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Break free

When jumbos get to put their feet up

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Come July-August and Kerala's elephants get a break from their endless temple duties. Better still they get to wallow in special jumbo spas, have long massage sessions and eat vast amounts of therapeutic grub.

This is Karkidakam in Kerala, a monsoon month and the last one in the Malayalam calendar. Traditionally, it is a period of detoxification and rejuvenation. And if humans need a yearly break then why not the elephants who are an integral part of the state's life?

Hundreds of domesticated elephants in Kerala undergo the sukhachikitsa (rejuvenation) therapy this month, specially designed to help them unwind from the stress of having to relentlessly trudge the streets during festivals and poojas. They get to rest, eat well as well as take in some ayurvedic therapy.

"Sukhachikitsa is a time for the pachyderms to break free and relax and the concept applies both to humans and animals," says traditional Ayurveda physician and veterinary expert Avanapparambu Maheswaran Namboodiripad. He guides most of the sukhachikitsa camps conducted in the state, including the one at Punnathur Kotta at Guruvayur in Thrissur district. This stable is owned by Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple and it houses the largest stock of captive elephants in the world.

According to Namboothiripad, during Karkidakam, the body's receptivity to medication peaks and therapies aimed at strengthening the body become more effective. During one-month-long sukhachikitsa, elephants are offered a massage and a bath that lasts for at least three hours every morning. Around 3 pm, a sumptuous and therapeutic feast is laid out for them - 3 kg boiled rice, 1 kg green gram/horse gram, 200 gm chyavanaprash, 100 gm ashtachurnam, 150 ml iron tonic, 50 gm turmeric powder, 100 gm salt and 25gm mineral mixture. This is apart from the routine quota of food - 12. 5 tons of palm leaf and four tons of green grass and plenty of water.

"A set of ayurvedic and allopathic medicines is given to the elephants, except those in musth, during the 30 days of rejuvenation course, " says TCR Nambiar, senior veterinary officer at the Punnathur Kotta.
This rejuvenation process, which costs Rs 1000 per animal, comes at the end of the summer months packed with temple festivals. "After a season in which they are taken for temple processions, sometimes day and night, almost all tuskers are in bad health. Many of them lose nearly 300 kg in a single festive season. The one-month-long therapy recharges their energy. Almost every elephant manages to gain 250-500 kg, " says KC Panicker, elephant expert and retired professor of parasitology at the College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Mannuthy, Thrissur.

According to him, even the long bath plays a vital role in the sukhachikitsa, as rubbing the body with coconut fibre increases the blood circulation. Sukhachikitsa is also a time for the mahouts to be closer to the tusker and understand its changing behaviour.

Sukhachikitsa is only given to elephants who have reached adulthood, which is around the age of 13. Interestingly, both ayurvedic and allopathic doctors are involved in the therapy.

This is also a time elephants turn into non vegetarians. Tuskers are fed ajamamsa rasayanam, made from cow's milk, ghee and an extract of goat meat to strengthen their systems and stimulate their appetites, says Mangalamkunnu Paramewswaran who, along with his brother Haridas, owns 14 elephants. Elephants are also given unadulterated toddy tapped fresh from coconut trees to aid their digestion in this phase.
It is hard to pin down the antiquity of this yearly custom but TS Rajeev, assistant professor and project director at the Elephant Study Centre attached to the Mannuthy vet college, says that sukhachikitsa can probably be traced back to the time Indians started domesticating the animal. "Emperor Akbar is depicted as one of the best elephant trainers of his time, " he says.

Vivek K, veterinary officer who was part of this year's sukhachikitsa camp, says the rejuvenation therapy at this site began in 1982, but became regular in the late-80 s. "Sukhachikitsa conducted systematically every year at Punnathur Kotta has increased awareness about the process in the rest of south India, " he says.

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