In the 18 acres of Punnaththoorkotta, there are 64 elephants. Each elephant is a story; sometimes the tale might be of love and sometimes that of pain or mischief - a world of elephants in Guruvayur - elephant beauties too bountiful to see and their stories too innumerable to hear out.
We entered on to the front of an elephant standing fully covered with mud dust; 'Guruvayoor Nandan' the heaviest tusker in Punnaththoorkotta. He might weigh about ten tons. Once for a festival, when 'Guruvayoor Padmanabhan' fell ill, Nandan carried the gold figurine of Lord Guruvayoorappan, (the presiding deity of the main temple of the town), for the procession. Covered with the dust he was standing, swinging his trunk and enjoying the early morning sun.
Next to him was 'Gopalakrishnan'. He was in musth. One of the employees of the elephant yard was bathing him splashing water on him with a hose from a distance. The secretion during the musth was exuding down its temple. Though not so heavy as 'Nandan', he is quite huge. His hind legs were tethered with chains to a big stone post driven deep in to the earth. Despite being in musth, he was very obedient to Paappaan Raghavan, his mahout. He had put up his feet on the stone post to wash them.
Wherever one turns to, there were all elephants. This elephant world is around the axis called Punnaththoor Kovilakam (a royal mansion). A group of mahouts were sitting in front of it, reading newspaper. A few of them were talking about the elephants and the temples incessantly and some others were brushing the dust off elephants' back with palm fronds. The Malayalam movie 'Oru Vadakkan Veeragaathha' was filmed at this Kovilakam (mansion). There is a beautiful sculpture on the threshold sill of that Kovilakam. One of them is of two elephants standing on the sides of the figure of a goddess (Devi) with their trunks raised over it. The figures of gods including Krishna and Ganapathi have also been sculptured very exquisitely. A big bronze vessel called 'Uruli' filled with water could be seen at the centre of the inner court yard of the Kovilakam. Nobody stays there nowadays; the Kovilakam is in disrepairs.
About twelve and half tons of palm fronds are required here daily. The food for the elephants is prepared in one part of the Kovilakam. In the kitchen, hot rice cooked in milk was being poured out. Only after cooling could this be given to the aged elephants. It is for the elephants with the teeth all fallen out.
'Ibadey kidayaaney' (lie down here) - hearing this shout of a mahout, louder than the roar of an elephant, we turned looking around. A mahout was disciplining the sixty fourth elephant. This new comer's name is Ayyappan. One felt the doubt that he was a bit mischievous. He stood turning the face away seemingly with an expression 'I shall not' to the mahout's commands. Once the mahout took the hook pole (a tool to control elephants), he became docile, with an expression 'I shall as you wish'. 'These are problems with a novice; within a week it will be alright,..', quipped Damodarettan, (the mahout Damodaran; referred to thus respecting his age) completing 30 years in the elephants' company; he is Field Supervisor at this elephant yard. Before this he was the mahout for 'Guruvayur Padmanabhan', 'Kannan' and 'Sathyanarayanan'. 'Look at 'Krishnan' there on that side; he has got a specialty, can you tell what it is?' A huge tusker; his long tusks, when about to get tangled each other, had been cut off a little. 'Lost the sight in both the eyes. He is not taken out; not only for the festivals but anything else, outside the yard. He is taken for a walk only for a few paces every day; that is all.' He even fumbled to pick up the palm fronds in front of him. He lost the first eye's sight poked by a palm frond picked up heedlessly at a festival. He lost his second eye due to cataract five years back.
'Rajagopalan', 44 year old single tusker, is next to 'Krishnan'. He is a mischief monger; always with some pranks. His main hobby was to bump his mahout down once in a while. He lost one tusk due to purulence. This single tusker also has a specialty; for the past twenty years he could be managed by only one mahout. 'It has been almost a year ever since he was taken out last for any festival. He will be taken only for the anniversary of 'Guruvayur Kesavan'', mahout Sasidharan added, 'besides him 'Chandrashekharan' and 'Ramu' are also single tuskers here.'
Before the Kovilakam was bought from Punnaththoor royal family, the elephant yard was near the Guruvayur temple; that is, where the 'Sreevatsam' (the guest house) stands today. 37 years back, it was with 'Guruvaayoor Kesavan' in the lead that the elephants of the deity were brought over to Punnaththoorkotta.
As Damodarettan's elephant 'specials' peaked in crescendo, a messenger brought the news that the tusker 'Akshaya Krishnan' turned in musth. He jumped in to an unused ditch in the yard and was refusing to climb back. The mahout was trying to bring him around enticing with palm fronds and brandishing the hook pole. After about half an hour's effort he clambered up. Dangling the trunk over his left tusk, he waddled away like an obedient first grade student.
Here there is a grandma elephant too; 80 year old 'Thara'; yet she is quite agile. She never caused any annoyance to anybody; and no tantrums of the old age.
There is a banyan tree with a part burned dry; an ominous black mark revoking only sorrow to the mahouts: years back, the tusker 'Unnikrishnan' tethered to this tree was killed by lightning. That was a very tragic incident of this elephant yard. Mahout Damodaran had witnessed another very sorrowful incident also. That was about twenty years' back. Near the place where the elephants are fed, the tusker called 'Kuttisankaran' hooked up his mahout Paramu Nair on his tusk. It was mahout Damodaran who pulled him off that terrifyingly trumpeting elephant's tusk.
We reached a female elephant named 'Nandini', which, the mahouts claimed, had been specially blessed by the Lord Guruvayurappan (the presiding deity of the main local temple). Nandini is the star of 'Pallivetta Aaraattu' (the ritual of the procession of 'the deity on a hunt'). In this ritual the sanctum sanctorum of the temple would be circumambulated fast 21 times (with the gold figurine of the deity perched up decoratively on an elephant). For the past 20 years Nandini had been doing this ritual without any break. Because of the rush of the devotees, there would not be enough space around to run. Yet Nandini would run carefully through that crowd. But she would stop after completing exactly 21 rounds.
Then we heard that 'Padmanabhan' had just returned from a festival and we started walking towards him. On the way we had briefly saw 'Kannan', 'Gokulan' and 'Ramankutty' the co-runners at the temple. With them we saw the tusk-less males, 'Junior Lakshmanan' and 'Balakrishnan'. They both were also in musth.
'Padmanabhan' was near the new elephant stable. You could see Padmanabhan high over the others, even from a distance. He is the 'Thampuran' (the vanguard) of Punnaththoorkotta in all respects. This gem of an elephant slowly swaying his head tilted to a side and flapping his large ears was tearing off the leaves holding down the palm frond with a foot. Just below his bulging forehead there was a red 'gopi pottu' (an ornamental circular vermilion blotch). He is the most charged elephant in Kerala. At Nenmara Vallangi festival, Vallangi people gave Rs. 220,000/- as the charge for Padmanabhan. However long one watched him, one could not take eyes off.
The crowd of visitors was increasing. There were children and elders; and the elephant lovers seeming to come every day. As a ritual, the devotees on pilgrimage to the Guruvayur temple come to see 'Kannan's (the deity's) elephants also. Within this elephant yard there is a temple too; the deities in this temple are the Lord Siva, the Lord Vishnu and the Goddess Bhagavathi. Then there are some quarters for mahouts and their families. Just as pointing out to the cats and crows, to enthuse the children while feeding the mothers of this locality point out to the elephants also. Besides some other employees, about hundred and fifty mahouts work here.
'Bullet 'Rani' was tethered close to the quarters; her real name is 'Lakshmi Krishna'. Krishna is afraid of sounds and people; whenever scared, she ran like a bullet. Thus that nick name stuck on her. The day before we visited the yard she did a mischief; she nudged away a Hyderabadi visitor with her trunk; ignoring the mahout's warning, he had gone too close to the elephant. There is another one also with a nick name; 'Vineeth Krishnan' nick named 'Njantu' (Crab). His hobby is to hold people tightly with his trunk.
While coming away seeing some other elephants also there, we saw 'Devi', the female elephant who loves her mahout most in the yard. When the mahout stood near her, she would not allow anybody to touch him. Once when her fully drunk mahout fell in to the pond, she rescued him from drowning lifting him out to the bank with her trunk.
As the stories of the elephants seemed to peak up to the forehead from the trunk through the tusks, the visitors would fall in love with them; they would retreat away yearning to cherish the memories of their love for elephants.
There is a trail path inside Punnathoorkotta, please walk only along that path.
When you see the elephants coming, stand away to a side safely.
Please follow the suggestions / instructions from Devaswam officers and guards and the mahouts strictly.
No guide has been appointed by the Devaswam Board to guide or lead the visitors around the elephant yard. Please do not get cheated by anybody volunteering to guide.
Buying and selling of elephant tail hairs are offences as per the wildlife acts and rules.
Please keep a safe distance from the elephants and do not try to touch the elephants.
Warning boards have been placed near the elephants in musth.
Punnathur Kotta is the only elephant sanctuary of its kind in Kerala. The Kotta which was once the palace of a local ruler was later made to house the elephants belonging to Guruvayoor temple, and was renamed as Anakkotta (meaning 'Elephant Fort'). It is run under the administration of Guruvayoor Dewasom. At present the Kota houses 64 elephants. The elephants are brought here as ritual offerings made by the devotees of Lord Guruvayurappa. This system is also used to train the elephants to serve Lord Krishna as well as participate in festivals that occur throughout the year. The compound also has a Naalu kettu( a traditional rectangular home with a central courtyard) which belonged to the Punnathur Raja.
Thrissur Dt. 3km north west of Guruvayoor Sree Krishna Temple
8am to 6pm Entrance Fee: Adults-Rs.5, Children (below 10 years): Rs.1 Still Photography (Including Mobile Phone): Rs.25 Video capturing: Rs.1000 Movie Camera: Rs.5000
How to Reach
By road: From Punnathur Kotta is just 3 km away from Guruvayoor temple on Ponnani Road. Its better to fetch an autorickshaw from West Nada, which may cost you around Rs.45. Both KSRTC and private busses offer interstate services to all major South Indian cities from Guruvayoor.
By rail: Guruvayoor railway station, east of the temple is in a walkable distance from the temple. Train Timings: From Guruvayoor: Guruvayur-Ernakulam-Trivandrum Intercity Express (16341)-Departs: 03:20, Guruvayur Ernakulam Passenger(56371)-Departs: 06:45, Guruvayur Thrissur Passenger (56373)-Departs: 08:55, Guruvayur Thrissur Passenger/ 56043-Departs: 17:05, Guruvayur Ernakulam Passenger/56375-Departs: 13:20, Guruvayur-Chennai Egmore Express(16128)- Departs: 20:50
By air: Kochi International Air Port (80km).
(STD Code: 0487)
Devaswom Office Ph: 2556335, Punnathoor Kotta Ph: 2556004
Where to Stay
Kousthubham rest house- Rs. 200 to 635 Ph: 2554844
Panchajanyam rest house- Rs. 300 to 1000 Ph: 2556535, Fax: 2554844
Sreevalsam Guest House- Rs. 800 to 1400 Ph: 2556539
Sree Gokulam Vanamalaa- Rs. 700-1700, Ph: 2556702
Krishna Inn- Rs. 2650-5000 Ph: 2550777
Nandanam (KTDC)- Rs. 990-1200 Ph: 2556266
Sopanam Heritage- Rs. 900-3100 Ph: 2555244
Mangalya (KTDC)- Rs. 800-1200 Ph: 2554061
Tamarind KTDC Easy Hotel- Rs. 990-2000 Ph: 2552408
Text: TJ Sreejith
Photos: P Jayesh
Translation: Balachandran P