After an eight-day, 1,800-mile train journey from the tropical forests of southwestern India for the opening of the Ninth Asian Games here tomorrow, 34 majestic but cranky temple elephants have been reduced to bit players in the sports spectacular.
Faced with a myriad of potentially embarrassing problems with the elephants' appearance before the 80,000 spectators expected at the newly built Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium -- including the unexpected early arrival of the annual mating season for some of the behemoths -- Asian Games security officials have quietly revised the opening ceremony, which will be presided over by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Instead of the full ritual of the traditional Trichur festival parade common to their native State of Kerala, the elephants apparently will stand placidly in a semicircle at the stadium entrance to join what K.T. Satawawala, vice chairman of the games' organizing committee, called "part of the overall pageantry and decoration."
Some of the elephants also will be heavily tranquilized to minimize "masting," or symptoms of being seasonally in heat, their handlers said. Moreover, animal protection activists have charged that some of the elephants have been given large doses of drugs to constipate them so they will not not defecate during the televised ceremony.
For weeks, the odyssey of the Kerala elephant troupe has been a source of fascination and curiosity for many Indians and an object of almost daily controversy in the Indian press.
Game organizers have been accused by critics of mismanagement and extravagance in squandering money for what is alleged to be an exercise in vanity by the Kerala government, and the elephants' owners have been charged by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals with carting the elephants here under "inhuman conditions."
Most of the elephants have been trained to perform in religious festivals at Hindu temples in Kerala, although some are working elephants used by lumber firms. They were donated by the Kerala government, which presumably foresaw some public relations benefit in the gesture.
At the elephants' campsite in an idyllic, tree-shaded deer park near the Asian Games complex here, Girinathan Nair, assistant director of Kerala's animal husbandry department, said his ears were ringing with hyperbole.
"We've had some problems, yes. But nothing we didn't anticipate. This is the largest elephant transport in the world, and we consider ourselves fortunate we haven't had more problems," Nair said.
He conceded that some of the pachyderms, including 45-year-old Kuttikirshnan, a five-ton, 9-foot-tall tusker, were in heat and might be too dangerous to use in the opening ceremony because of their "slightly aggravated state." Kuttikirshnan was one of several elephants tied to trees with heavy chains today.
But the rest will make the five-mile trek to Nehru Stadium tomorrow, accompanied by 110 mahouts, or handlers, Nair said.
He denied that massive injections of drugs had been given to the elephants to constipate them for the performance, and said only "normal" amounts of tranquilizers had been used to calm the most excitable of them.
"Operation Elephant" and the cross-country trip from Kerala to New Dehli was a massive undertaking. Accompanying the elephants were nearly 300 mahouts, their assistants, veterinarians, cooks, barbers and special food handlers for the 100 tons of palm fronds, which is augmented every day with a new trainload of 10 tons.
Special flatbed cars were constructed for the elephants, and because the biggest of the animals had only five inches clearance under the lowest of the bridges along the route, some were taught to duck at crucial moments.
Nair said he encountered no problems getting the elephants off the train after the long and tiring journey, but conceded that, given the animals' well-known memory, getting them back onto the cars may be another matter.