control leading to people being trampled upon or gored to death. The rogue one returns to isolation at Punnathoor Kotta until it is tamed. Many elephants show symptoms of “rogue-ness,” which are treated by veterinarians who are on call round the clock.
Just as they consume tonnes of palm trunks and leaves, the elephants’ waste also bulks to tonnes, which are carted off as manure.

Among the lot of elephants at Punnathoor Kotta there are running-race champions like Gopikannan and film stars like Murali of Valiyettan fame. Padmanabhan, who has earned the Gajarathnam title, is a favourite of the mahouts. He is well-behaved and has an imposing frame. He is also renowned to fetch the highest remuneration when taken out on processions.
Ramu has only one tusk but while out on a procession he would have another one clamped on to his face. In fact, clamping extra tusks is common enough among elephants because it is not uncommon for the animals to lose one or both in fights or due to diseases.
Radhakrishnan is the one shackled furthest from the palace. He gets irritated when crowds mill around the premises and has reason enough to be angered: He had once lost his way in a small township near Palakkadu, and the local residents grouped together, chased him and chained him down.
The oldest at Punnathoor Kotta is a she-elephant: Thara, who is going on 66. She is ordinarily cool but bring a hen near her and she gets cranky. Kuttishankaran is 55 and he cannot eat solid food; he is on a rice-gruel diet.
Documentary makers often make a beehive for Punnathoor Kotta. At first glance, there are elephants and more elephants. But hear their stories, watch their eyes, study their movements, and linger on through their routine — a water bath, a roll on the mud, their sumptuous feast…
That is when the fear in you for the animal dies down, and like the mahouts, you believe that short-sighted or not, elephants triumph in their imposing individuality.
What the heck, they have character!


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