Society

Jumbo Love

The skeleton of Chengalloor Ranganathan at the Thrissur Museum   | Photo Credit: K.K. Najeeb

Elephants have a special charm about them. The more you watch them, flapping their ears, stretching their trunk, shifting their oak-like legs, the more you want to understand the animal.

V. M. Balachandran cannot recall the number of days and hours he must have spent, bunking school, watching elephants – those that crossed the river near his house in Chendamangalam on their way to the temple festivals and those owned by the Paliyam family. What began as a child’s love for the animal turned into a lifelong passion; Balachandran is a walking encyclopaedia on elephants.

Most of what he learned about them was by watching them, travelling to almost all the important temple festivals in the State, talking to the mahouts and by reading up on elephants. His research, matched with his intuitive interpretations, has opened a whole new world of information on elephants, especially of the domesticated kind.

“The mahouts used to stop at a wayside tea-shop close to my home, securing the elephants to the coconut trees nearby. I remember listening intently to their conversations, which usually revolved around elephants. I walked along with them to their destination very often with the school bag in hand,” says Balachandran, who has a fascinating collection of elephant pictures, hand-written note books that have invaluable information about the animals, their history complete with interesting nuggets. He also has a huge collection of newspaper cuttings, each marked by date, month and year that is a ready reference on elephants.

“There’s so much more to learn about them than you can glean from books like the exhaustive Mathanga-Leela and Hastyayurveda; so much more on this delicate and mighty force. Most of the mahouts that I know have not read either of these or any such literature. Their knowledge, if any, is purely practical.”

Every time an elephant runs amok, the mahouts are in the line of fire. Even after all these years they remain uneducated, unorganised and uncared for. “They are aware that drunkenness and ill treatment of elephants do exist among the mahouts’ community. But this does not happen always. What one should understand is that most of them are there because they have no other option. Very few do this job with pride.”

Balachandran feels that the mahouts are not properly trained for the job. “Except for the mahouts employed by the Guruvayur Devaswom, I think the others are trained on the job, which can be risky. Training elephants involves understanding the animal’s biology, psychology and health care. They are not aware of the golden rules from the ancient texts. So the bond with the elephant grows only gradually. During this period, it becomes impossible to handle the animal in case it misbehaves. And again there cannot be a formal training system as each elephant is unique. But at least they need to know the basics.”

Balachandran says there are favourable and unfavourable marks that are clear indicators of the character of an elephant. “The Mathanga-Leela has devoted detailed chapters on these indicators, which remain true even today. But unfortunately neither the owners who go to buy an elephant nor the mahout assigned to take care of the animal know anything about these character signs. The same applies to knowledge about kinds of musth, keeping and care.”

He talks about a time when there were people like Moothedathu Kadalayi Namboodiri who knew the chi points or the pressure points of the elephant, a science that is almost lost today. “He is supposed to have made a model of an elephant and marked 108 pressure points. But when he found that his own mahout misused this, leading to the death of his favourite elephant, destroyed it. There was a time when people who owned and cared for the elephants knew A to Z about them. This is what we lack today.”

Once in a while, prospective buyers seek Balalachandran’s help to choose a ‘noble’ elephant. And his tips have helped many a mahout too. Like most elephant lovers, and their numbers are on the increase, he spends most of the time at the temple festivals gazing at elephants. “The moment they are caparisoned, I move away, for all the elephants look the same. The best part is when they are stationed at some open ground with their mahouts, when the caparisons are removed and tired after the day’s activities, they stand still.”

From one festival to another, Balachandran is always on the lookout for his favourite animal.


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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 6:39:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/jumbo-love-of-v-m-balachandran-who-spent-his-life-observing-elephants/article8426507.ece

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