A controversial elephant in the south Indian state of Kerala is back in the news after a local temple offered a record amount for its participation in the annual festival. BBC Hindi’s Imran Qureshi explains why the 57-year-old animal evokes admiration, fear and compassion.
Thechikottukavu Ramachandran is often referred to as the largest captive elephant in India, a claim that is difficult to verify independently. What is beyond doubt is that he is 3.2 m tall, a majestic, imposing appearance that towers above his fellow elephants.
Ramachandran, owned by Thechikkottukavu Temple Trust in Thrissur District, is one of hundreds of captive elephants in Kerala that are rented out for temple festivals and other programs.
He has thousands of admirers – a Facebook fan page that regularly posts photos and updates has 122,000 followers – and draws crowds at events.
But he’s also notorious for his acts of violence – critics claim he’s killed at least 13 people and two elephants over the past four decades. However, Thechikkottukavu temple officials say that Ramachandran was not the direct cause of these deaths, which mostly occurred as a result of stampedes that erupted after he became agitated by loud noises and other provocations at events.
Ramachandran is blind in his left eye and animal rights activists believe he should not be forced to participate in public events.
“He is the tallest and most handsome elephant. It is a miracle to see him up close. But his majestic appearance has also become a curse,” says Sreedevi S. Kartha, who works with the People for Animals welfare organization.
Last week, 35 temple committees took part in an auction to bid for his presence at their festivals – the Sree Vishwanatha Temple in Thrissur won by bidding 675,000 rupees ($8,175; £6,759), a record bid.
“More people come to the temples when Ramachandran is present. That is why he is in such demand,” said Bijoy PB, chairman of the Thechikkottukavu trust, adding that enthusiasm has increased significantly after a pause in the festivities due to the Covid. pandemic.
In 2019, temple authorities ran into trouble when two people died in a stampede after Ramachandran went berserk when crackers burst into his neighborhood in a crowded neighborhood near the famous Guruvayur Temple in Thrissur.
The district administration then banned him from participating in the famous Thrissur Pooram temple festival, where Ramachandran kicked off the festivities by symbolically pushing open the huge gates on the south side of Vadakkumnathan Temple.
But they were forced to lift the ban after festival organisers, elephant owners and fans of Ramachandran protested – the Kerala Elephants Owners Federation said they would not provide animals for temple festivals unless Ramachandran was allowed to participate.
The elephant’s health condition regularly makes headlines – last September, Kerala’s high court banned Ramachandran from participating in programs until a committee investigated him.
“The committee was set up and it was decided to parade Ramachandran only twice a month. Subsequently, a government order allowed the elephant to participate in parades twice a week,” said MN Jayachandran, an animal rights activist who petitioned the court on grounds of cruelty.
He says the court has also ordered four mahouts to be placed around the elephant to ensure it does not come into contact with crowds.
Mr. Jayachandran states that Ramachandran is not only blind in one eye but also loses in the other eye as he gets older.
But the champions of the elephant claim that it is healthy.
“There is no problem with the other eye now. According to government rules, 65 years old is the retirement age for elephants and Ramachandran is only 57 years old,” said Dr Giridas PB, veterinarian of Ramachandran and member of the Animal Welfare Board of the state.
He also insists that Ramachandran has not harmed anyone.
“When people burst crackers or make noise, the elephant is being harassed,” he says.
Temple authorities also say that too much is being made from the income Ramachandran brings in, with a significant portion of this being spent on his maintenance, including food and the salaries of his attendants.
“In the past three years alone, we have spent almost two million rupees on his care, while due to Covid-19 we could not even earn from temple festivities,” says Bijoy of Thechikkottukavu trust.
But others claim that elephant rights are being violated.
“[Parading elephants] is nothing but torture of the animals under the guise of sacrifice to the deity,” said Dr. Jacob Cheeran, a retired veterinarian.