The Temple Elephants

Forest stream

Cheruvadi is a sleepy town in Kozhikode, Kerala where nothing much happens. On a morning stroll, you’ll find gents socialising at the chayakkadas—tea shops, with women chatting on their front porches. The odd football game occurs in a field in the evening, the players caught in a silhouette at sunset. 

In June 2021, I made a short trip to Cheruvadi, to visit my extended family. COVID-19 was ravaging the globe, rattling economies and breaking too many families to count. In all the heartache, I needed this weekend getaway.

One evening I decided to walk around the neighbourhood. Ascending a hillock, I watched the sunset over the rolling hills.

Then, a dark shape caught my eye. I turned, and a few meters in front of me was a full-grown elephant! I froze. Speechless, my adrenaline hit the roof.

The domesticated elephant Minni
Mini grazing behind the temple

Fortunately, she was a domesticated elephant, her leg bound to a nearby tree. She belonged to a neighbouring temple. While this is a common sight in Kerala, it took me by surprise.

The primaeval look of the Asian elephant has always fascinated me. Their enormous form contrasts a silent wisdom set deep in their amber eyes. They carry themselves with such majesty that one feels humbled in their presence.

Elephant head
The structure of the Asian elephant’s head

Elephants are an intrinsic part of Kerala culture. People adorn them in gold caparisons during festivals and parade them through the streets. Most prominent temples own elephants, with 60 belonging to the world-famous Guruvayur temple. They even feature on the State Government’s emblem.  

The elephant (or “Mini”, as I later learnt) was a middle-aged female. She was shorter than average and had a rotund belly, with large quantities of fodder at her feet. 

I snapped out of my trance, grabbed my camera and started shooting. Unfortunately, the conditions were not ideal for photography. It was around 6 pm, and the light would soon disappear. 

Nonetheless, I knew that Mini would remain there. The temple wasn’t far from my aunt’s house (where I was staying). So I decided to come the next day, hoping the light would be better.

A slight mist clung to the air when I found her the following morning. While it was brighter, the muggy backdrop softened the colours. Nevertheless, I shot a few images. 

 While chatting with the locals, it transpired that there were 4 temple elephants in the vicinity. I couldn’t forgo this photographic opportunity. So I probed the snaking pathways, searching for them. 

Soon enough, I found Kuttikrishnan, a tusker a few streets away. He was basking in whatever little light shone through the clouds. He was larger, had only one tusk, and was well built, with powerful muscles taut under his black hide. And he, too, had his leg chained to a tree.

I encircled him, shooting multiple frames. He eyed me keenly. When I got too close, he would hurl his trunk in displeasure.

The overcast setting, however, prevented me from getting any good images. So I just observed him for a while and then left.

As the day progressed, I got caught up in other matters. I figured I would have to photograph the elephants some other time. Kerala in June is beset with heavy rains. So it was unlikely that I would get the lighting I needed.

Luck, however, was on my side because, at 5 pm, the sun broke through the clouds, casting its warm glow over the land.

Elephant with mahout
Kuttikrishnan with his mahout

I rushed back to Kuttikrishnan, catching him in the middle of his bath. His dark exterior glistening, he was enjoying himself. Furthermore, his mahout (caretaker) was around, so I photographed the two together. With that, I let him bathe in peace.

Had I not gone for an evening stroll, I wouldn’t have encountered Mini. If I hadn’t gone to photograph her, I wouldn’t have found Kuttikrishnan. And if not for that rain-free evening, I wouldn’t have gotten the photos I wished for. 

It’s funny how fate works. In photography, it is good to shoot with an agenda, but one must also go with what the day brings. It might lead to all sorts of wonders.

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am an 18 year old, based out of Bangalore, India.

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