There are plenty of reasons to visit the Perur temple I suppose. One would be dovotion to Shiva, for whom the temple was built. Or maybe the age of the temple itself draws you, it is, after all, over 1300 years old. Or maybe its the stone work here where hundreds of pillars reaching up to 30 foot ceilings spiral down with intricate hand carved figures of animals, humans, and everything in between. And these are all legitimate reasons to visit the oldest, biggest, most important temple in Coimbatore. My own motivation, however, in making the trip is perhaps not so intellectual or spiritual or artistic. My own motivation is quite simple: the elephant.
But even it that weren't my reason for coming, I am pretty sure I would have reacted the same way as I did when I stepped into the long, cool, hall of the temple surrounded by 1300 year old sculptures and the sound of a Sanskrit chant echoing back to me from all directions. Because as impressive as all that was, He was better. there is something dignified in the movements of a creature so big, even from a distance. And move he does. He dances, really, to the beat of his own drum which has nothing to do with the recorded chant he must hear everyday as he stands in his post, taking donations and giving blessings. He sways smoothly from side to side, lifting his trunk first, then a back leg, then a front leg. Never still and yet his constant movement is more peaceful than the stillness of the rest of the temple. He is marked of course, three white lines on forehead, ears, legs, and trunk. the fact that this white powder is meant to represent the ashes of a cremated cow (which would have died of natural causes, obviously) strikes me as kind of ironic. Decorating one holy animal with the remains of another.
But as we walk past him all that magic dissipates as quickly as it came, because then I can see the chains. These huge, thick chains around both of his front legs and suddenly I'm not charmed anymore. I'm terrified. yeah sure, I'm a little afraid of the animal that would fit into such huge chains, but mostly I'm afraid of the man who put them there.
And I can't help feeling responsible, somehow, for the atrocities inflicted on that beautiful, graceful, and utterly melancholy animal. Because I came here to see him. I came here to put a rupee in his trunk, bow to him, and feel him rest his enormous trunk on my head for a few brief seconds. I came here so I could write to my friends and family about the day I saw an elephant up close and personal. And here I am, just as I wanted, watching the one of the most amazing creatures I've ever seen reduced to doing carnival tricks. And I step up for my turn, of course. I shakingly hold out my coin to him as he lifts his massive trunk and holds it, curving slightly, a few inches from my hand. I give him my ruppee, my measly two cents, and before I even think to incline my head I feel the weight of his trunk on the side of my head. Thump. Something between a gentle tap from him and what to me felt like a blow that knocked me a little sideways. There you go, transaction complete.
I step back a few paces and stand watching him as he follows the same routine for the family behind me. A ten year old girl held out a ruppee twice, having enjoyed the first thump enough to want a second. I try to catch his eye as he works, because I have this crazy idea that I'll find something there, some wisdom perhaps, some knowledge that, as an elephant, he never forgot. He doesn't look at me, though. He doesn't look anyone in the eye. He just goes on dancing his slow, sad dance and passing the rupees he collects to the skinny man at his side. And after a few minutes I give up. Whatever he remembers from his long holy life, he's not telling me. And why would he? After all, I came to the oldest temple in Coimbatore to see a trapped animal dance.
Om Shanti Om.