What goes on inside the head of an elephant? Thirty-three temple elephants have travelled hundreds of miles to take part in a rejuvenation camp in Thekkampatti near Mettupalayam. The organiser is the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. Akila Kannadasan wonders if the animals are comfortable with all the travelling and the unfamiliar surroundings. She finds that while many of them seem to be having a splendid time, others appear to be moody.

Two sisters

“Why don’t you leave her alone? You’re going to get it from her,” mahout Subramanian chides his elephant Sornavalli as she reaches out to Subbulakshmi with her trunk. The 17-year-old has just had her bath and is itching to play. But 42-year-old Subbulakshmi from Tirupattur is not interested. She ignores Sornavalli attempts to get her attention and stares straight ahead. “She likes to keep to herself,” explains Subbulakshmi’s mahout Karthik. “She lives alone in the temple and hence has grown to be a thani kaattu raja. She’s always been sombre.” But there is one person who brings about a transformation in Subbulakshmi’s demeanour. It is Sivagami, her sister who lives in a temple 10km from her place, and is also her best friend. The sisters follow the same routine in their respective temples. all through the year. They get to meet once a month, when their temples observe a festival. “You should see them then!” exclaims Karthik. “They greet each other like long lost friends and play like never before.” We watch as the elephants disperse after breakfast and head to their allotted corners. Subbulakshmi and Karthik hang around, when suddenly an elephant trundles towards them with her mahout at her heels. Subbulakshmi extends her trunk and walks towards the elephant. The two of them caress each other while their mahouts watch them with a smile. “That,” introduces Karthik, “Is Sivagami.”

Valli in a mud pack

While the rest of the elephants are decked-out in their finery after a bath in the Bhavani, one elephant stands out from the rest. Kurungudi Valli alone stands majestically, covered in mud from head to toe. “She didn’t bathe today,” explains her mahout Rajagopal. Rajagopal and Valli walked to the river bank to bathe like everyone else that morning. As they descended a mud path, a shard of glass pierced Rajagopal’s foot. “We came back,” he says. And so Valli skipped her bath. “She likes slinging mud on herself rather than bathing,” he smiles. Valli, he says, is aware that he’s hurt. “She gently stroked my toe with her trunk. She knows.”

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Sundaravalli is the soul of the party. She seems to be dancing to some happy tune that only she can hear. The six-year-old from Azhagar Kovil is the youngest elephant at the camp. Suresh Kumar, her mahout, has a permanent smile on his face, much like his elephant. “She’s lonely at the temple. So when she sees her kind, she gets really excited,” he says. Sundaravalli’s tiny trunk is always extended — to get hold of the nearest individual, be it an elephant or a human, and cuddle them! “He likes konjal,” says Suresh, blushing. “He’s been embracing every elephant he came across.”

Yeh dosti...

Many years ago, Kamala, an elephant from Andaman, journeyed across the sea with her owner to India. The journey changed her life and that of her family. Kamala was pregnant then. She was brought to Trichy, and was well-cared for. She gave birth to a baby boy, who was later named Kumaran. Kumaran is one of the most celebrated elephants in the Subramaniya Swami Temple of Tiruchendur. It was here that he met Deivayanai, an elephant a few years older to him. Deivayanai came all the way from Meghalaya when she was nine years old. Though kept in separate rooms, Deivayanai and Kumaran are constantly aware of each other’s presence, explains Radha Krishnan, Deivayanai’s mahout. Deivayanai is timid and sensitive, while Kumaran is a tough guy, he says. “Deivayanai has to see Kumaran every day. Or else she won’t be her usual self. But Kumaran can manage without her,” he says. Though chained to trees far from each other at the camp, their mahouts made sure that Deivayanai can see Kumaran from her spot.