Kerala's celebrity elephant: Meet Ramachandran, who kickstarted Thrissur Pooram

The elephant is blind in one eye and, as a result, has a violent history, where he has killed 11 people and 3 elephants.
Kerala's celebrity elephant: Meet Ramachandran, who kickstarted Thrissur Pooram
Kerala's celebrity elephant: Meet Ramachandran, who kickstarted Thrissur Pooram

Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, the one-eyed star tusker of Kerala, pushed open the southern entrance of Thrissur’s Vadakkumnathan temple on Tuesday to kickstart the mother of all temple festivals in Kerala – the Thrissur Pooram.

The 53-year-old is branded the most dangerous captive elephant in the state, having killed a record 11 people and 3 elephants in its lifetime. It is also the most popular tusker with a fan following of thousands, perhaps giving close competition to Mollywood superstars in the state. One need only visit the several Facebook pages (some with over 12,000 likes) dedicated to Ramachandran to understand how obsessed people are with him.

On Tuesday too, over 50,000 fans gathered at the baking hot ‘pooraparambu’ to cheer on Raman, as the elephant is fondly known. As the caparisoned tusker emerged from the iron doors and raised its trunk in a symbolic gesture, fans went wild and shutterbugs clicked furiously.

“Raman just loves the attention that he receives. Once he notices people clicking his pictures, he even stands still and poses for them,” a fan gushes about the half-blind elephant, who is blind in one eye while the other is afflicted with cataract.

It is this lack of sight that has given Raman the reputation of being an extremely dangerous tusker.

“He can’t see with his left eye. Anything that comes close to him he perceives as danger, and therefore pushes them away. This is how many of those deaths happened,” says VK Venkitachalam of Heritage Animal Task Force, an NGO for elephant welfare.

Originally raised in Bihar as Moti Prasad, the tusker was bought by KN Venkatidri, an elephant contractor in 1982, and was brought to Kerala. Venkatidri renamed him Ganeshan and appointed a mahout for the tusker. Within a year, Venkitadri sold the elephant to the Peramangalam Thechikottukavu temple, its current owners. The temple devaswom renamed him Ramachandran and used him for temple festivals.

It was during this time that Raman lost his eye sight after being abused by his mahout. Back then, he could only understand Hindi and Bhojpuri, and a frustrated mahout, who could not speak these languages, hit him in the eye with a stick. The injury became infected and Raman lost sight in that eye.

The injury turned Raman into a violent tusker. He reportedly got really scared when people approached him and grew restive.

In 2009, Raman killed a 17-year-old boy during a temple festival in Palakkad. According to reports, a few people threw firecrackers near the tusker and he got scared and tried to run. In 2013, the jumbo took the lives of three women during the Thaipooyam festival at the Sri Subramanya Swami temple at Ernankulam. Later, he even picked up an old woman during a festival in Ernankulam and dropped her. She reportedly died on the spot. Apart from this, he has also killed 2 of the assistant mahouts.

However, Raman's most notorious attack happened in 1998, when he killed Thiruvambadi Chandrashekharan, another celebrity elephant who carried Thirvambadi’s Sri Krishna idol.

The elephant stabbed Chandrashekharan’s stomach with its tusks when they were walking together, side-by-side. Raman was allegedly hit by another tusker from behind. Frightened, he turned to run and accidentally stabbed Chandrashekharan, say his fans.

“He cannot see what is happening in front of him. Imagine, when thousands of people stand near you, drums are beaten and horns are blown ... But you cannot see any of it and, therefore, don’t understand what is happening around you. That is what he is experiencing every single day during the festival season,” says Venkitachalam.

The long line of killings resulted in Raman being branded as violent. The Kerala HC has banned Raman from being paraded publicly at least 6 times, the last ban being in 2016.

“A case was filed against this ban and has been going on ever since,” says Venkitachalam.

However, Raman still continues being paraded, covering anywhere between 70-80 temple festivals during a single season.

“At 10 feet 3 inches, he is the tallest captive elephant in the country and fans just love his look – those sharp tusks, towering persona and a trunk that he drags on the ground as he walks ... What people don’t understand is that he drags his trunk to find his way forward,” Venkitachalam explains.

Thirty six years and a long history of violence later, Raman is now conditioned to obey orders. Flanked by 4 mahouts holding rods and Ankushs (a taming object with an iron hook, which, incidentally, has been banned), he is paraded on the streets of Thrissur, while the police and forest department officials stand ready with tranquilizers in case he turns violent.

And as the gopuram door opens, he moves into a crowd that he cannot see as fans thunder for Raman – a sightless superstar in captivity.  

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