By Sharan Saikumar Apr. 18, 2016
A few years ago, Shibu, the mahout of Kerala’s tallest elephant, committed suicide. The media spun a tale of a heartbreaking love story – but love had no role to play in this tragedy.
Attempting to control a 2,700-kilo beast is a game of the heart. It is a daily dance of life and death. Ask Mani, who has spent 15 years with Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran, the tallest elephant in Kerala and the pride of the annual Pooram festival. He will tell you that the secret to overpowering a beast 40 times your body weight lies in faith and instinct. The beast is sensitive to every emotion of the man riding on his neck and Mani, in turn, is in sync with every mood of his gentle, but temperamental ward.
This spiritual connection is almost sacred – it is the reason that mahouts were once revered. Mahouts like Mani come from a long line of men, who have devoted their lives to elephants. Wisdom that has been passed down from generation to generation says that kindness, not force, is the easiest way to control an elephant, even if it takes time.
But there is another way, more prevalent in Kerala where elephants are a major business, and time is short. A shortcut, if you will. It’s called ketti azhikkal. Ketti, in Malyalam, means chaining the four legs. And azhikkal means releasing the chains. It’s not as innocuous as it sounds.
In ketti azhikkal, the elephant’s limbs are chained to four trees after which it is beaten up with a nine-metre rod, the valiyakol. The feet and nails, the most vulnerable part of its otherwise unassailable body, are battered causing compelling wounds, which force it to sit down. With the same atrocity, it is forced to stand up again. This is done repeatedly to make it lie down on one side of his body and then the other.
The underlying principle of ketti azhikkal is to keep the animal troubled relentlessly, thus, establishing a new mental power equation. It’s the shortest and the most effective way of breaking an elephant. The game of the heart is made into a game of the mind, and Shibu is the master of the latter.
Shibu is a rage in Kerala, especially in Thrissur, during the ongoing Pooram. During the two-day festival, a fleet of elephants is paraded, all of them chained and many of them with injury marks, although now black paint is being increasingly used to conceal these marks.
Traditional mahouts like Mani with their long-winded paths of kindness and bonding are outdated in Thrissur, and those who get the desired results in a short two-year span like Shibu, are in demand.
The story of Shibu, like that of hundreds of impoverished, illiterate men, starts from Kerala’s remote tribal areas. Like many from his tribe, he too came to Thrissur, to make his fortune in the elephant trade. But Shibu had never spent time with an elephant and yet from 2002 to 2015, he served as a mahout to nine. He broke each one of them with ketti azhikkal.
Animal rights activists cry foul as elephants are made to stand in direct sunlight for over 30 hours during Kerala’s famous Thrissur Pooram festival.
Barcroft / Getty Images
Hearing of his impressive track record, Shibu was given the honour of managing Thechikkottukavu after Mani was sacked by the temple committee. The majestic tusker had gone on a rampage and killed three women in the shrine. The owners had to cough up a hefty fine of ₹30 lakh to release him from the custody of the forest division. The mandate from the owners to Shibu was simple, “Do what you must, but make sure this never happens again, at least until we have him.”
Thechikkottukavu would be with the temple for two years. Ahead of Pooram, it is the norm to buy magnificent elephants and sell them off within two years to reduce the risk of them going on a stampede on their watch. But that’s enough time to exploit all their potential. During this festive season, they are lent to contractors, who make sure that the elephants are a part of as many processions as possible. The animals can fetch anything from ₹50,000 to ₹1 lakh for each temple celebration. Thechikkottukavu even fetches up to two.
Shibu’s death created a new interest in the mahouts of Kerala, but it failed to throw light on the differences between mahouts like Mani and mercenaries like Shibu.
As Mani longed for Thechikkottukavu, Shibu started work on him. And then suddenly, in August 2016, Shibu committed suicide. Razor blades had been found in the elephant’s feeding bowl. The media gave a spin to the story; a great tragic love story emerged. “Committed mahout was unable to reconcile his mistake, ended his life” claimed one headline. “Shibu drank poison and fell on the feet of the massive elephant,” ran another. Stories of the elephant refusing to eat a morsel the day after Shibu died, did the rounds in local tabloids and the readers lapped it up. His noble sacrifice even fuelled a debate over the falling status of mahouts in Kerala and their rightful place in history.
And then once again, the story turned. Covers and blades matching the one found in Thechikkottukavu’s food were recovered from Shibu’s room. Whether the blades were a new form of torture, a part of temple politics, or a fallout over money, nobody will ever know. But they certainly weren’t a mistake.
Shibu’s death created a new interest in the mahouts of Kerala, but it failed to throw light on the differences between mahouts like Mani and mercenaries like Shibu, or the 43-year-old practice of operating without licenses that could separate one from the other.
This Pooram, Thechikottukavu prepared for yet another gruelling year with yet another mahout. With the death of Shibu, the custom of ketti azhikkal has not died. It thrives and grows every year as temple reputations continue to ride on tuskers.
The story of Thechikottukavu and Shibu is a story of many things. It is a story of greed, cruelty, and the need for regulation of animals used in festivals. The one thing it is not, is a tragic love story. It is simply a tragedy.
With inputs from V Venkatachalam