A tribute to iconic elephant Guruvayur Padmanabhan – The successor of Guruvayur Kesavan

Yes, a majestic era comes to an end. The famous Guruvayur Padmanabhan, widely regarded as the torch bearer of Guruvayur Kesavan’s legacy, also known as ‘God among elephants’ is no more! He passed away on 26th February 2020 at the age of 84 after prolonged illness. He was undergoing treatment at Anakotta for some time. Four months ago, because of wound in his feet, his processions outside temple were restricted by forest department. Yet permission was granted for his processions within temple premises. One of the most celebrated elephants of present times with numerous fan clubs and thousands of fans, his death was shocking to many, who fondly loved him.

He was a star at temple festivals, with fans around, and the famed elephant was addressed as the successor of Guruvayur Kesavan following his death. Like Kesavan, many people believed that he was a divine elephant, and he has been carrying the Thidamb (idol/miniature of presiding deity) of Guruvayurappan for more than 4 decades. After the death of the jumbo Guruvayur Kesavan, he became the most celebrated elephant of the temple – a status he carried till his death.

He has been carrying the golden idol of Guruvayurappan for the Arat (final ritual of temple festival) since 1976. He has been honoured with ‘Gajaratnam’ and many other honorary titles and he was quite famous for his politeness and calm behaviour. This is my humble tribute to one of those celebrated elephants of Kerala, who spent majority of his life praying to Guruvayurappan. Yes, this silent elephant definitely had something divine. That’s why his devotes pray before him and call him god or incarnation of Guruvayurappan.

Padmanabham made his last public appearance during last Ekadasi celebrations

At the last Ekadasi festival in February 2020 on special permission, he carried Bhagavan’s Swarnakolam during the lamp procession. It was his last public appearance and health issues turned visible after that. He was one of the oldest elephants owned by Guruvayur Devaswom and was going through severe illness for the last few days. Swelling had already developed all over its body. Though experts from different parts of the country including Assam gave him advanced treatment, they couldn’t bring him back. Now 46 elephants are left with Guruvayur Devaswam.

Fourth Padmanabhan of Guruvayur

At every point of time, Guruvayur temple owned an elephant with name, Padmanabhan’. The most deceased elephant is the fourth one with the same name. The first one was ‘Valiya Padmanabhan’ who reached Guruvayur temple in the 1920s. He was offered to the temple by Cherukunnath Namboodiri. It was almost at the same time when the offering called ‘Aanaye Nadayiruthal’ (offering elephants to temple) had just started in Kerala temples. When Valiya Padmanabhan attended temple festival of Ambalapuzha in 1927, Ambalapuzha Thampuran honoured him with Veera Sringala, which was later used as a decoration for Swarnakolam of Guruvayurappan. His death was an accident. When he returned after temple procession, a palm tree fell on him, resulting in his death.

Soon after the demise of Valiya Padmanabhan, second Padmanabhan reached the temple. He was offered to the temple by Cherpulassery Thrikkadeeri Namboodiri on January 17, 1928. But he was short-lived. Third elephant with the same name reached the temple in 1935 as an offering of a devotee from Kollengode. He too couldn’t survive long. It seemed the temple and lord always wanted an elephant with the name Padmanabhan.

Fourth Padmanabhan reached temple on November 18, 1954. He was offered by a business family, E. P. Brothers from Ottapalam. Also given the name ‘Gajaratnam’ he created waves of joy and excitement in temple maidans during Poorams.

He started his glorious journey from a courtyard of Ottapalam 66 years ago!

Padmanabhan started his journey from the courtyard of an ancestral home named Erandath Puthen Veedu of Ottapalam 66 years ago and reached Guruvayur temple. Pattambi bridge was not constructed that time, and hence he used water transport to cross Bharathapuzha river. He crossed the river in a flatboat and later travelled by foot to reach the temple. Thus on January 18, 1954 Padmanabhan was rechristened as Guruvayur Padmanabhan. 66 years later he left us with teary eyes, taking lots and lots of love and fondness along with him.

He was offered to the temple by two business brothers known as E. P. Brothers – E. P. Achuthan Nair and E. P. Madhavan Nair. It was their grandmother Lakshmi Amma’s decision and her prayer to offer the elephant to temple. She has been suffering from some disease for a long time, and when medicines failed to cure it, she prayed to Guruvayurappan that she would offer an elephant to temple. Very soon her disease was cured completely. But she couldn’t fulfil her prayer.

During her old age her granddaughter offered her ‘Maango’ chain to the temple. Yet the family witnessed many unpleasant events. They approached an astrologer who told them that it’s the anger of Guruvayurappan as Lakshmi Amma didn’t fulfil her promise. So the family decided to give an elephant to temple and started searching for a good one.

The elephant was brought from Nilambur forest by people close to Nilambur Kovilakam. He was then bought by Alathur Swami,an elephant merchant and from him by E. P. Brothers. Alathur Swami was initially reluctant to give him away, as Padmanabhan was his personal favourite. But the brothers couldn’t find any other elephant with perfect features to be offered to the temple and they managed to convince him stating that the elephant is for Guruvayurappan. Padmanabhan was offered to temple within a few days of purchase.

Though Swami gave away the elephant, he was deeply distressed by its departure for a few days. It also made E. P. Brothers sad. After a few days the brothers got a letter from Swami. ‘Now I am not sad with the departure of Padmanabhan, and with Guruvayurappan’s blessings I got another elephant with same qualities’ – that was the content of the letter.

Later whenever members of E. P. family came to Guruvayur, they definitely visited Guruvayur Padmanabhan. Also whenever the elephant passes through Ottapalam as a part of processions and festivals, he was brought to his ancestral home too. They have tied him several times at the courtyard of the home and also Palapuram Estate. Padmanabhan visited E. P. family’s home for the last time 6 years back. At most occasions he travelled by foot to reach his ancestral home, while when he visited last time, he came here in a lorry. Till the last breath of his life he shared a bond with the family too.

Majestic Padmanabhan always remembered old Chattakaar

Guruvayur Padmanabhan after his death

Guruvayur Padmanabhan had some peculiarities, he never forgets Chattakar (people who accompany him including his mahout) even after many years. 25 years back his mahout Sakhavu Ravi met with an accident and died when he was accompanying the elephant. Later he was taken to the temple by another mahout who has taken care of him earlier. Temple authorities tested it several times, and it was noticed that old mahouts can easily approach him without any fear. When he is calm, not just mahouts, anyone can go near him. He was so polite and humble.

He was privileged to get Thantri Pooja for more than half a century

In front of Guruvayurappan, he got the opportunity to receive Thantri Pooja for more than 50 years during his lifetime. No other elephant has got this privilege to accept divinity from Lord Guruvayurappan for such a long time. Guruvayur Kesavan and Gajakesari Padmanabhan (before Kesavan) also got Thantri pooja for only a few years.

For Arattu festival when the divinity of Guruvayurappan is fully transferred from main idol to Panchaloka Thidambu (idol made using 5 metals), just before the procession Thantri conducts special pooja for the elephant which carries the divine idol. He is venerated using darbha grass, water, flowers etc and also given food to please him. Then only the thidambu is placed.

From 1962 onwards till 2019, except three years he was fortunate to accept Tantri Pooja every year during Aarattu ceremony. In Swarnakolam he carried Panchaloha Thidamb for many decades. When Padmanabhan completes his journey and leaves the court, he leaves behind a history, many many decades old! This year Arattu falls on March 15, and he left the opportunity just two weeks away.

When he carries Thidamb of Guruvayurappan, his head stands high among all elephants. He always folds his trunk as it is lengthy and sweeps the floor. Broad ears, lengthy tusk, beautiful forehead, well-structured body and good figure – he had countless features and qualities which made people admire him most. When he walks through the streets like a member of a royal family, devotees stand still with folded hands on either side. Many people assume it as the worship of Lord Guruvayurappan himself.

Apart from owning extraordinary external features, he had a golden heart and is known for his calm nature. He has never turned violent or created any form of trouble within temple premises. He was a very silent creature, unlike other elephants. He was honoured with Gajaratnam title on November 12, 2004. On November 18, 2014 his 60th year at temple was celebrated in a grand way at the temple and was attended by many. A commemorative stamp was also issued on this occassion.

Yet like many elephants, he also owns a dark day. It happened during Chalisseri-Puthinchery Kavu temple festival, when Padmanabhan was a part of procession. He lost control for a moment and his mahout Vengad Velayudhan Nair got crushed beneath his foot. But it was not Padmanabhan’s mistake which resulted in the death of mahout. It happened when a fire ball or ash fell on him, and when he responded in fear, his mahout who was sleeping in the slanting position over the front foot accidently fell under his feet.

Apart from Guruvayur processions, he also participated in several elite temple festivals like Thrissur Pooram, Uthralikavu Pooram, Nenmaara-Vallangi Pooram etc. In most these cases, he carries Thidamb for processions. He owns a huge fan following crowd that he gets special treat from locals, wherever he goes.

His last few moments were quite similar to that of Guruvayur Kesavan

His last few moments made everyone remember the death of Guruvayur Kesavan. Kesavan showed his trunk towards the flag post of the temple moments before his death. Padmanabhan also showed his trunk and his doctor it. Within a few moments the trunk slipped from his hand. The whole people surrounded around him including mahout and president of fan’s association burst into tears.

Throughout his life he enjoyed a royal status and his fans believe him to have some divinity. He was one of the most beautiful captive elephants of Kerala which epitomized elephant beauty (Aana Chandam) with perfection. But for the last few days, he was suffering from pain and doctors tried to pull him up with the help of crane, a painful sight to his lovers. It was decided earlier itself that he should be laid to rest in Anakotta, and following his death permission was received from minister too. It was for the first time a royal elephant is buried in this place. But following the resistance from a few locals the decision was changed later.

The elephant which epitomized elephant beauty

His height is 302 cms and length of trunk is 250 cms. His tusk is 90 cms. He has 18 nails – 4+4 in back toes and 5+5 in front toes. He is one of the rarest captive elephants which holds almost perfect qualities to be qualified for elephant beauty. He has average height only, and his trunk drags on floor. His tusk also holds extraordinary beauty, and so is his forehead and head. Projections of head are also uniform. Nails are visible from distance. All these features are more than enough to attract elephant fans. His right tusk is folded inwards, which is the only defect among his features. Though it’s not seen as a good symbol, this defect also holds a special beauty. As per Lakshna Sastra of elephants, it is ‘Airavatham’ tusk – the tusk of divine elephant.

He is silent and tension free even in stressed and crowded atmosphere. He never harms the spectators or those who touch him. He obeys his mahout, and had some unique qualities in character too. He never harmed anyone (except that fatal night), and had a thought not to disturb others. This silent nature differentiates Padmanabhan from other elephants. His virtue lies in his royal beauty, beautiful heart, calmness and humbleness. At any instance he never provokes, a rarest phenomenon. Moderate height is one among his distinguished characteristics.

Many elephants are given ‘criminal’ treatment by tying using more than one chain. Padmanabhan is not so. For the same reason he carried less cuts and wounds too. When he turns a caparisoned during a procession and carries the idol, it is easy to distinguish him from others. It is not an easy task such a beautiful elephant.

But during his last days a special shed was built for him at Anakotta, and he led a prisoner’s life. It was indeed a heart breaking sight for his devotees and fans. An elephant drinks plenty of water, wanders around and tastes different species of plants. But sadly such facilities are not available for captive elephants.

Now only 495 captive elephants left in Kerala

After the death of Padmanabhan, as of February 2020 only 495 tamed elephants are left in Kerala. Kerala owns maximum number of captive elephants than any other state, yet only 32 hold ownership certificates. Of them 19 belongs to forest department.

As per rules only elephant with ownership certificates can be used for temple processions and other purposes. Also the certificate has to be renewed once in every 5 years. Sadly this rule is not strictly followed. In 2008 court has prohibited in bringing captive elephants from other states to Kerala. Also change of ownership was banned in 2016.

Maximum captive elephants in Kerala belong to Thrissur district – 153. 33 belong to forest department. Total number of elephants owned by different Devaswoms is as follows – Guruvayur – 46, Travancore – 26, Koodalmanikyam – 1, Malabar – 3, Cochin – 13 and Thechikottukavu – 2.

Some interesting facts about Guruvayur Padmanabhan

1. Born in Nilambur forests, he reached Guruvayur temple at the age of 14. He was 4 feet high then. He lost his way from his group and reached the hands of those who catch elephants and make them captive.

2. He started carrying Tidamb of Guruvayurappan since 1962. He reached Anakotta exactly at the same time when Guruvayur Kesavan was ruling the roost.

3. He was only an ordinary elephant when he reached Guruvayur. Like other elephants he was sent to carry wood. His growth was spontaneous, and he turned a beautiful elephant within a short interval of time.

4. He owned maximum number of fans from Palakkad district. For Palakkad people, he is an incarnation of Lord Guruvayurappan himself. They spent lakhs of money for his procession and are also interested in accompanying him from Guruvayur to Palakkad. For them it is a matter of pride.

5. After Palakkad he had a huge fan following crowd in Thrissur, Ernakulam, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode districts too. During festival season, he is one of the most sought elephants. Recommendation letters and phone calls are quite common.

6. His devotees believed that Krishna Parunth will come to the site and fly in circular motion when Padmanabhan arrives at a site. Devotees also believe that he is the most favourite elephant of Guruvayurappan. Also when he reaches a temple, devotees believe that it’s Guruvayurappan himself who reached there. He always carry Guruvayurappan’s Thidamb, and that’s one among the reasons.

7. One of the most sought elephants of Poorams, especially the prestigious Thrissur Pooram, in 2004 he set a record in procession fee of rupees 2.25 lakh for a day for parading at the Nenmara-Vallanki Vela, and he got this amount through an auction. Exact figure is 2,22,222 rupees. It was the highest fee (Ekkam) for an elephant in any temple festival till now. The record is still unbroken, even after 16 years.

8. Only a few elephants have lengthy trunks which touch the floor and Padmanabhan was blessed to have such one. His beautiful trunk used to drag in floor.

9. He received Thantri Pooja at Guruvayur temple for more than 50 years, highest among all elephants.

10. His last few moments were almost the same and repetition of Guruvayur Kesavan’s last moments. It was enough to prove that he was an elephant god, or divine elephant. Like Kesavan he showed his lengthy trunk just before his death.

11. For the last few years he had difficulties in eating normal elephant food. So dates and milk rice were included in his menu a few years ago. He also got special consideration from Guruvayur Devaswom during his old age.

12. Following his death, Guruvayur temple has been closed for two days.

13. A memorial for Padmanabhan is in the pipeline. He shares almost equal status of Gajaraja Guruvayur Kesavan. As a statue for Kesavan has been erected at Thekkenada of Guruvayur temple, similar memorial and statue is in consideration.

Also read a few more elephant stories. Here is the page link. Click on the images to read. 


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A freelance writer and blogger by profession since October 2011, interested in writing over a wide range of topics. Hope you enjoy my writings. I belong to one of the beautiful places of the world, Kerala, nicknamed as 'God's own country'.

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