Rollo Romig in the NYT Magazine:
One hot morning in Kerala, a tropical sliver of a state along the southwestern coast of India, I took a ride to Maradu, a town of nearly 45,000, to meet an elephant named Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan. He’s a leading-man type: darkly handsome, a bit of a rogue, the star of two feature films. During Kerala’s festival season, which nowadays stretches from December to May, he never gets a day off, parading in more than 200 festivals a year. As the tallest elephant among seven at Maradu’s annual function, he would be granted the honor of carrying a golden idol that evening.
Like any star, Ayyappan has groupies; his entry on the fan Web site Star Elephants commends his “clear honey colored eyes” and “majestic look.” But the fan sites don’t mention that in 1999, after a festival in Puthunagaram, he killed two assistant handlers, known as mahouts. It wasn’t an accident: he crept up on them as they slept on the roadside, picked them up with his trunk and trampled them to death. “Any other animal that had killed a person, they would have punished him by shooting him on sight,” says Sreekumar Arookutty, the director and writer of the popular Kerala TV series “E4 Elephant.” “But elephants get a special privilege in this society. An elephant has the right to kill one mahout, or two or three.” But why did Ayyappan do it? And why did he kill only the apprentices? “Only the elephant knows,” Arookutty says. “Maybe it’s because he wants to stop a new generation of mahouts from growing up.”
The captivity of elephants in south India goes back thousands of years. At first their use was mostly practical — tanks in wartime, timber forklifts in peacetime. In Kerala, elephants have been status symbols since the feudal era, and today most of its captive elephants are owned by private individuals. And it’s the only state in India where elephants are widely used for temple festivals. When or why this tradition started is unknown — no scripture commands it — but you can imagine how it may have happened: elephants were housed at temples between battles and were gradually integrated into religious festivities. Eventually, as soldiers and loggers replaced their elephants with machines, festivals became the best way owners could turn a profit on such high-maintenance animals. More: