She was inconsolable when she stepped into the Ganges with the ashes of her beloved Raghuram. She could barely control her grief when the Pandit was giving instructions. While travelling to Kashi, she kept wondering how such a duty fell on her shoulders. Who was Raghuram to her? Why did Hariyettan assign her to submerge Raghuram’s ashes in the Ganges? She couldn’t find answers to any of these questions. But she knew one thing—Raghuram was not a mere assignment for me. That magnificent creature had given boundless love to last for a lifetime.
You guessed it right—Raghuram was an elephant! The most magnificent giant at Kapoor Haridas’s Varikkasseri Mana. And Shabna had quit her medical job to take care of elephants. This isn’t just the story of a young woman who was passionate about being a mahout. This is the story of an enviable bond between an elephant and a young woman. That’s also precisely the reason why Haridas sent her to Kashi to commence his last rites.
The new giant at Circus
During her childhood, she was fascinated by the stories of lions, tigers, and elephants. Her grandmother used to regale her with stories about animals who ruled the forest. It was during that time that the Great Malabar Circus arrived in Malabar. The first-ever circus in North Kerala was owned by Kunjahammad Kurickal. The circus was filled with tigers, lions, and elephants. His eldest son was a big animal lover. There was a tiger he especially loved.
But unfortunately during a circus event, the tiger turned violent, and the owner’s son turned out to be its victim. The angry dad immediately gunned down the animal who killed his eldest son. Not only did that incident affect him deeply but over time he also lost interest in the circus. So he sold his circus to Gemini Sankaran in Kannur. All these incidents happened when his second son Sulaiman was very young. Like his dad, Sulaiman also loved animals and had several pets at home, including birds. Shabna was his daughter. Now you know where she inherited her love for animals.
But Shabna was always fascinated by elephants. And her love only seems to have grown older with age. It was while working at a hospital in the UAE that she had this sudden desire to be a mahout. She soon quit her job.
When Shabna landed in Kerala in 2019, she had a short bucket list—Learn elephant training, be a mahout, and write a book on elephants. But then back home, she couldn’t find anyone who owned elephants. For that, she needed to travel to Palakkad or Trissur. But it was also true that Shabna wasn’t prepared for the gender bias when she tried to approach elephant owners about a possible job opening as a mahout. They were very dismissive. “How can a woman tame such a giant,” they mocked her. And then of course her religion was a point of contention for many (“How can a Muslim take an elephant to Temples?”). That’s when she realized that gender and religion were even dodgier issues than climbing on an elephant. But she was optimistic! And sure enough, her meeting with Varikkasseri Mana’s Kapoor Haridas changed her life. He wasn’t bothered about her gender or religion. All he was looking for was someone who was passionate about elephants. And Shabna was a perfect fit.
He was wise enough to know that it wasn’t a fancy hobby for the young woman. He showed her his lineup of elephants—Manisheri Raghuram, Rajendran, and Kochaiyyappan. Raghuram was love at first sight for Shabna. A movie star, he loomed over the rest.
It’s been 33 years since Kapoor got him from Assam. Rajendran was two years older than Raghuram. Meanwhile, Kapoor instructed Raghuram’s mahouts to take Shabna as an assistant. After the initial fear, they got along like a house on fire. It can also be said that the mahouts were also a great help. Within no time, she became good friends with the mahouts. Somehow they never kept her away because of her gender.
As far as they were concerned, she was just one of them. Varikkasseri Mana’s manager Unni was also part of that gang. She helped to feed and bathe them. In order to get closer to Raghuram, she decided to learn about his favourites. Food obviously topped the list. The elephant loved the ice cream, fruity, laddoos, halwa, fresh cream cakes, and bananas that she fed him. She always carried his favourite Kozhikode halwa whenever she came back from home. And Raghuram will blow his trumpet to show his appreciation.
Very often Shabna would bring dinner leftovers for Raghuram, and he loved those treats. Raghuram was blind in one eye, a result of the torture he suffered in Assam from his caretakers. They would often beat him with a small axe and that has also affected his health. A blow to the cheek had a detrimental effect on his salivary gland. Since it resulted in the accumulation of saliva, a lump was formed there. And when this lump is filled with salvia, it would burst. This was a tumour that agitated him as those periodic spells of intoxication (musth). Though they took him to several doctors, nothing came out of it. Finally, it was veterinary surgeon Arun Zachariah who correctly diagnosed the condition and prescribed the right treatment. Having said that none of these has really affected his magnificence. He was always the star attraction at temple festivals! Though she was always part of the mahout gang, no one really took notice of her.
After attending the 2021 Thrissur Pooram, everyone noticed Raghuram’s fatigue. He seemed to have lost his appetite. It was during that period they got permission from Thiruvananthapuram Devaswam to present him at the big Sabarimala Aarattu. But to everyone’s dismay, Raghuram’s health was getting worse with each passing day. Finally, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Though Haridas spent a lot of money on his treatment, nothing was proving to be effective. On June 9th Raghuram died. During that time Shabna was in Bihar to research for her book on elephants. She was devastated that she couldn’t be with him during his last days. He was cremated at Malayatoor.
Shabna knew that his last rites would be according to the Hindu rituals. So when she asked Haridas about the rituals, he told her that when the father was alive no rituals would be done for the children. When she agreed to take care of the rituals, Haridas agreed. With special permission from the govt, his bones and ashes were flown to Bihar. She later submerged them in the Ganges. For two years, his post-death rituals (Shradham oottu) were held at Thirunelli. It was conducted by Shabna and other mahouts.
“We shared an unusual bond. Whenever I visited Varikkasseri I would stand in front of the area where he stood and be there for hours. I have never seen a more loving and wise elephant than him,” she admits.
A book is in the offing
Currently, Shabna is writing a book on elephant training. And that requires a lot of travel as well. She is covering Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Uttar Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh by road for that purpose. She is accompanied by her two trained Rajapalayam dogs, Soy and Cyrus. They are a gift from Haridas’s son Govind. They were trained in Bengaluru. One would sit in front and the other in the back. Occasionally they would be accompanied by a Persian cat called Lucky.
Her book is said to be a comprehensive study of elephants and elephant training in India. She got enough assistance from the elephant care centres in Muthanga, Konni, Kodanad, and Kottoor. Forest Minister AK Sashindran, Dr. Arun Zakaria, Dr. Giridas, Dr. Alexander Jacob, Dr. Sashindradev and Dr. Rajeev also helped a lot.
Shabna has also discovered a lot of painful realities during the course of her research in this field - cruelty towards the elephants, illegal migration, and other forms of corruption. Shabna says only the officers benefit from their survival and death. If an elephant dies, more than half of the owner's insurance money will be spent on its cremation. A large part of that goes into the official's pockets. Shabna promises to reveal that and more in her book.
“An elephant never forgets. He remembers every act of love and cruelty. That’s how mahouts get killed when they have those periodic spells of intoxication. An elephant can recognize you from a crowd because of the love you have given it. Raghuram was one such elephant,” says Shabna who is travelling to Assam to fill more pages to her book.