Yesterday, 30th November, Pondicherry lost its temple elephant Lakshmi to a cardiac arrest. She was 32 years old and unlike any other temple elephant you would have known. The entire city is mourning and everyone shed a tear as they said their goodbyes. India has hundreds of temples and some of the main temples have elephants who perform service to the deity of the temple. This has been part of our culture for hundreds of years. Elephants are considered to be pure, divine and representatives of God.
Photo credit- Google articles
This loss was unlike any, Lakshmi was more than a temple elephant, she was an emotion. She reminded many of us of home and growing up together in Pondicherry. She came to Pondicherry in 1995, when she was just 5 years old and I remember the excitement through the city. I was all of 10- 11 years old and she was the talk of the town. All of us thronged to welcome her, hundreds of us and in our excitement everyone fed her a lot of sweets and savouries and the poor little thing fell ill immediately after. The vets were not happy and they warned everyone that her diet needs to be monitored. And you know what, we pondicherrians paid heed, just like we would if a child at home fell sick.
I have accounts from so many fellow pondicherrians that they were so careful post that on what they fed her. Some of you might be confused as to why are random people are feeding that elephant. Let me explain, since the temple elephant is sacred, feeding it is a form of devotion to the deity. People prepare food for prasadam to offer to God and also to offer to the temple elephant. Many women so lovingly would make a special recipe for Lakshmi avoiding the unhealthy sugar and fat and would feed her with so much love. Unlike other large temples, Manakula Vinayagar does not have a huge complex or compound, it sits right on the main road and hence Lakshmi would be seen outside the temple all day. People would not only shower their affection when they visited the temple but also would adore her when she walked to and from her residing area few streets away. She was full of life, playful yet truly gentle. In all these 27 years we have never heard her attack or harm anyone. She was so approachable and always ready to interact and play.
You could see people selecting only the greenest grass to feed her. They made her silver anklets and she wore them with pride. I have heard of an instance when they had removed her anklets for a while and she refused to walk, such a diva. She looked so beautiful and majestic with those anklets and the bells around her neck would make the most wonderful tinkling sounds. The mahout or the caretaker loved her like his daughter and was with her all of those 27 years. He would guide the tourists and visitors on the best way to interact with her and always stood next to her with beaming pride and smile. I used to chat with him and enquire about her health and routine and he was more than happy to indulge. Every year on my birthday, the agenda was the same, first to visit Sri Aurobindo Ashram for birthday darshan and then visit the Manakula Vijayanagar temple for darshan, especially to pamper Lakshmi. She always wanted the cashew sweets I would carry, and sometimes snatch them impatiently from my hand, leaving us all in laughs. Her trunk could find treats hidden in any bag and she was so sneaky about it.
I realise countless others have similar memories of her.
When we heard the news and saw the heart crushing videos of her collapsing on her morning walk, it was unbearable. The vets tried their best to revive her but she had left us. Soon hundreds gathered to pay their respects and here I need to mention the speed and execution of local authorities. They lifted her body with a crane and onto an open truck and very respectfully she was taken to the temple. Special poojas and last rituals were performed and thousands more gathered to say goodbye. Unfortunately I missed this chance, I did not hear about her death until late night and I was sad to have not got a chance to say goodbye.
People brought flowers, shawls and stood with utmost respect in a queue, waiting for their turn to touch her and caress her. The videos of the crowd clearly show the genuine grief over this loss. There was no pretence, no one there was trying to steal attention, they genuinely came for Lakshmi, for their personal connection with her, for their individual memories of her and a sense of loss. A loss of what , I don't know, but felt like a part of my childhood had vanished.
Isn't it wonderful to see humanity in its best form? Compassion, kindness, love and innocence still exist within us and when we see it displayed like this it fills me up with hope. We only see images of protests, chaos and violence but these images were invoking sadness at the same time showing what love looks like. She was not a wealthy influential person, she never gave anyone money, she never gave anyone anything except love and we as humans reciprocated with equal genuine emotion. The small shops and vendors around the temple would sell fresh grass or dates to tourists to feed her. They shared stories that on her daily walks she would demand like a child and they would keep aside some fresh fruits for her. They would miss her when she was sent for her vacation each year to rest and rejuvenate and wait for her to come back. I remember feeling a tinge of disappointment if I happened to visit the temple when she was away, it just didn't feel the same.
I have had friends and acquaintances who regularly visit Pondicherry remember her and make it a point to visit the temple for her. Even an animal can touch so many hearts, what magic is this? What can we learn from her? Her life was not a party in any sense, temple elephants have duties to perform and she would stand outside the temple for hours to bless the devotees. She has had her share of health issues and everyone including the mahout, caretakers, temple authorities tried always to help her, give her breaks and ensure she get the treatment on time. I want to mention here that I respect our old heritage and culture and I know this is not animal cruelty. Everyone has a place and duty in our tradition and culture and this is one of those. Yes mistakes happen, and yes there will always be someone who abuses animals but in the cancel culture we are today, it should be more of a topic of deliberation and conscious action, not just armchair activism.
Coming back to yesterday, I watched her burial late at night online, with tears streaming down my face. Hundreds had gathered at her burial site and again with utmost respect and all proper rituals she was buried. People offered shawls, crystal salt, turmeric and vibhooti and threw fistfuls of soil. Later they stood with folded hands , praying for her soul to rest in peace. It was crushing to see the mahout wailing in sorrow and it took me back to the day I lost my dog. It was too painful and I couldn't bear to watch any further. I doubt any human can invoke this kind of emotion, it was surreal in a way.
I was proud of being born as an Indian in this great country which respects and rituals for each creature and yes I was proud to have grown up in the spiritual town of Pondicherry. I was proud of my fellow Pondicherrians and the local authorities and police, I was proud of the compassion and the understanding. When large groups of people come together to mourn a collective loss sometimes things can turn ugly but there seemed to be nothing but love. How can one explain this? I guess one cannot, one only lives and experiences this. This instance to me showcases the power of humanity, if we decide we can bring out this side of ourselves more often, the side that considers even a temple elephant as family, we do not pose with dead elephant carcasses as trophy hunters.
Thank you Lakshmi for accepting our love, our treats, our attention and being so patient with the scores of devotees of all ages, children and tourists who thronged around you for attention, love and pictures. You have given us beautiful memories and a uniqueness of growing up in Pondicherry. You tied the entire city together and now every time we visit the temple, your place will be missed. I pray you are now in the abode of Lord Ganesha and he has you in his loving embrace. Rest in peace sweetheart!