Kesavan – the Elephant Devotee of Krishna
Today is Guruvayur Ekadasi, one of the holiest days in the Hindu calendar, especially in Kerala, more particularly in Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple. Apart from that, this is the day when the famous elephant Gajarajan Guruvayur Kesavan died — on Dec 2, 1976 (the Ekadasi day that year). I am not very sure if he died on Guruvayur Ekadasi day or a day before. I recall that it was the previous day.
I was witness to the final hours of Kesavan. I was in my 20s and had accompanied my mother Prasanna to the Guruvayur temple for Sheevali (the ceremony when the thidambu – the idol representing the main deity – is taken around the temple on an elephant) on Ekadasi day. The Sheevali had just begun and Kesavan was, as usual, his majestic self raising tall at the centre among 5 elephants at 3.2 metres (nearly 10.5 feet).
That was at around 7 am.
Minutes later, his legs started wobbling and he became very uneasy. His mahout showed presence of mind and made Kesavan bend down to hand over the Thidambu to the next in command elephant. Kesavan did so with great reluctance. We could see tears flowing from his eyes. He was soon led out of the temple from the front entrance and taken to Koloth Paramb – the place where Kesavan’s statue now stands. At that time, the land was a vast expanse where elephants for sheevali were tied.
On hindsight, the mahout showed great presence of mind because if something had happened inside the temple, all the rituals connected with the Ekadasi would have had to be stopped.
It so happened that minutes after he was brought to Koloth Paramb, Kesavan passed away.
I vividly remember my mother breaking down in tears on hearing the news. She rushed out of the temple, bought a garland of jasmine flowers and went straight to Koloth Paramb to find Kesavan lying still and the mahout weeping inconsolably. She put the garland on the body of Kesavan and prostrated before him and wept like a child.
For my mother, Kesavan was a God. Every time Kesavan was led into the temple or out, my mother would stand by the side and bow her head in great reverence as if she had seen God.
In a sense, Kesavan was embodiment of holiness. But I will come to that in a little while.
When I was a kid, my mother used to take us (me and my brother) to Guruvayur – my home town – every year. That was about 50 years ago. At that time, Kesavan used to be tied at a place called Wariath Paramb behind our house Vakil Bungalow. And first thing that my mother used to do was to open the door from Kottathalam (used as dining room) and shout Kesava. And promptly he would let out a huge grunt as a reply. I used to be thrilled and, like my mother, tried calling him. But he seldom acknowledged my call. But every time when my mother called, he used to promptly reply.
So, why was Kesavan a god to many? He was gifted to Guruvayur temple by the Royal family of Nilambur in 1922. He was just 10 years old. That was the time when Kesavan’s guru Padmanabhan was a rising star. Padmanabhan was tall, royal and majestic and took pride in serving Guruvayurappan. Kesavan grew under the shadows of Padmanabhan.
Padmanabhan too was a great devotee of Guruvayurappan. He never allowed any other elephant to carry the thidambu. It was his sole right. He was so devout, royal and docile that the Maharaja of Ambalapuzha offered the title of Veerashringala.
After Padmanabhan passed away, Kesavan became the centre of attraction not just for being tall and majestic, but also for devotion. It is said that once Kesavan was sent to Trichur (now Thrissur) to pull logs. He refused to do the work as he felt that his sole duty was only to serve Guruvayurappan. So, he left the place and ran all the way to Guruvayur temple without harming anyone on the way. People were aghast to see him stand in front of the temple without a mahout (as told to me by my mother).
Kesavan also never bent his head to anyone except to the Namboodiri carrying the thidambu. And once the thidambu was mounted, he would push his head high and remain so till the procession was over. Even when he pushed his head high, his trunk would curl on the ground – a sign of an ideal elephant.
Once when he was in heat (musth), he went wild. Seeing Kesavan menacingly coming, a woman who was feeding her baby fled the spot and the baby slipped from her hand. It is said that Kesavan stood for a few moments before the baby and then retraced his steps.
For the first time in the history of Guruvayur Devaswom, Kesavan was awarded the status of Gajarajan in 1973. Even today, the title and his tusks adorn the entrance to the inner temple of Guruvayur.
So far, there has not been a worthy successor to Kesavan. Padmanabhan and Keshavan were true bhaktas of Guruvayurappan.