For a city that had no native elephants within 200 miles, Madras has a long and interesting history of its association with the tuskers. The British brought elephants to Madras, though there might have been an odd one during the Chola or Vijaynagar times.
The Portuguese had earlier shipped an elephant called Hannah to the Pope. The animal fascinated Pope Leo so much that he failed to concentrate on his duties. That was the time when reformation and protestant movement had gained strength. Hannah later died of constipation and was buried on the Vatican hill after being painted by Raphael.
The British too were fascinated by these huge animals. Many paintings have emerged out of the company studios. Just like their predecessors, the Portuguese, the British shipped elephants back home. But to them, the political message was clear. The elephant under captivity signified India.
Elephants came to Madras for many reasons. They were first imported and later exported to act in movies, to participate in temple festivities. And even to beg on the streets. They were hunted in forests and Robert Clive, the Commander-in-Chief of British India, resisted their battering of the gates of Arcot. During the conflict with Tipu Sultan, both the parties used elephants to pull heavy artillery right to their firing locations.
In fact, in Madras Veterinary College, one could graduate with a specialisation in elephant management. But, keeping elephants in the city came with its own challenges. There were conflicts and quite a number of citizens were stamped or kicked by the disturbed elephants in the concrete jungle. One such victim was the nationalistic poet Bharathi. He approached an elephant in Parthasarathy temple with a fruit in his hand but was knocked down by the angry animal’s trunk. He died a few weeks later.
Despite the shortcomings, elephants were maintained in the city because it added a lot of colour and character to Madras.
WHEN DISSECTION BECAME TRENDY
The Europeans were always curious about the anatomy of the giant mammal. Elephant dissections were carried out across the world in the 17th and 18th century. There are records of one being carried out at Versailles palace in the presence of King Louis XIV. Another was recorded in at Fort St George in Madras which drew worldwide attention from zoologists.
It was a gruelling task. In November 1715, French surgeon A Suply conducted a 12-hour procedure in which he examined a gigantic specimen and mused upon how the body functioned.
The creature had been dead for only 24 hours and had not begun to rot. Challenging though the task was, Suply was not alone in his efforts.
Throughout the procedure, he was aided by a cadre of local assistants. His recorded data stated: “Our governor lent me 20 parriars. Each of them armed with a great hooked knife to help me open and separate the viscera.” He also drew sketches and wrote a report titled Anatomical remarks upon an elephant opened at Fort St George in November 1715. In his writings, he also mentioned: “My Indians found a great heat issuing from the entrails and viscera. It was somewhat singular and diverting to see these native anatomists go in and out of the belly of this terrestrial whale, like Jonas, to wash themselves from the blood and filth in a little river (possibly Cooum) that ran by our slaughterhouse.”
THE TUSKER & THE POET
The most poetic of Madras’ inhabitants, Subramania Bharathi, returned from exile in French controlled Pondicherry in 1919. Since he lived on Thulasinga Perumal Kovil Street in Triplicane, it was easy for him — though ailing from many diseases — to visit the Parthasarathy Temple every morning and evening.
The temple had an elephant whom Bharathi would feed daily either a banana or a coconut. Once in 1921, the tusker was in heat and as Bharathi approached it with his daily offering, the elephant swung around suddenly and its trunk hit Bharathi. The frail poet was flung off and he fell hard on the ground. The elephant did not attack him further and Bharathi was quickly rescued by onlookers.
Technically, he had “a cut on the upper lip and abrasions on the head”. Inspite of the injuries, Bharathi reportedly resumed his temple visits and continued to feed the animal till he died in September that year. Despite having survived the episode, there were strong rumours in Tamil speaking regions that a temple elephant stamped Bharathi to death.
184-YEAR FIGHT OVER A FOREHEAD MARK
Temples became proud owners of elephants and used them in processions. But, since they were the most visible and attractive feature of the temple, their importance and symbolism grew. The oldest running litigation in Madras is about an elephant when two groups of devotees of the Devaraja Swami Temple in Kancheepuram intermittently fought for the right to adorn the temple elephant with the naamam (U or Y) of their sect. The litigation drew in the colonial government, the collector and even the lower courts. Appeals were filed and in 1858, the Y naamam adorned the elephant’s forehead. Trustees from the other sect, however, prepared a cloth with their version stitched on it to cover the elephant’s forehead. As a result, contempt of court fines of Rs 50 were issued against them. The case lay dormant every time the temple ran out of elephants but, whenever anyone donated one, the case resumed. The case began on 1792 and carried on for 184 years. Since then, many elephants have come and gone but the litigation continued till the Madras High Court ordered two elephants to be bought for the temple – one for each sect.
TUSKERS TURNED ACTORS IN FILMS
Chandru beat actress to top the list
Once, a jungle-themed film with actresses in revealing costumes was causing ripples in Madras. Even with the then sultry Thavamani in the cast, the producers were unsure of the audience turnout. Hence, they brought in Chandru, a tusker, to top the list.
Actress and tusker became fast friends
In another instance, actress Rukmani had to be lifted by an elephant in an important scene in Srivalli but the producers were worried about how either of them was going to react to the scene. So, the elephant was borrowed much earlier than the shooting date and tied in the corner of the studio, and the heroine was asked to feed the elephant every day to get used to it. But soon, the two became such good friends that in the scene when she was lifted by the elephant, Rukmani actually had to struggle to stifle her laughter and pretend that she was terrified. Devar films used many elephants to act in their movies, including Nalla Neram (Hathi Mera Sathi) in which an orphan boy manages to have four elephants as pets.
Part time actors, studio inspire circus name
Another time when Gemini studio was making Chandralekha, proprietor Vasan felt there wasn’t enough tempo in the movie and he wanted to add a circus into the script. Two circus groups moved into Gemini studio in the heart of Mount Road. One of them later changed its name to Gemini circus. The movie went on to become a blockbuster. Gemini used many elephants for another movie titled Avvaiyar as well. At that time, elephants were being transported from Coorg and taken to Andamans by ships. So, when they reached Madras, they were utilised in movies. In one of Gemini Ganesh’s movies, wild elephants — but with sacred vibhuthi markings — were required to rush out of nowhere at the command of a holy woman to knock down a fortress and release him. The elephants performed the job perfectly and were rushed back to the harbour to catch their ship with the vibhuthi still marking their foreheads.
Shooting elephants was an exciting sport for the colonial government officials. The Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, once implored a friend of his to “come and stay with us and we will arrange for you to shoot tigers from the back of elephants or elephants from the back of tigers.”
One of the hunters even recorded the thrill: “To stand up within ten paces and drop an elephant dead before he is aware of danger is the poetry of the sport. To kill him with body shots the prose.”
Also, elephants offered a lot of hunting mementoes other than ivory. The walls of many houses in Madras were adorned with stuffed elephant heads done up by an expert taxidermist. Elephants’ feet held umbrellas or were ‘foot stools’ and even the testicles of tuskers were turned into golf bags. The occupants of Fort St George killed several elephants before the activity was banned. Madras was perhaps the first place in the world to ban elephant hunting in 1873 by the “Elephant Preservation Act of Madras Presidency”. This was later extended to the whole of India, Burma and Ceylon. Soon, however, the first man to break the rule was the British heir to the throne who shot an elephant in a hunting trip organised by the government.
CONNECTION WITH THE RAILWAYS
South Indian railway used to have an elephant as its logo. One can even see it today at the Egmore railway station. Much later, while celebrating the 150th year of the Indian railways, the mascot was announced to be Bholu — an elephant dressed like a station master.
During the World War II, several engines of the Indian railway were shipped to Mesopotamia and other placed where the British thought they were more in need to serve wartime logistics. The Indian Railways had the exact number of engines required to pull the trains but those required to shunt carriages and carry loads were performed by the next powerful agency — the elephant. In fact, the railways had several of them on its payroll. In early 1900s, tickets were available specifically for elephants in South Indian railway, in case passengers needed their elephants to accompany them. The price for one such ticket was Rs 600 — a steep price to pay in those days.
ROYALTY & LOYALTY
There are many references to the elephant stationed within fort St George. In 1685, British king Charles II died and his son James II succeeded him. The news reached Madras 6 months later. In a spontaneous show of loyalty, the natives of Black Town under the leadership of Peddy Naik had elephants carrying British flags, following drummers and their kettle drums, march through the town.
When the 6-km wall around Madras was constructed to defend it one of the seven gates was called “The Elephant Gate”. Presumably, it connected Poonamalee and Arcot to Madras.
Today’s Icehouse police station stands on what was once a pond next to the stable that housed the elephants of the Nawab of Arcot. The animals were given a bath in the pond called Aanaikulam. The name lives on long after the pond was filled in.
Many palaces in Arcot built their porticos double the usual height to make it easier for elephants with howdahs (seats with umbrellas) to enter the palaces with ease.
Again, one day, during wartime, all the animals of Madras Zoo — except the sole elephant — were shot dead because the authorities could not afford their fodder. The animal and its keeper were sent to Erode by a train.
TRADE & INVENTIONS
Elephants were needed for war, in temples and in the logging industry. Moreover, rulers of Indian states wanted elephants in their stables to exhibit their power and wealth. Buildings began to be built to accommodate the elephants. Some of them had porticos of double the height to allow elephants to walk in and allow the rider to disembark on the first floor. The building of Women’s Christian College in Madras which sheltered many kings and princes in exile, is a classic example.
These tuskers were often moved from place to place and even to other countries. The Madras Port played an important role in shipping the elephants.
With the increase in the elephant population, one would think the British would take to exporting them but, the company that ruled Madras for most part of its history, was an importer of elephants.
The English East India Company’s trade with the South East Asia from Coromandel consisted mainly of the export of textile and coarse goods while elephants were the most sought valuable import item for the English. They would sell the beasts among the local rulers in the Coromandel Coast.
Hundreds of elephants were shipped every year from Pegu, Tenasserim and Malacca, where they were found in abundance. Historians often wondered why elephants were imported when they were found in abundance here. The company did try trapping elephants, but then they felt that hunting Indian elephants was too expensive a task and many died in captivity. Importing elephants from far east seemed more profitable. And accordingly, even though Madras did not have a harbour during that time, the elephants would be ferried to the shore on rafts from ships anchored two miles away from the shore.
Years later, once the harbour was constructed, elephants were shipped mainly to Andaman islands.
It was only in 1961 that scientists came up with a way to make transporting the huge animals easier. A contraption was designed by IIT Madras (one of its earliest consultancies) to lift a baby elephant into a BOAC aircraft. The calf reportedly used a stairway to descend at Heathrow airport.