The Elephant is a Big Theme in Kerala

The elephant is a major presence in Kerala folk songs, folklore and place names. They roamed the mountain forests that bounded eastern Kerala. In today's Kerala, the elephant is prominent in temple festivals. Elephants also provided elephant-rides for tourists. Away from the public eye, they worked hard pulling timber in yards and forests.

The Elephant

the elephant

Huge size, tremendous strength, a long tubular trunk, the ivory tusks and pillar like legs make the elephant a formidable beast. Even when quite peaceable, this huge animal makes you apprehensive. The Indian elephant (found in Kerala) could be up to 11 feet in height and 5 tonnes in weight. It is smaller than the African Elephant, the only other species belonging to the proboscidea order.

The elephant trunk is actually a composite of its upper lip and nose. It is a versatile tool with a 6 litre capacity. The elephant sucks water into its trunk and could drink it by pushing the end of the trunk into its mouth. It could also use the trunkful of water for a shower bath.

The trunk also comes in handy as a hand. It is with the trunk that the elephant pulls and pushes heavy logs, or picks up big and small things from the ground (in the pic, it is picking up palm leaves from the ground).

The elephant is a pure vegetarian, eating mainly grass in the wild. Domesticated elephants are fed palm fronds, banana, jaggery and such vegetarian food. The elephant uses its huge legs and the trunk to break up palm fronds into smaller pieces, and then puts these pieces into its mouth using the trunk.

Elephants in Kerala

In Kerala, the public comes into contact with elephants mainly at temple festivals.

elephant at a temple festival

At these festivals, the elephants are decorated with gold face covers and stand in a row while a band plays before them. Temple personnel mount the elephant and either hold a gold decorated board with an image of the deity on the elephant's head, or stand up and hold aloft objects of religious significance (see separate article Kerala Temple Festival for pics).

They also work in timber yards or forests pulling and pushing heavy logs.

Elephants in Folklore

It is no wonder that this huge and powerful animal, that roamed freely in the mountain forests, is a major presence in the folksongs about rulers who dwelt mainly in the same forests.

Some songs speak of rulers who gave a "thousand" elephants as gift to a songster who pleased them. (It is quite likely that the songster made up a song that went something like: O Great Ruler of the whole earth, and the nether and upper worlds! One terrible sweep of your mighty arms could fell ten elephants!)

Kidangoor Kandan Koran, was a self-willed elephant that knew his role in temple rituals and would not allow the functionaries to either speed up or slow down the length of the rituals.

Kandan Koran would not allow anybody to shackle him in chains (and he never harmed people or animals). He would be there at the appointed place in the temple precisely on time. He would also expect his feed to be kept ready at appointed times. After the rituals, he would wander away by himself.

During daytime, he spent most of his time in the river at a spot that was particularly deep. Buffaloes of Kidangoor would also come to the same river to cool themselves in the water. Unlike Kandan Koran, the buffaloes could not expect to be fed at their pleasure and often they had to go hungry.

Kandan Koran is said to have been able to sense their hunger and would then escort them out of the water and into a sugar cane farm. He would tear down a small portion of the fencing and allow the buffaloes to get into the farm and have their fill. All the time, he would stand guard at the fence and if people came to drive the buffaloes away, he would rush at them (and they would run for their lives).

Kandan Koran himself never touched a single sugar cane plant.

Folk tales of a later age speak of particular elephants that exhibited unbelievable degrees of intelligence and charity. [For example, read an elephant legend in the box to the right.]

It is quite likely, however, that these stories are apocryphal. Elephants are highly trainable (and retain the training for long periods) but are not considered particularly intelligent by those in constant contact with them.

Elephants in Place Names

There are places named aanachal that means a path that elephants take regularly, aanaviratti (threatened by elephants), aanayirankal (a spot to which elephants climbed down) and even a church called aana kuthiya palli (a church gored by an elephant).

Elephants Today in Kerala

There is a temple (guruvayoor) where a shelter has been set up for elephants. More than fifty domesticated temple elephants are fed, washed, treated and taken full care of at this shelter. People gift elephants to this temple. (The chief minister of a neighboring state came to this temple some time ago to gift an elephant.)

elephant in rosewood

Animal lovers and journalists are constantly on the alert for incidents of maltreatment of these magnificent animals. Elephants in Kerala remain very much in the consciousness of the citizens of Kerala. The typical gift to an important visitor to Kerala is a rosewood elephant (see pic to left). It would seem that the elephant is considered a worthy representative of Kerala by its society.