Guruvayoor Keshavan - The Elephant Devotee of Lord Krishna of Guruvayoor

For many, animal devotees of Gods are just page-turners in mythology books and are often always read with a hint of disbelief. However, added to the collective disbeliefs of the gadget freaks, atheists and non-believers of the tech-savvy 21st century, wonder what they will really have to say about this real-time story of an elephant devotee in Guruvayoor, Kerala.

It’s like reopening the pages of a prominent ancient Hindu legend about the elephant king called Gajendra. As per the 8th chapter of the Bhagavatha Purana, a majestic elephant king was assaulted by a vile crocodile, while on his routine visit to a lotus pond in the jungle. The pachyderm found it difficult to get away from the clutches of the wild beast, which had strongly snapped its sharp teeth on to one of his legs. Definitely the monster was wining and the ruler felt his end was near. He prayed to Lord Vishnu, for his ultimate salvation from the monster. The elephant king offered each of the many lotuses in the pond to his God. And God did hear his prayers. Lord Vishnu appeared before the elephant as he was about to offer Him the last lotus in the pond. The lord was perched on his mammoth vehicle - the eagle, Garuda. He killed the crocodile using his illustrious weapon, the ‘Sudharshana Chakra’- a rotating disc with razor edges.

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The next animal god, who is much talked about and a wonder to many, for his many divine magical qualities, is the monkey devotee of Lord Rama. Lord Hanuman, the prominent monkey god is immortal and forever chanting the divine names of his beloved god. As per the Hindu beliefs, Lord Hanuman is omnipresent at every place where the names of Lord Rama are chanted with utmost devotion. 

Travelling centuries or ‘Yugas’ as per the Hindu calendar and in the much eventful 20th century, lived one such elephant who was an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna of Guruvayoor temple in Kerala.

Staue of Kesavan
Kesavan with his Mahouts
Kesavan with his Mahouts

In early 1922, the Rajah or king who ruled Nilambur- a region in erstwhile Malabar area of Kerala, prayed to the Lord of Guruvayoor to offer him one of his 22 baby elephants if the Lord helped him to win back the vast expanse of land that he had lost in a mutiny. The god helped the Rajah gain back his lost land. As per the promise he made to god, the King presented a 10 year old elephant Keshavan to the temple.

The little elephant was however very naughty and senseless most of the time, which was very much unlike how trained elephants behaved. In order to remove his baseless madness, he was given the sanctified butter from the temple, which was first offered to the Lord. The god-blessed scoop of butter is supposed have high healing powers and especially considered effective cure for imbecile behavior. He was even made to attend all the pujas of the temple from dawn to night for three consecutive days. And his transformation was a wonder to all. He was indeed blessed by god for he turned into the most handsome and intelligent elephant to have ever have lived those days. 

The stories of the elephant’s devotion to Lord Guruvayoorappan are plenty and so were his wild adventures. Keshavan would bend his forelimbs only to mount the God’s idol upon him for the procession around the temple thrice a day. The others who mounted on top of him had to climb through his hind legs. Nonetheless, Keshavan was a very angry elephant too at times. And during these times, his animal roughness overtook his calm nature. He used to run amok, disobeying his loving mahouts and would stop only in front of the temple gates. But never did he harm a single human soul who came his way. Once, on one of his wild rampages, he ran quite frenzied, scaring people and animals alike. His mahouts tried their best to stop him but Keshavan did not listen to them. He ran towards the temple gates like always and on his way there sat this hapless leper beggar. Keshavan lifted him with his trunk and placed him out of his way without causing as much as even a small scratch on him, much to the surprise of all.

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In 1973, Keshavan was honored the title of “Gajarajan’-King of Elephants, for his unimpeded 50 golden years of service to the Lord. From then on, he was the first elephant for temple processions. And for Keshavan, carrying the idol of the Lord was so important that he never let another elephant carry it.

Guruvayur Kesavan

On December 2nd, 1976, on the day of the most famous ‘Guruvayoor Ekadahsi’- an important festival of the temple, Keshavan was unwell and for the first time in his 50 odd years in the temple, he could not take part in the temple’s festive march. The idol of the lord had to be remounted on to another elephant as his body was trembling due to high fever. He had to be taken out of the temple and tethered in the nearby elephant stable. He went without food the whole night and throughout the next day. At around dusk, amidst the loud soundings of the bells and the conch shells that announced the completion of “Deeparadhana”(a very prominent puja in every temple at evenings around 6pm), Keshavan bowed before his beloved God and lay down, never to get up again. Undoubtedly a significant merger with the Lord. 

A huge 12 feet, life statue of the Gajarajan was erected at the place where he died. And every year on his death anniversary, elephants of the temple march towards his statue to pay their respects to the elephant king. Keshavan’s tusks are mounted above the doorway to the temple sanctorum, with his portrait in the middle.