Rathi, the grand old lady of elephants is sorely missed by those who knew her, writes Akila Kannadasan

One day, nearly 70 years ago, an elephant calf was found trumpeting in despair inside a pit in Theppakadu. Her herd had moved on without her; she was all alone. The calf was rescued and brought to an elephant camp in the area. She was named after a Hindu goddess of love — Rathi.

Rathi adapted herself well into a life amidst humans. She made friends with other elephants at the camp and lived long enough to become a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother...On January 23, at 5.30 p.m, Rathi died.

She was laid to rest at Abhayaranyam camp in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. She was 78. Said to be the oldest captive Asian elephant in the country, Rathi was a special one.

Showing the way

A mother of 13 elephants, she raised several abandoned elephants too who were brought to the camp. “Thaaimai was inherent in her”, says a forest officer. For many elephants at the camp, Rathi was their first teacher.

She changed the life of a dreaded rogue elephant Murthy. He killed 24 people in Kerala and Tamil Nadu before he was brought to the Theppakadu elephant camp. Rathi took him along when she went to graze and eased him into a routine alien to him… he gradually shed his aggression under her watchful eyes. Today, Murthy is a changed elephant. He is friendly, and if you gently tug at his trunk, he would probably follow you home!

Bathing Rathi was some experience, recalls an official who has spent 20 years with her. He remembers how once while scrubbing her back his phone rang out. He stopped to answer the call, while Rathi waited patiently. When he was done, she gently guided his hand back to the exact spot on her back where he had left off!

The little things she did… she carried buckets for him, sprinkled water on him to make him laugh…“It was fun to take her to graze, for she always brought four or five of her friends along,” he says. “She would show the young ones how to debark a tree; she would take them to the right places to graze.” If Rathi stopped grazing and walked back to the camp, one could be certain that it was close to the evening deadline. Drought, floods, people and elephants of all kinds…Rathi encountered them all with equanimity.

About seven and a half feet tall with a body to match, Rathi had piercing eyes, recalls Kethan, a retired mahout. “Despite her age, her body looked young. But her eyesight dimmed over the years. Even then, if she heard a little one trumpeting anywhere in the camp, she would trundle there straight. She was a kumki, carried timbre (in the past), did rides (safaris)… She must have been handled by over 40 mahouts in her lifetime. Late mahout Maran, played an important role in shaping her,” he says.

Rathi was a movie star too, in her prime. She shared screen space with Rajinikanth in Annai Oru Aalayam and MGR in Neerum Neruppum, among others. The seasoned matriarch that she was, Rathi impressed the movie people with her professionalism on the sets. When asked to push a car for a scene, she did so without fuss and smoothly, without damaging the vehicle.

Bama and Kamatchi were Rathi’s closest girlfriends. When elephant Mudumalai pushed Rathi’s body into the pit during her burial, Bama trumpeted loudly and ran towards Rathi. She couldn’t understand what was happening. She had to be held back from hurling herself into the pit with her late friend.