Kandan was a temple elephant. He was extraordinarily tall even for an elephant and stood a couple of feet taller than the tallest elephants in the land. And a couple of feet broader too. His majestic bearing and long curved tusks made him a very attractive elephant indeed. But what made him truly exceptional were his intelligence and his quirky personality.
Kandan was so gentle that even small children would go close to him without fear of harm. But at other times, when he wanted to, he could prove aggressive too. He was stubborn and punctual and followed rules religiously; rules that he had set. He wouldn’t listen to any two legged fool who happened to be his mahout, but if his mahout had asked for his opinion about something and he had agreed, he would definitely keep his word. His favourite pastime was to lay submerged in the river, choosing its deepest part and resting there like a solid grey rock, with only the tip of his trunk visible above water. He was friends with all the water buffaloes who came to the river to loll about and helped them out if they were in a spot of trouble.
Once there was a great famine in the land and the grazing grounds were all dry. The water buffaloes were all hungry. Kandan immediately realised their plight and led them all to a lush sugarcane field. He broke the fence and stood aside. All the hungry water buffaloes got in and had a great meal while Kandan stood guard. When people came with sticks and stones to chase the water buffaloes away, he turned towards them, raised his trunk and trumpeted loudly. The men ran for their lives. But Kandan himself never ate even a stalk of sugarcane though it was one of his favourite foods. He thought it beneath his dignity to break into a field and eat that way. Besides, he was never hungry. The mahouts brought him his food that the temple provided. Cooked rice with coconuts, jaggery and delicious poovan bananas. Sometimes, the temple cook who was really fond of Kandan made sweet payasam as a special treat for the gentle giant.
Once, Kandan was resting in his usual place in the deepest part of the river. It was the peak of summer and it looked as though the sun was wreaking vengeance on the people of the land. People fanned themselves with coconut leaf hand fans and scanned the sky for rain clouds. They sought the shade of the gigantic trees and rested under them. Even the straw mats proved too hot during the night and everyone lay on the floor trying to soak in the coolness of the earth. Since schools had closed for the summer holidays, children played in the river out-swimming and out-diving each other or simply floating on their backs in the cool waters. All this noise and activity never bothered Kandan as he lay in the water nearby, looking very much like a black mountain. Long charcoal grey vallams often travelled that way, ferrying goods from east to west and back. But Kandan normally never took any notice of the country boats as they passed by him. But one day things got slightly out of hand.
As usual Kandan was resting in the deepest part of the river. A vallam laden with areca nuts, raw turmeric, ginger and coconuts came that way. The boatmen didn’t see Kandan and before they could do anything the boat climbed on his back which was just below the surface. With one casual flick of his huge trunk Kandan took hold of the boat and turned it upside down. The coconuts and arecanuts floated away but the rest of the cargo sank in the river. The boatmen jumped off the vallam and swam for their lives. But Kandan did not hurt any of them. He did not hurt people. That was not in his nature. But from that day on, he hated vallams. If any vallam happened to come near him while he was in the river, he would catch hold of it with his trunk and dash it to pieces. So the boatmen stopped plying their vallams when Kandan was in the river. They would stop their crafts some distance from him and tie them to the coconut trees on the bank. Then they would wait for Kandan to amble out of the water. Only when he was walking away from the river and was at a safe distance would they untie their boats and begin their journey again.
Kandan hated being ordered around. He did things of his own sweet will. But then he was very conscious of his duties as a temple elephant and would present himself at base of the flag post when it was time for the ceremony of taking the deity around in circumambulation. During these ceremonies, he knew where to stop and for how long, without being told. If the humans felt that they would like to stop at a particular place for some more time, they could not, because Kandan would start moving after the exact length of time and then they had no choice but to move with him. If on the other hand the humans wanted to hurry through the ceremony for some reason, they could not because Kandan would not hurry. Every day, he would take exactly the same amount of time to complete the ceremony. His sense of time was so accurate that the temple officials could not cheat on the coconut oil for the lamps as the exact same amount would be used every single day, and the temple accountants could not fudge the numbers and so no one could steal the temple money.
Kandan was enthusiastic about participating in the annual temple festival. But then as usual, he had his own rules. He wouldn’t allow anyone to climb on to his back using his front leg. But then he would helpfully bend his back leg for people to clamber up. So the men who tied the decorative piece of cloth to Kandan’s trunk and the ones who held the whisks and the peacock feather fans all had to use his rear foot as a step. But when the idol of the deity was brought, he would immediately bend his front foot and allow the person carrying it to climb that way. But he would insist on being fed his quota of rice and jaggery and payasam before that. As the last days of the festival approached Kandan had to stand for longer and longer hours. But he was sweet and didn’t mind the extra hours at all. And on the penultimate and last days of the festival, he would stand through the night without any complaint. And if one of the mahouts fell asleep reclining against one of his legs, he didn’t mind at all. Sometimes, he would shower the people standing nearby with generous amounts of elephant pee.
Timber merchants sometimes requisitioned Kandan’s services to transport logs of wood. They had to pay the temple authorities and the mahout a certain sum of money for his services. But this payment didn’t guarantee that Kandan would do the job. The merchant had to come to the elephant and in his presence ask his mahout what Kandan himself wanted as payment for the job. Merchants would offer coconuts, large measures of jaggery and bunches of bananas to get a job done. If Kandan agreed, he would nod his head. If not he would shake his head violently and put up his trunk and trumpet loudly. If he agreed to do a job, he would do it perfectly and the merchants had to ‘pay’ him immediately after that.
Once a timber merchant from several villages away, came to the temple and asked to hire Kandan’s services to lift a particularly large and heavy log of wood. He paid the temple officials the required sum and also gave the mahout a large tip.
“What will you give Kandan?” asked the mahout.
“Ten coconuts, ten bunches of poovan bananas and a large measure of jaggery,” replied the merchant.
The next day, the mahout brought Kandan to the site where the log was and he easily lifted it and took it to the place where the merchant wanted. As soon as the job was done, the mahout asked for Kandan’s payment.
“Look,” the merchant smiled arrogantly and told the mahout. “I’ve already paid the temple officials. And I gave you quite a generous tip. I’m a busy man. I don’t have time to indulge and pamper an obstinate, ill-mannered elephant.”
Kandan was furious. He immediately lifted the log of wood he’d transported and took it back to the place where it lay before. Then he went back to his own village. The merchant called other elephants for the job but none of them could move the log by a hair’s breadth. Realising his mistake, he came back to request Kandan to transport the log again. After much persuasion, the temple officials and the mahout agreed. But Kandan would not budge an inch. Such was his nature.
In the fullness of time, Kandan passed away peacefully. Never in his life did he allow himself to be chained and never in his life did he hurt a living soul. He was truly a free-spirited being.
Pen Page, my free monthly email newsletter, normally has a note from me, blog updates and my thoughts on what I’ve been reading. Sign up HERE. You can unsubscribe any time.
Please read other sections of my blog: