By Sandhya Ravishankar
Elephants in Tamil Nadu head off to a month-long retreat and pampered with good food, play and health check ups
Swarnavalli is a teenager, all of 19 years old. She loves to dance to Tamil songs on the FM and even plays the mouth organ. Swarnavalli is an elephant, one of 30 at the Mettupalayam elephant camp near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu and she loves the holiday.
“Swarnavalli, did you say hello to this lady?” asks her mahout (trainer), young 24-year-old Rajan. She vigorously shakes her head and offers her trunk to touch.
Rajan explains that Swarnavalli normally lives at a temple in Sivaganga and performs various rituals there. “This is the third year at the camp for her,” he says. “We had the devil of a time the first year to make her get onto the truck which would bring her here. But now she has found a friend, Sivagami, another elephant,” he points. “Those two spend the evenings with each other. Now Swarnavalli clambers onto the truck quickly to come here and creates a ruckus when she has to return to Sivaganga,” laughs Rajan.
The annual elephant camp is the brainchild of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa during her previous tenure in 2003. Every year hundreds of elephants are taken to designated hill retreats like Mettupalayam and fed nutritious food, special care by veterinarians and allowed to relax and rejuvenate from the routine of temple work. The state government bears the cost of this treat for the jumbos — around Rs200,000 per elephant is allocated. Along with the expenditure of setting up the camp, a total of Rs8.98 million is spent by the state government for rejuvenating elephants.
The jumbos clearly love the outing. 36-year-old Andal happily swats her own head with a coconut frond and makes little joyous trumpets as her mahout Rajesh watches from a distance.
Rajesh is a new mahout, having taken over from his uncle just a year ago. “I was in a cushy job, earning a good salary at an electronics company,” he says. “My father and my uncle are mahouts and we grew up around elephants. Both dad and uncle swore that their children would never be a mahout but will get into well-paying jobs,” he grins. “But you know, once this gets into you, it never leaves — elephant madness or whatever you want to call it. This love for elephants is in my blood. It called me back from my cushy job. I barely earn enough to feed my family now but I love the creatures,” he says.
Rajesh chokes up as he narrates a tale about his previous elephant, a young female who saved him from being attacked by an angry male elephant. “To this day she has the scar on her trunk where the male elephant attacked her with its tusk,” reminisces Rajesh. “She saved my life. She was terrified of him but just for me, she had the courage to stand before him. That is the kind of love these creatures have.”
“Farmers and elephant mahouts are true animal lovers,” continues Rajesh. “The farmer tends to the cow or the bullock all his life. Similarly, when we adopt an elephant, it is a bond, a responsibility for a lifetime. One can never get out of it, it is like a child,” he says.
Andal is a happy adult female who knows her job well and performs without being told. She is obedient but very sensitive — she gets terribly upset if Rajesh hits her lightly with a stick. She is also possessive of her mahout — Rajesh faces her jealousy each time he goes close to another elephant.
To the south of the 6-acre camp lies 38-year-old Vedanayagi who has just come out after a swim in the Bhavani river that flows right through the camp. She gets a good scrub with a brush as she lies on the ground. Her mahout, 55-year-old Selvam, talks to her soothingly in a peculiar elephant language – a mixture of Tamil, Malayalam and Urdu. Vedanayagi occasionally snorts as if in response to her mahout’s constant stream of conversation.
By 4 pm, it is time for a walk. All 30 jumbos line up and go up and down the 6-acre property. After the walk comes a dip in the river to cool off and nutritious food such as sugarcane, different varieties of spinach, sorghum and cariota leaves. Horse gram, green gram, rice and coconut complete the delicious spread. Come January, these jumbos will be hauled back onto trucks and taken back to their respective homes refreshed and ready to face the daily grind of temple rituals for yet another year.