An era ended last week when the Kerala High Court imposed a blanket ban on parading celebrated tusker Thechikottukavu Ramachandran at temple festivals and other public events.
Born in Assam and reared in Bihar, Thechikottukavu Ramachandran stands 320 cm in height — India’s tallest living captive elephant, and Kerala’s most-valued; despite losing vision in one eye and failing eyesight in the other, his fan following in the state matches that of Mammootty and Mohanlal, superstars of Malayalam films.
Ramachandran was blinded in one eye during a training session, but despite the apparent handicap, he was hired every year over the past 18 years to push open the southern entrance of the Vadakkunnathan Temple in Thrissur every day for the Pooram festival.
Few could imagine Thrissur Pooram and other temple festivals without “Raman”, as the elephant is affectionately known among fans, who see it as the most majestic among all jumbos in the state. So great is Raman’s popularity that his daily hiring charge is a steep ₹2.5 lakh.
To Sandeep Kumar, a Thrissur-based life skills trainer and a fan, Ramachandran is “the king” among captive elephants in the state whose stature will not be diminished by the court order. “His majestic appearance and body length are unmatchable, they make Ramachandran a hero,” Kumar said.
But despite all the fame and adulation, Thechikottukavu Ramachandran also has a dubious legacy that his fans ignore: He has killed 13 people, six among them his own mahouts, apart from three other captive elephants.
Owned by the Thechikkottukavu temple in Thrissur district since 1984, the celebrity jumbo became a subject of heated political debate in Kerala in May 2019 when the then Thrissur District Collector TV Anupama banned the practice of parading him on Thrissur Pooram, citing his failing health and kill record.
The immediate reason was the death of two revellers in a stampede that started when Ramachandran ran amok at a temple festival; he was spooked by the blast of firecrackers.
Political leaders took sides following the ban, and the state’s powerful Elephant Owners’ Association decided not to parade their animals at the Pooram festival as a mark of solidarity.
The collector was forced to relent and allow Ramachandran to parade on select occasions — provided he was managed by five trained mahouts, and an “elephant squad” creating a protective ring around him to keep fans at a distance of five metres.
The recent High Court order has put an end to that arrangement as well.
What the court said
The order was the result of an animals lovers collective, the Idukki Society for Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals, approaching the Kerala High Court in March 2017 demanding that parading Ramachandran at public events be banned. A division bench comprising Justices Muhammed Mushtaq and Anu Sivaraman issued the ban order after considering a report on the animal’s health prepared by Forest Department.
Kerala has always revered the caparisoned elephants paraded at temple ceremonies and other auspicious occasions. Even church festivals and mosque events today use elephants as an added attraction.
For instance, says Ramachandran’s fan Kumar, the Thechikottukavu temple had a low profile till it bought Ramachandran — thus becoming the first temple to become famous because of an elephant it owns.
As a revenue earner, Ramachandran helped the temple finance the construction of an auditorium, apart from buying a truck and another tusker.
But it has not been a smooth sailing always. In 1998, Ramachandran created headlines by brutally attacking another celebrity elephant, Thiruvambadi Chandrasekharan, which was carrying the Sri Krishna idol of the Thiruvambadi temple during Thrissur Pooram.
Ramachandran gored Chandrashekharan in the stomach when being paraded side-by-side at the festival. Some fans claim Ramachandran was provoked after being attacked by another tusker from behind.
Why is Thechikottukavu Ramachandran aggressive?
Ramachandran began seeing anyone coming close as dangerous after its eyesight started failing, said elephant expert VK Venkitachalam. “He pushes people away physically out of fear,” he said. “The deaths are occurring because of that.”
According to the temple authorities, Ramachandran could follow instructions only in Hindi and Bhojpuri in the initial days. A mahout who had no command over these languages lost his cool one day and hit the animal in the eye with a stick, blinding it.
It was after that incident that Ramachandran began to get restive whenever people approached it, occasionally turning violent. But despite that, Ramachandran was paraded in about 80 temple festivals in a year.
Venkatachalam said it was time the beloved elephant is ensured a “proper retirement life”, preferably at the Kottur rehabilitation camp for aged elephants in Thiruvanathapuram.
“Fans needs to be accountable and patient. Hope the High Court order would not be challenged in the Supreme Court,” he said.