Elephant army of Lord Guruvayurappan

S Balakrishnan
Have you ever thought of a mammoth gift to your favourite god, as mammoth as an elephant itself!? Well, there are dozens of such elephants gifted to Lord Guruvayurappan (Krishna) in Kerala. In fact, there is an exclusive sanctuary/camp for these elephants some 3 kms off Guruvayur shrine. Not only that, it is said to be the largest sanctuary for elephants in the world with an area of 11.5 acres.  Presently, the sanctuary houses around 60 elephants, all offerings by devotees to Lord Guruvayurappan.  Though the camp is popularly known as aana (‘elephant’ in Malayalam) kotta (‘fort’ in Malayalam), its original name is Punnathur kotta, as the kotta/fort once belonged to the local Punnathur royal family. After the demise of the last ruler Goda Varma Valia Raja, the property went to receivership from whom the Guruvayoor Devaswom (Temple Board) purchased it in 1975. During the olden days, possessing elephants was a status symbol for the rich families in Kerala. With the breaking up of joint family system in Kerala (as elsewhere), the elephants became a financial burden to these families. The temples then stepped in to take charge of the elephants as they play a major role in temple festivals and ceremonies, even during daily rituals.  
In addition to the elephants that were taken from such families, Guruvayoor Temple also receives elephants as gifts from devotees; they were once used to be groomed in the spacious temple premises itself. However, as the number of elephants in the temple started to increase, the elephants were relocated to the grounds of Punnathur Kotta, just 3 kms away from the temple. That is how the ‘aana kotta’ came to be developed in the natural surroundings of Punnathur Kotta.
An old wooden palace still stands amidst the lush elephant sanctuary; constructed in traditional Kerala architectural style, it is in naalukettu concept (a traditional rectangular home where four halls are joined together with a central courtyard open to the sky). The 500-year-old palace presently houses a training school for ‘Papans’ (Mahouts). Adjacent to the  palace complex is a very small temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and Goddess Bhagavathy.
Open from 9 am to 5 pm, the Punnathur Elephant Camp, maintained by Guruvayur Devaswom, also trains the elephants to participate in the daily temple rituals and processions. An entrance fee of 20 rupees is charged for adults; an additional 25 rupees is charged for clicking with a cell phone camera. Every year an elephant race is conducted within the camp and the winner pachyderm gets to carry the idol of Lord Guruvayur during temple processions. In the camp, traditional methods are followed to treat ailments of the inmate elephants.
Among the aana kotta trained elephants was the most famous ‘Guruvayoor Keshavan’ elephant. He was donated to the temple by the Nilambur royal family in 1922. He is the most celebrated and legendary elephant in Kerala owing to his majestic height of 3.2 meters and devout behaviour. He died on December 2, 1976 aged 72 on the auspicious day of Guruvayoor Ekadasi. It is said that he fasted for the whole day and dropped down facing the direction of Lord Guruvayurappan temple with his trunk raised as a mark of prostration. Even several decades after his death, he is still remembered for his good nature, intelligence and great size; a life-size statue of him has been erected to the southern entrance of the temple along with that of Padmanabhan elephant. Keshavan is conferred with the ‘Gajarajan’- Elephant King - title by the Guruvayoor Devaswom.  
As we reached Guruvayur I started nagging my wife that we first visit this Elephant Camp rather than the temple. She ignored my childish demand and determinedly stuck to her own plan; we could visit the camp only on the third day. We spent around an hour or so going around in the Punnathur aana kotta. The chained elephants were too busy eating to notice the visitors. Swinging their vast ears and swishing their tails, they pushed palm fronds with their trunk into their mouth; a caretaker was seen offering plantain tree stems. It was interesting to watch the elephants clean the fronds/stem, break/peel them, smash/pulp it with the trunk and then swing into the mouth. I do not know if there is any ride; as we went in the late morning we could not watch the elephants bathing or being trained. They were all busy eating and eating. Some elephants were off bounds for the visitors; maybe they are new and untrained. Later I heard that the Asiad Appu elephant is still in the camp and also the one donated by Jayalalithaa, former CM of Tamil Nadu, as well as other elephants donated by VIPs. I still wonder if the elephants are happy to be in the aana kotta; I could not guess their feelings from their Monalisa-like look.  
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