Around 30 elephants stand in a row. Their foreheads are adorned with Nettipattam, a gold-plated ornament. Some of them carry the figure of a deity. There are also ornamented umbrellas and ceremonial fans held by people on top of the elephants. A crowd of tens of thousands of people throng the thekkinkadu ground where the annual Thrissur Pooram festival is held. Incredible amounts of fireworks draw pretty patterns in the sky. It is a magnificent sight. The elephants themselves sway from side to side, apparently enjoying the festivities.
However, visuals can be deceiving. “The swaying is not a sign that the elephants are enjoying the fest. It is a behavioural disorder caused due to stress,” says noted elephant veterinarian Jacob Cheeran. “There are more than five people on top of an elephant at any given time,” he says. A conservative estimate of their weight and the additional weight of the ornamental trappings would go well over 300 kg.
The temple festival season in Kerala stretches from November to May. During this time, elephant brokers take the elephants on lease from their owners. The lease price for an elephant can go up to 50 lakh. The objective is to make maximum profit. An elephant is taken for typically 150-200 festivals in a single season lasting six months. The mahouts get a batta (cut) of 1,000 for every festival the elephant is taken to.
No matter how much the mahouts try to feed the elephant during this period, they remain underfed. “Elephants are known to be slow eaters and slow defecators,” says Cheeran. “They need to keep on eating, which is not possible even with the best intention of the handlers,” he says.
Another inconvenience for the mahouts is the male elephant’s threemonth- long musth period —a time of vigorous hormonal activity during which an elephant seeks out a mate — which often coincides with the festival season. In captivity, sexual frustration gives way to aggressiveness and becomes the reason behind most human deaths at the feet of the captive elephants.
“The elephants under musth are deliberately wounded. A medicine is applied to make the wounds heal slowly with the connivance of veterinary doctors who are part of the racket. The point is to induce fever in the elephants. Fever tends to suppress secretion from the musth glands. Since the medicine solution is black in colour, people don’t tend to notice it,” says VK Venkitachalam, secretary of a Thrissur-based NGO working for the welfare of elephants.
Many sources independently spoke of the use of hormonal therapy, with untold side-effects, to prevent musth. It is claimed that the therapy can suppress the hormonal activity in a week’s time. The elephants are often underfed so that they stay weak. Such and other extreme measures are undertaken by some competing Devaswom boards to keep the elephants docile.
“All this puts the elephants under heavy stress causing them to lash out,” says Venkitachalam. Over the last 15 years, over 500 people have died from elephant attacks in. In this year alone, as many as 10 people have died in captive elephant attacks in the state. Five of them were mahouts, one a veterinary doctor, one a vegetable vendor and two were bystanders.
However, festival enthusiasts have given some of the elephants a celebrity status. For instance, Thechikkottukavil Ramachandran, supposedly the second tallest elephant in Asia, has several Facebook pages dedicated to him.