One of the many hats I wear within my La Paz Group responsibilities is orienting our new interns and visiting colleagues to the Kerala experience.
I think I can say without reservation that each intern who enters the reserve has expressed the clear desire to encounter one of India’s most charismatic fauna–the elephant– and some have been luckier than others.
An important part of Indian mythology and culture, here in Kerala elephants were once called “sons of the Sahya”, meaning “sons of the Western Ghats”–referring to the mountain range that not only forms the border with a neighboring state but represents the heart of this one. One of the day trips that I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with most of the interns is an early morning visit to Kodanad, a village in the Ernakulam district of Kerala, about 30 km from Cochin. Set on the southern banks of the Periyar River, Kodanad has one of the largest elephant training centers in Kerala.
Up until the 1970s, elephants could be taken from the wild to be domesticated, but now state laws forbid this practice. Currently all domesticated elephants are born in captivity, and Kodanad provides their essential training by their mahout. Being a mahout traditionally runs in families, and a boy and young elephant will literally grow up together. A working elephant not only has to be trained to lift and carry heavy items or load a lorry, their more common (and perhaps important) work relates to their relationships with Hindu temple festivals. For that latter work they must learn not only to stand still amid noisy crowds and busy ritual, but they also have to learn their personal form of genuflection by raising their trunk in salute before the altars.
Each visit with the interns has begun in the early morning, walking down the rough stone pathway to the river’s edge. Sometimes we’ve been the first to arrive, and we had the opportunity to quietly gaze at the famous Malayatoor Church across the water.
But when the small procession of elephants begins all eyes turn to the pachyderms and their escorts, some mahouts riding and some walking alongside their charges. The baby elephants currently residing at Kodanad are between 6 and 8 years old. There are several adults as well, and each time I’ve been startled anew at their massive size. I’ve also been amazed at the evident childlike thrill each of us has exhibited as we wade into the water, coconut husk in hand to scrub and massage these thick skinned giants.
The elephants themselves stride majestically into the water. Then, upon instructions from their mahouts, they ever so awkwardly lay down on their sides, some more readily than others. Most of us have never been so close to an elephant, let alone bathed them. Their grayish, brownish skin is thick and wrinkled, sprouting wiry long hairs at their heads. The hairs on their tails fan out in all directions, as tough as a grill brush, and if you happen to be by their heads (or near the head of a neighboring elephant) expect to be playfully teased by a curious trunk.
After their baths, (front, back and both sides) the elephants rise from the water, and the mahouts put them through their paces with us, the equivalent of pachyderm preening, as they smile and raise their trunks for photos. I always try to remember a small bunch of bananas for my chosen friend of the day, and I have a feeling that I enjoy the way their trunks gently remove the fruit from my hands as much as they enjoy the fruit itself.
Sometimes that pleasure is so evident that they’re almost dancing, swaying their trunks from side to side, and shifting one foot and then the other in a clearly rhythmic fashion.
But more quickly than I’d like, bath time is over, and the elephants and mahouts begin their procession back to the training center. But the law requires 2 baths a day…so dusk will bring them back again to the water’s edge. Ah, that’s the life!