While Ganesha idols dot the street corners, Olympia Shilpa Gerald meets a temple elephant, who is as much a celebrity in the virtual world as in the real
Unlike many who call Pondy home or drop in for a weekend or longer, I did not meet the town’s celebrity resident where her admirers generally flock to greet her. It was just past 8 p.m. when the auto driver slowed down in the middle of Easwaran Koil Street. All I could see was a gigantic grey mass being ushered inside tall doors.
“That’s Lakshmi,” whispered the driver with child-like reverence, as the elephant entered her abode. His delight is something shared by thousands of visitors to the Manakula Vinayagar Temple, many of whom throng there just to catch a sight of the amiable Lakshmi. Not only has the elephant inspired paintings and handwork, but has blog posts, YouTube videos and umpteen social media mentions dedicated to her, making her as much as a celebrity in the virtual world as in the real one.
The pachyderm is a clear favourite and it is almost impossible to find a guide book or feature on the town’s attractions without her name in it. Getting blessed, read clumsily patted on the head, is on the must-do lists of tourists visiting the town. While the elephant was earlier seen in the temple from eight in the morning, following concerns by animal welfare activists, Lakshmi is available only between 4 to 8 in the evenings now. “On any day, there are children and adults enquiring about Lakshmi from morning. Some are so disappointed that they wait till 4 p.m. to catch a glimpse,” says Karunakaran, executive officer of the temple.
While elephants in many temples are relegated to their own corner, Lakshmi occupies pride of place right at the entrance, making her the cynosure of all eyes. What charms visitors, is how friendly she is. “We never chain her; we have never felt the need to,” says Senthilkumar, one of the mahouts who tends to Lakshmi.
His brother Sakthivel, Lakshmi’s second mahout adds, “She is very sociable as we have brought her up like that. She does not mind being fed, photographed or pampered by children.” For the siblings, the elephant is their only child, someone they’ve bathed, fed and played with for the last seventeen years.
Over the years, Lakshmi has come before their kith and kin for the brothers from Kerala, who are the fourth generation of mahouts. It also means missing out on family occasions. “I did not attend my sister’s wedding. We cannot leave Lakshmi entirely in someone else’s care as she is used to us. So one of us always stays behind. We take turns to go home for Onam,” says Senthil. Even as he talks, he is packing to visit his mother in hospital.
The duo is proud of Lakshmi’s growing fan club, which has included past governors and actors. Thumbing through an album of newspaper clippings and photographs of her, they share stories eagerly. “She has 13 sets of silver anklets, gifted by admirers and devotees as thanksgiving,” says Sakthivel.
The brothers also get calls from the pachyderm’s friends in Chennai and Bangalore, confirming her availability in the temple, before a visit. “One grandparent comes here often to let his granddaughter in Delhi listen to Lakshmi jingle her bells over the phone,” narrates Senthil.
“We have benefitted from her popularity too,” recalls Sakthivel with a grin.
“When we had to take her to Coimbatore for a master check-up, we received baskets of fruits and food cooked for us everyday of our stay. They were sent by people in Salem, Pollachi and Erode.”
The elephant who has been stretching herself on the mud pit is lead inside her tailor-made shelter for her bath.
“You will never find a stench near our elephant. As the house is in the heart of the town, we cannot afford neighbours to complain about unpleasant odour.”
Lakshmi crinkles up her eyes, looking as if she’s been listening to every word — she has landed just another fan, I know.