Celebrity elephant Ramu opens Kerala festival after ban lifted

Partially blind and with a reputation for violence, elderly pachyderm brought back after outcry

For decades Ramu, now in his 50s with the odd grey hair but still instantly recognisable by his broad forehead and aquiline nose, has inaugurated an Indian temple festival by bursting through a huge wooden door and striding imperiously through the crowds to cheering and fireworks.

But on Monday, the handsome elephant will be prevented from performing his ceremonial duties at the week-long Thrissur Pooram temple festival, in Kerala, with quite as much gusto after his reputation for violence – 13 people trampled to death over the years – finally caught up with him.

His legions of defenders point out the superstar pachyderm is partially blind, hence his hyper-sensitivity and moodiness. His detractors say he poses a danger to life and limb, owing both to his delinquent personality and his size: he is thought to be the tallest elephant in India at 3.2 metres (10.5ft) tall.

To give him his full name, Thechikottukavu Ramachandran is an endless topic of conversation right now in Kerala. The Thrissur Pooram festival is the biggest in southern India, with 50 opulently-decorated elephants participating.

Ramu was banned last week from taking part in the the festival by district administration, which said he was a health hazard. However, after an outcry, and after being given a complete going-over by a vet, this weekend he was given permission to participate in the festival, but only for an hour and only with four mahouts (elephant-keepers) in attendance.

Kerala’s Elephant Owners Federation had threatened to boycott the festival if Ramu was banned.

“As a protest, we will boycott the festival and not give any of our elephants to this festival or to any other procession if the ban isn’t lifted,” the general secretary, P Sasikumar, said last week.

The word Kerala means land of coconut trees, but the great love of locals is elephants. They are woven into the state’s social, cultural and religious life. When people make money here, they don’t get a Rolls-Royce, they buy an elephant.

Some are so famous they have their own fan clubs and Facebook and Instagram pages. When Ramu is scheduled to visit a town, posters and hoardings go up on lampposts and trees, and fans display framed photos of him in their homes.

“He is a celebrity because of his size and beauty. His forehead is long and broad, he has a beautiful trunk and his tusk is elegantly curved,” said Rajesh Gopalakrishnan, the secretary of the Paramekkavu Devaswom temple, in Thrissur.


Amrit Dhillon

The GuardianTramp

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