I shot two-hundred-forty-four images of thirty-one elephants in three days. Keralans take their elephants very seriously. These local superstars play an essential and storied role in the rituals of the region, and truth be told, they were the reason I found myself so drawn to the Pooram Festival in Kollam. Residents know the animals’ names, their distinguishing characteristics (trunk length is surprisingly variable)—even their temperaments. Devotees donate significant amounts of money to score a particular elephant to represent their temple in a festival. I even witnessed a calendar of Kerala’s most famous specimens. I learned more than I ever thought I’d care to know about elephants as there are some fascinating and dangerous aspects to their relationship to humans, and I thought to share what I discovered. I would cite my sources but travel has made a jumble of my organization, and in any case, the information is readily available on the internet. Please feel free to read, or not, below:
Earlier in the year, a man was gruesomely impaled on live television by an elephant gone berserk during a festival. This sort of incident repeats itself a small handful of times every year. The culprit, not fully understood, is musth: a naturally-occurring phenomenon among bull elephants. Festival elephants are almost exclusively male due to their imposing stature. For a month or so every year, males enter musth and require physical restraint and isolation from both humans and other elephants. Once believed to be part of the mating hormonal cycle, it is now conjectured that musth exists as an impetus to reestablish pecking order in the herd, as affected individuals attack both males and females indescriminately. A telltale sign is the presence of testosterone-rich fluid seeping from glands in the elephants’ temples. The pressure from the glands is excruciating, likened to a migraine headache, and dramatically increases the elephant’s irritability.
An additional aggravator is the heat that elephants must endure during long festival days. I’m aware of cries of animal cruelty, but it just didn’t seem quite so clear-cut from my experience. The SPCA was on-site during the festival to both inspect each animal’s health as well as to ensure adequate access to food, water, shade and bathwater for cooling purposes.
Mahouts or elephant trainers, use sticks to give the elephant direction. As elephants are so large, they often cannot see their trainer, so a tap in the appropriate area communicates to the elephant, as well as alerts them to obstructions they may not see. I did observe one mahout that used a bit more force on an unruly elephant than I would have liked to see. From what I could tell, he seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. The sentiment that I gained observing the animal/trainer relationship was that the elephants truly are revered; that the trainer is aware that a lot is expected of the elephant in terms of safety and obedience; and that a respectful relationship rather than force helps ensure that the elephant performs reliably and safely. Episodes of rage are difficult to predict completely, but the culprit is perhaps more likely due to a mahout obscuring his elephant’s active musth for fear of being sidelined and losing payment rather than the animal’s retribution for violent training.
One element of the festivities that I did find potentially problematic was the drone of drums and horns during the ceremony. The beat was essentially a war cry that lasted over an hour, and I even found myself to be aggravated by the unrelenting crescendo of the music.
A final thought: Presumably these animals are caught in the wild, and there are valid ethical arguments against such practices. I won’t elaborate as I haven’t done due diligence in informing myself, but I was made aware by a knowledgeable friend that the Indian government has outlawed such practices, and as breeding in captivity is prohibitively expensive, this generation of elephants will be the last to be employed in ceremonies, fundamentally altering centuries of tradition.