Jumbo Tales: A Tribute To Guruvayur Kesavan, The Celebrated Chief Elephant Of The Temple
An excerpt from the book ‘Trumpet Calls: Epic Tales of Extraordinary Elephants’ that looks at these gentle giants and their tales from across countries, cultures and times.
Here is an excerpt that talks of Kesavan, the chief elephant of Guruvayur, who is still held in great reverence and admiration by devotees.
Trumpet Calls: Epic Tales of Extraordinary Elephants. Nalini Ramachandran. Hachette India. 2021. Pages 200. Rs 316.
In the early 1920s, Valiya Raja was the reigning royal in Nilambur Kovilakam, a feudal province (now a part of Kerala state). An armed rebellion had spread throughout the region, and Valiya Raja feared that his family and property would be harmed. So he paid a special visit to the centuries-old Guruvayur Temple to pray to Krishna.
‘Lord Krishna, protect me and my family in these difficult times. Keep my home, my land safe,’ Valiya Raja said softly as he bowed before the idol. ‘I promise, if you fulfil my wish, I will gift you one of my elephants — to be at your service forever!’ he added.
Months later, the rebellion finally ended. Several thousands of lives were lost, but Valiya Raja, his family and property remained unharmed.
The royal kept his promise and presented a ten-year-old calf named Kesavan to the Guruvayur Temple. The priests sanctified the animal, performed an initiation ceremony and took the calf to his new residence — the stables where the other elephants of the temple lived.
The temple’s elephants had long been its grandest attraction — after Krishna, of course! Kesavan, although he had been mischievous when he was younger, grew up to be compassionate and devout — just like the temple’s chief elephant at the time, Padmanabhan.
Once, Kesavan participated in the Guruvayur Aanayottam (elephant race) and surprised everyone by winning. Even today, every year, the temple’s elephants and their mahouts eagerly participate in the race, which is held before the Guruvayur annual festival. The race has been a significant part of the temple’s traditions. The elephant who wins it earns the honour of carrying the thidambu (the replica of the god’s idol) around the temple precincts for all special occasions and festivals for the whole year. So when Kesavan won the race, this became his special task.
During the annual festival that year, when the chief priest holding the thidambu approached him, Kesavan bowed respectfully. He then bent his forelegs slightly, so that the priest could climb and place the thidambu on his head. But when two other priests, each holding a silk parasol and fluffy tufts, tried climbing up from the front, Kesavan straightened his forelegs – refusing to let them come up.
The elephant’s mahout and the other priests laughed. ‘That’s only for the deity, I guess. Kesavan wants us to climb from behind, using his hindlegs,’ the priest holding the parasol remarked, walking ahead.
For many years, this became a regular feature, for Kesavan went on to win the elephants’ race each time. After Padmanabhan passed away, Kesavan was made the chief elephant. As he carried the thidambu on his head, year after year, he earned a mass fan following.
With a height of around 10.5 feet, Kesavan was one of the tallest elephants in Kerala at that time. And whenever the sacred replica was mounted on him, he held his head high and didn’t lower it until the entire procession was over.
There is a legend that Kesavan was once sent off to work as a timber elephant for a day. But he felt that his only duty was to serve Lord Krishna — that is why Valiya Raja had gifted him to the temple, after all. So, he simply escaped and walked back to the temple, all by himself — a good 30 kilometres! The temple’s priests were shocked when they saw him enter the gates without his mahout.
As time passed, Kesavan too became like a god to the temple’s devotees, who believed that he deserved their reverence. On the occasion of his golden jubilee at the temple, the priests and other authorities bestowed the title of Gajarajan (‘king of elephants’) upon him. ‘From now on, you shall be called Gajarajan Guruvayur Kesavan!’ they announced.
When age slowly began to catch up with him, the temple authorities thought that it may not be wise to have Kesavan participate in the annual Aanayottam. But on the day of the race, Kesavan realized what had happened. He tugged at his chains hard, snapping them into pieces, and ran towards the event venue.
‘Look, Kesavan does not want anyone else to carry the thidambu, so he has broken himself free!’ one of the priests pointed at the approaching elephant, amazed.
As he stood before them and trumpeted, another priest said, ‘All right, let him participate. If it makes him happy, who are we to stop him?’
But as luck would have it, Kesavan came second in the race. The sacred replica was about to be placed on the winning elephant’s head, when Kesavan nudged and pushed the other elephant away and bent his forelegs. The amused priests looked at each other. At last, they decided to let him lead the procession that year as well.
In December 1976, on Ekadashi day (an auspicious occasion celebrated at the temple), once again, Kesavan got ready to go around the temple with the thidambu.
A few moments after the priests had placed the sacred replica on his head, though, Kesavan realized that he was unwell. His strong legs trembled.
‘Kesava!’ his mahout called out, concerned. The priests quickly shifted the replica onto the head of the next elephant in the procession. Reluctantly handing over his task, Kesavan circled around the temple and quietly left its precincts afterwards. The mahout and the devotees noticed that Kesavan was crying.
Later, when he saw the deity appear on the other elephant’s head in the distance, he bowed and raised his trunk to offer his salutations to the god one final time. And then, the great Kesavan breathed his last.
The mahout and the people of the region wept. Several shocked devotees rushed to pay their last respects to their dear Kesavan. The temple had lost its elephant king.
Nearly a decade later, the temple authorities unveiled a 12-foot-tall statue of Kesavan near the east gopuram (temple tower) gate of Guruvayur. Till date, on Ekadashi every year, the chief elephant of the temple places a garland around Kesavan’s statue and bows before it.
The tusks of the noble animal, along with an image of him, now adorn the entrance to the main sanctum of the temple.
Researchers have observed that elephants do exhibit feelings such as envy and jealousy. At such times, they are capable of throwing tantrums or being adamant, just like Kesavan in this tale. It is also not surprising that he managed to suddenly break his chains and run. Elephants obviously have the strength to break the chains that bind them.
An oft-repeated parable titled ‘The Elephant and the Rope’ explains why they don’t do so: Once, a visitor at an elephant camp was surprised that the animals didn’t break the flimsy, short ropes that kept them tied. The elephant’s trainer said that the same kind of rope was used since the time they were calves. The rope was strong enough to hold them in place then, and they would get injured if they tried to break free.
Although the elephants had grown in size and strength over time, they continued to believe that they still couldn’t cause the rope to snap. They had simply accepted the boundaries they were meant to stay within.
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