For a while now, one question has kept Travancore Devaswom Board’s mandarins animated: should the “world’s oldest captive elephant” be retired?

The board, which manages 1,240 temples in Kerala, including the famous hill shrine of Sabarimala, has used Chengallur Dakshayani for temple rituals for over 80 years. Last year, she was given the title Gaja Muthassi, or grandma elephant. India Post honoured her with a stamp cover.

She turns 87 on Tuesday but her caretaker insisted it is too early for retirement. She should, however, be given only “mild assignments to keep her healthy”. “She needs to get mild assignments such as carrying the idol on the back during temple festivals,” said Vasudevan Namboodiri.

Dr T Rajeev, her veterinarian since 2009, agreed. “There is nothing wrong in taking out a fit elephant in old age for a parade,” he said. “I feel it is too early for Dakshayani to retire. Festivals will only cheer her up.”

Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2003, lay down that an elephant “shall be allowed to retire from its work” at 65. Although elephants above 65 can be put to “light work” if certified healthy by a veterinarian.

Kerala has 702 captive elephants, nearly 100 of them with the four temple boards under the state control. Guruvayur Devaswom, which controls the state’s richest Sree Krishna temple, keeps 56 elephants in a sanctuary called Punnathur Kotta.

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, which is administered independently under the Supreme Court’s guidelines and whose vaults are said to be filled with treasure worth a trillion rupees, has two elephants.

Kerala’s forest department estimated its wild elephant population at 7,384 in 2011.

Mahout Mukesh Nair takes Dakshayani for a walk. Photo credit: Ashraf Padanna

Gift that keeps on giving

Dakshayani was gifted to the board by the erstwhile royals of Travancore state when she was six, and has been with the Mahadeva temple on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram since. She was paraded during festivals at the temple and the nearby Thrivikramangalam Vamanamoorthy shrine. That stopped in 2014 when animal rights campaigners protested.

“TDB has more than two dozen elephants, and most of them are living in pathetic conditions,” VK Venkitachalam, secretary of the campaign group Heritage Animal Task Force said, referring to the board. “The temple elephants are often kept under the scorching sun for hours without water during parades at festivals, and the retirement rules are never followed. But thanks to TDB’s record ambitions, Dakshayani enjoys all privileges.”

The record? The board wants Dakshayani listed in the Guinness World Records. “She is the oldest captive elephant in the world,” said Prayar Gopalakrishnan, its president. “As per our records, her date of birth is July 18, 1930. We have submitted documents of her age to Guinness. We expect it to be official soon.”

Amber-Georgina Gill, International Press Officer of Guinness World Records, confirmed having received the application. “We look forward to receiving the evidence for our records management team to review,” she said in an email.

The record is currently held by Lin Wang, who died in Taipei Zoo, Taiwan, in 2003, aged 86.

The average age of an Asian elephant is 60 although captive elephants live longer.

Dakshayani is paraded after getting the title of Gaja Muthassi. Photo credit: Travancore Devaswom Board

Way to go

Age has not slowed Dakshayani down because she was never used for heavy labour like other captive elephants, her custodians claim. In any case, they argue, light work is good for her: veterinarians have advised her a five-km walk every day to keep away “lifestyle diseases”. “I examine her every two weeks,” said Rajeev. “Health-wise, she is perfect at this age. She has a mild loss of vision and cannot run. She was also having some digestive issues that we managed with changes in the diet.”

They reduced her coconut palm intake and added more grass and protein-rich food. She is also served a meal of 5 kg rice, 1 kg green gram, 2 kg jaggery and half a kilo small onion three days a week.

She regularly gets body massages, and is in for the annual month-long “Ayurvedic rejuvenation therapy” next week.

“She will live for another ten years, for sure. See her teeth. They are intact, and she enjoys her food,” said Mukesh Nair, who replaced his father Muraleedharan Nair as her mahout about two years ago. Nair senior had looked after her for 22 years.

The custodians claim that Dakshayani is the “most well-behaved” of the 32 elephants with Travancore Devaswom Board. The board has built her a 1.75-acre “chain and rope free” enclosure on a riverbank nearby, and she will be shifted there soon.