The temple festival season has begun in Kerala, and a jumbo-sized debate is once again generating a lot of heat. At the centre of the debate is Thechikottukavu Ramachandran — Raman to his ardent fans — a domesticated one-eyed elephant notorious for its occasional violent behaviour.
The debate over Raman is not new in Kerala. A section of animal-lovers wants the elephant, now around 60, to be retired from festivals and other duties.
Raman’s huge fanbase is opposed to the idea. They feel that their Ekachathrapathi — or the only emperor — could still carry out temple deities, blessing the eyes and hearts of devotees.
The celebrity jumbo, however, has a dark side: It has more than a dozen kills — including three fellow elephants — to its credit.
The latest issue around Thechikottukavu Ramachandran
Local reports recently said that is Thechikottukavu Ramachandran or Raman turned unruly while being paraded at the famous Vela — or festival — in Padoor in the Palakkad district on Friday, 24 February.
Its 63-year-old mahout, also named Raman, reportedly sustained spinal injuries while trying to bring it under control. Two others were also injured.
Incidentally, the elephant was allegedly paraded using a loophole in a court order.
The Padoor incident evoked a mixed response in Kerala. Raman’s fans justified the parading of the pachyderm, while others questioned the rationale behind taking it out to crowded places like festival grounds.
The latter argued that the summer heat further irritated the animal. Kerala is currently experiencing an unprecedented rise in mercury, forcing the state government to issue a set of guidelines to avoid sunburns and strokes.
Those opposed to parading Raman include playback singer and the lead vocalist of the band Agam, Hareesh Sivaramakrishnan, who urged festival organisers to be humane while deciding on parading elephants.
“Continuous annual parades have made life hell for the blind and ailing Ramachandran. Irritated elephants are not known to show restraint. Humans must be gentle and avoid violating animal rights,” Sivaramakrishnan told South First when contacted after his Facebook post on the latest incident went viral.
The singer feared that the elephant would be subjected to further cruelty after the latest incident. “How can it tolerate this miserable life? This is ridiculous,” he exclaimed.
It’s not Thechikottukavu Ramachandran!
Even as the issue snowballed into a controversy, the Padoor temple management committee came up with a different explanation. It claimed that it was not Thechikottukavu Ramachandran but a similar-looking elephant that ran amok.
Born in Assam around 1964 and brought up in Bihar, Raman, at 320.5 cm, is the tallest living captive tusker in India.
Across Kerala, his fanbase matches those of Mollywood superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal.
The committee also said the injuries to the mahout and two others were minor.
Additionally, the temple committee termed news reports “organised lies” unleashed as part of deliberate attempts to defame the famous tusker.
Meanwhile, animal lovers and elephant rights activists are planning to approach the Kerala High Court for a permanent order prohibiting further parading of Raman which has so far killed 13 people, including six mahouts.
Despite the blindness, caused reportedly by a bullhook during training, Raman’s presence is considered prestigious to Kerala’s temple festivals.
The elephant has been pushing open the southern door of the iconic Vadakkunnathan Temple, declaring the beginning of the two-week-long Thrissur Pooram — billed as the mother of all festivals — for the past 18 years. Raman opened the temple door even in 2022.
Despite the legal battle against parading, Raman received the highest bid of ₹6.75 lakh recently for participating in the Vishwanatha Temple festival at Chavakkadu in the Thrissur district. Festival organisers termed it the highest-ever bid for an elephant.
According to elephant rights activist VK Venkitachalam, a high court order last year that banned parading Raman also included a provision to constitute a monitoring committee for evaluating and facilitating parading it in unavoidable circumstances.
He said the provision was being misused for earning money.
A political issue
Meanwhile, Thechikottukavu Ramachandran’s fans have declared that no legal process can keep it indoors. Raman is in demand across the state as its majestic looks and body length are unmatched.
Raman became the topic of a heated political debate in Kerala in May 2019 when the then Thrissur District Collector, TV Anupama, banned parading it at the Thrissur Pooram, citing its failing health and kill record.
Several political leaders came out against Anupama. The state’s powerful Elephant Owners’ Association decided against parading their animals at the Pooram in solidarity with Raman.
The collector was forced to relent and allow Raman to be paraded on select occasions — provided five trained mahouts managed it.
An elephant squad created a protective ring around the animal to keep fans at a distance of five metres.
Still, the elephant ran amok, and two revellers were injured in the mayhem that ensued.
Venkitachalam said firecrackers scare Raman, making it unruly.
Kerala has a long history of parading caparisoned elephants at temple ceremonies and other auspicious occasions. Even church festivals and mosque events employ elephants as an added attraction.
The Raman effect
Raman changed several hands and responded to different names before the Thechikkottukavu Devaswom in Thrissur bought him for ₹70,000 on 31 October, 1984. The temple became famous thanks to the tusker.
As a revenue earner, Raman “financed” the construction of an auditorium, apart from helping the temple buy a truck and another tusker.
But it has not always been smooth sailing. In 1998, Raman created headlines by attacking another celebrity elephant, Thiruvambadi Chandrasekharan, which was carrying the Sri Krishna idol of the Thiruvambadi Temple during Thrissur Pooram.
Raman fatally gored Chandrashekharan while being paraded side-by-side at the festival. His fans justified the action by claiming that Raman was provoked after being attacked by another tusker from behind.
Elephant experts felt Raman is scared of strangers due to its failing eyesight. “He pushes people away physically out of fear, often with fatal consequences,” Venkitachalam said.
According to the temple authorities, Raman could initially follow instructions only in Hindi and Bhojpuri. A mahout with no command over these languages lost his cool one day and hit the animal with a goad, permanently damaging its right eye.
After that incident, Thechikottukavu Ramachandran became restive whenever people approached it. But still, Raman is being paraded in about 80 temple festivals a year.
Venkatachalam said the beloved elephant should be allowed a “proper retirement life”, preferably at the Kottur rehabilitation camp for aged elephants in Thiruvananthapuram.