We hopped into our trundle bus to take us ‘up country’, North to Guruvayur and the Punathir Kota Elephant Camp where, we were told, we would ‘get up close and personal’ with over forty elephants. These Indian elephants have been rescued from unscrupulous temples or have been abandoned for being disabled. Later on, in one of the many, many temples we visited, we saw a working elephant who, for eight hours a day, stood inside and took money from passing devotees. The money, taken by the elephant’s trunk, is then passed to the mahout (owner/keeper/trainer) who pockets the cash and the elephant then ‘blesses’ the devotee (or tourist) with a pat on the top of their head with the end of the trunk. It’s quite a picture (although pictures aren’t allowed in the temples) but standing there and seeing it perform over and over and over again, it began to look a little bit like ritual exploitation.
Still, not wishing to be judgemental, we gawped at the elephants in the camp, wandered around a bit and mainly avoided the angry pachyderms who threw branches at us if we stood for too long in one place.
Elephants in Kerala are part of the state’s culture-scape and a major attraction in temple festivals and religious rituals, generally well treated but open to abuse. Recently, many jumbos in the area have ‘mysteriously’ died (as reported in the Times of India) and a number of deaths have been attributed to lightening strikes, where the dangers of lightening summer storms have been ignored and tuskers have been left out in the open.
On the whole, where tourists are the main source of income, mahouts tend to their individual elephants with dedication and a lifetime of service. One mahout, one elephant – for life!
We finished the afternoon with a hasty exit to avoid flying branches and set about finding somewhere to enjoy a darn good curry. Another early start would take us South and then East with a long, long drive to Munnar.
All aboard the Skylark!