Thunuki at the Manas National Park in Assam on January 20. (Dhrubajyoti Nath)
Jan. 24: She is tall, dark and fetching. She is expensive, she can throw a lot of weight around and she needs a big rig to go places.
In the unkindest cut in the hour of tragedy, she is also being linked to the bereaved Shashi Tharoor, although the minister appears to have done no more than lend a helping hand to a temple in his constituency that claims the tag of the richest shrine in the world.
In any case, Thunuki is only nine. On the human scale, she would be a teenager aged between 16 and 17.
Thunuki (which translates as “the fragile one”) is a female elephant now being trucked from Assam to Kerala, Tharoor’s home state.
Thunuki had hit the headlines in the past few days because she was detained by officials of Manas National Park in Lower Assam. Forest officials had found that the elephant was being taken to Kerala in an open truck with its legs chained and with no food supplies readily visible. A mandatory microchip also could not be found.
According to forest officials in Assam, a person called O. Kutty Pillai, in whose name the transit permit was issued, arrived from Kerala on January 21 and said that the elephant was to be donated to the Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple in Thiruvananthapuram on behalf of Tharoor. The Manas office also received calls from the offices of the additional chief secretary and the DGP of Kerala, other sources said, following which the elephant was released this morning.
The truck with Thunuki rolled out at the unearthly hour of 1am, apparently because some organisations in Assam had threatened a blockade.
Asked if Tharoor wanted to gift an elephant to the temple, which had found a treasure trove that is still being evaluated, an aide in New Delhi said he had no information of any such plan.
“I do not know, you could ask the office in Thiruvananthapuram,” said Abhinav Kumar, the private secretary to Tharoor. Sources close to the minister in the Kerala capital also said they had no such information. Asked the same question, a political aide hung up.
The temple executive officer, S.R. Bhuvanendran Nair, gave a version that suggested an indirect link. “A few weeks ago, there were some technical snags. Tharoor’s office had then contacted forest authorities in Assam with a request not to delay the process if all papers were in order as we were hoping to get it in time for the Murajapam festival,” Nair said.
Tharoor is the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, where the temple is located.
Murajapam — which literally translates as “orderly recital” and involves the chanting of Vedic verses by priests over a 56-day period — is one of the most important events in the temple’s calendar.
Even if Thunuki’s progress is not impeded again on her way to the southern state, she will not be able to make the festival this time — the event concluded last week. Another young elephant, which was named Sridevi for the occasion, stood in for Thunuki.
Nair said the shrine had plans to adopt a younger elephant as the current one was 30 years old and not in the best of health. He added that the temple had applied to the government for permission to get an elephant from outside the state, but this was turned down. “Later, we approached the high court which allowed our request. It was on the basis of the court order that the forest department gave us clearance,” he added.
Elephants are commonly associated with temple customs in Kerala and some are even part of the daily rituals. Although tuskers are usually preferred, some rituals in some temples call for cows.
Elephants are part and parcel of life in Kerala — so much so that the state has an Elephant Owners’ Federation. But stiff regulations have been put in place after a series of tragedies when elephants ran amok in the middle of crowded events after they were allegedly mistreated and made to work without rest and food.
So, just as professionals are contacted in matters that require domain knowledge, the temple dialled the jumbo federation.
“We had contacted the state Elephant Owners’ Federation as they are the ones who know best. We have made it very clear that we will accept the animal only with all proper and valid documents. We have given them all legal documents and clearance papers from here (Kerala) and they have to give us all the sanctions from where it is bought. Besides, we also need someone to sponsor it for the shrine,” Nair said, adding that some devotees had come forward with offers.
But Nair denied that any politician was in any way involved. Little prevents Tharoor from being one of the sponsors but no aide would confirm any such suggestion.
Donating an elephant will not be a bad idea for politicians, especially in an election year when enemies do not play fair.
Nadayiruthal (“making it sit before the Lord”) or the donation of elephants has been an age-old custom prevalent in temples of south India, especially Kerala. “An elephant is the highest form of offering in thanksgiving on fulfilment of a prayer,” said S. Mahadevan, the president of the Sree Guruvayurappan Temple, Calcutta.
The Valiya Raja of Nilambur in northern Kerala once pledged one of his elephants to the Lord to save his family and property from attacks by enemies. His wish was fulfilled and he offered an elephant, which served Guruvayur temple for 54 years. The magnificent elephant became a legend in his lifetime and came to be known as Guruvayur Kesavan. A film was made in Kesavan’s honour and a statue was erected on the temple premises after his death.
It also seemed that the Pillai referred to by the forest officials could be one Omanakuttan Pillai. Federation secretary Sasikumar has said an Omanakuttan Pillai is an elephant owner as well as a member of the organisation and hails from Kollam, a district that neighbours the Kerala capital.
In Assam, officials said Pillai had bought the elephant from Bhupen Gogoi of Lakhimpur district.
Assam’s domesticated elephants had fallen on hard times ever since the Supreme Court banned the felling of trees in the Northeast in 1996. Since then, many elephants have either been employed in the illegal felling business or for uprooting old tea bushes when the opportunity arises.
The elephant cost around Rs 6 lakh and the transportation will need around Rs 50,000, said Bibhab Talukdar, a wildlife conservationist.
An official claimed that Thunuki’s travel truck was made “more comfortable as per the conditions laid down for the transportation of elephants”. The microchip was also located after its number was traced, he added.
But wildlife biologists said the transfer of the elephant was likely to worsen the animal’s condition.
A change in ownership and state of residence of a captive elephant is not illegal if there are appropriate approvals from wildlife authorities from both states, said P.S. Easa, a wildlife biologist with the Kerala Forest Research Institute. “But such movements of elephants should not be encouraged,” said Easa, who was also a member of a government task force on elephants that submitted a report to the Union environment and forests ministry five years ago.
The task force had noted that the health status and mortality rates of captive elephants were “often unsatisfactory” with “serious lacunae” in the basic welfare of most captive elephants, whether privately owned or maintained by institutions such as temples.