Lakshmi, the Ganesh Temple elephant

If you live in Pondy you obvioulsy know her, if you came to Pondy, you have most probably met her, you even possibly have a photo of you with her... Lakshmi is the elephant of the Ganesh Temple just near the Sri Aurobindo ashram.

We went to her house, at the Shiva Temple on Iswaran Koil street, that has a private space indoor and a little garden where she sleeps. Sindil, her mahout, invited us and spoke about Lakshmi, who is like a family member to him.

Lakshmi arrived in Pondicherry in 1997, she was then 6 years old - a baby, since an elephant's life can reach 80 years, even 120 in exceptional cases. Born in Assam, it is in Kerala that she was found and selected. The Temple in Pondicherry had decided to get an elephant, and thus sent someone, acompanied by a vet, to choose an animal. This selection was made according to several criteria, like the whiteness of nails, proportions of the body, footprints... Lakshmi was then taken by truck to Pondy 11 years ago. After that, Sindil was chosen - among 14 candidates - to be her mahout, which is the lifelong elephant guide and caretaker.

Sindil, who was born in Kerala, previously worked with his uncle, also a mahout. Several generations of men in his family were mahouts, he explains, and that it will probably end with him- as his kids go to school. He therefore settled in Pondy at the same time as Lakshmi.

Lakshmi's agenda is quite busy. From 6 to 8, Sindil and 3 other persons give her a bath : 2000 litres of water and a good cleaning done with a stone that looks like volcano stone; it is in fact overcooked brick. Then comes to the time for beauty : everyday new designs and symbols are painted on her. Being considered as a living God is a heavy responsibility. The bells on her jewellery (taylor made) also tell people when she's around, in case they want to come out to be blessed by her.

Around 8.30 she leaves her home to go to the Ganesh Temple, a few hundred metres away. Once there, the daily ritual consists in going inside to bless the statue of Ganesh, then the Brahman makes the mark on her forehead and she's ready to start her day. She stands outside the temple and gives blessings - delicately laying her trump on one's head - to people who give her coins, grass or fruit.

Lakshmi is very at ease with humans and Sindil is proud to explain that thanks to the education he gave her, she likes being around people, whereas most elephants limit the contact to the blessing. He then tells us that once, she came she came across other elephants but just ignored them and stayed with the humans.

And does she often meet elephants ? The government sometimes organizes a kind of retreat during one month or two for them in Mudumallai, a natural reserve, but Lakshmi has not yet had the opportunity to go. And about reproduction, he says that she is now at the age where she can reproduce, so they might plan an artificial  insemination one day, as they do in Thailand.

Sindil explains that he speaks to her in Malayalam. She is sometimes stubborn or pretends not to hear what he says, she perfectly understands everything, and knows when she's done something silly or wrong. On the other side, Sindil can tell by her attitude and posture if she is sick. She sometimes trumpets, mostly when scared. She doesn't like loud and sudden noises and during Diwali she could not sleep during 2 nights because of the firecrackers. She is also scared of horns, (which must not make it easy for her to live in India).

Foodwise, she eats Pongal (4kg a day), leaves, fruit... If too many bananas and coconuts are not suitable for her- she also enjoys apples, pineapples (without the spiky leaves) and her favorite fruit is watermelon. So if you come and see her, you know what to bring.


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