Rekha Valliappan ~ Elephant Sutra

Nature’s great mas­ter­piece, an elephant—the only harm­less great thing.
                   –John Donne

Hanging on the wall in our spare bed­room is one of the few pieces of art I own. It was bought dur­ing a bad time in my life. My boyfriend is ambigu­ous as to its artis­tic qual­i­ty. The paint­ing sur­vived two big moves, the first when it sat in a rail­way car­riage trav­el­ing across the Great Deccan Plateau, the ploughed earth look­ing like a mas­sive piece of con­tem­po­rary art; the sec­ond time when its frame snapped in two places dur­ing the long-haul flight into the City of Angels. I’m hap­py I have it. Basically, Luster Fearless tol­er­ates it, know­ing it has some spe­cial mean­ing for me. Luster Fearless has trav­eled thE world. In the inter­ven­ing years he’s seen bull ele­phants on murals in Lincoln Court. He’s been to Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuary, Pamplona and West Africa mul­ti­ple times. It’s hard to pre­dict him. He’s seen a buf­fa­lo gore, a mam­ba strike, an ele­phant charge like Indra’s pow­er­ful mul­ti-trunk, mul­ti-tusk behe­moth of mythology.

Elephant Sutra was bought on Kemp’s Corner in Colaba from the Maharani Art Gallery (still I can­not believe this has dis­ap­peared, decant­i­ng with oth­ers across Greater Bombay). The store front was wedged between Noronhas sell­ing Goan sausages, prawn balchao, oth­er tempt­ing condi­ments; and an old-fash­ioned Kodak pho­to­shop. The can­vas pre­sent­ed a stark image of a charg­ing ele­phant in a bam­boo for­est land­scape. To this day the image reminds me of my old school days and annu­al trips to the ele­phant fes­ti­vals in my home­town. Such grandeur. I think my pic­ture a cut above the leg­endary herds I grew used to in my City of Elephants. To use a folk­lore appro­pri­ate euphemism, I felt a maha ‘grand’ exhil­a­ra­tion. There was a smart pro­fes­sion­al glow as if the artist was try­ing to explain his very own brand of art. Most local painters lose almost every­thing in the trans­fer to can­vas. Inked in the bot­tom right hand cor­ner which cap­tures the con­cept cloud of antipo­dal dust is the sig­na­ture of the artist Ven Raghu, fol­lowed by some num­bers. The shelves of ceram­ics and Lalique crys­tals that crammed this bou­tique gallery should have dis­tract­ed me, they looked pret­ty, but per­haps I’m blind to such realities.

What are you seek­ing, Ramina?” Luster asked with his usu­al standoff.

I ignored his brow raised at Bengal tigers in the Sunderbans, swal­lows on the Cornish coast, Salvatore Dali’s alli­ga­tor stick imi­ta­tions. I zeroed in on my dark gray might­i­ly charg­ing tusker, with the inten­si­ty of an ancient female cow ele­phant guard­ing earth’s four car­di­nal points. My sens­es are lost in my paint­ing on the wall. I’m return­ing to Hastinapur. I don’t know when. My thoughts have ochred, like old parch­ment. I’m try­ing to remem­ber my old home­town. Luster has the paint­ing up for sale. I do think this is not like­ly. But, Luster says things change, saf­fron to ochre. If he has his way Elephant Sutra will be gone again, same as the cer­e­mo­ni­al heroes of eons past. I car­ry old scars.

One time Luster praised the long gone artist, the ele­phan­t’s ivory tusks spear­ing the emp­ty sky, and the imag­i­na­tion. This hap­pens war­i­ly when our talks on the paint­ing implode in a mess of mind­set clash­es. Who knew hunt­ing activ­i­ties were pur­sued remorse­less­ly once. Who knew that ivory and skin trade along the coastal bor­ders isn’t going to change any­time soon. Who knew that boom­ing busi­ness in ele­phant parts has no buffer. It wasn’t so when ele­phant head­ed Gods offered pro­tec­tion, or seri­ous­ly removed obsta­cles, to use anoth­er euphemistic phrase. Elephant’s mem­o­ries reach way back to the soul of their species. They car­ry sto­ries so deep, from cen­turies ago. Luster says noth­ing that the artist saw of man or ani­mal was irrel­e­vant. Not then, not now. He says poach­ing doesn’t dwin­dle. But not before these crea­tures car­ried the lifes­pan of their mem­o­ries into the carved engrav­ings of their ivory, to ful­fill their sutra. For, an ele­phant nev­er forgets.

So, what is sutra?

Abandoned love choked in the crevices of shorn ivory—the instant story.

Hopeless mounts of kings forced into slave labor and abuse–the para­dox inten­si­fy­ing the future. I know the paint­ing will scrub the slate clean. People talk of mys­tic har­monies, of cos­mic bal­ance. Stand beside an ele­phant. Feel its stead­fast­ness, its gen­tle strength.

My home­town is a ghost sto­ry. Oral passed-down folk­lore tell of pachy­derms com­mu­ni­cat­ing their cries on the wind, where the cyclones are fierce. I hear their grief, blown to the four cor­ners of the earth on gale force winds, ele­phants shar­ing their pain. Sutra ver­bal­ly records in many forms. My rel­a­tives are sto­ry­tellers. We share a com­mon trait. One par­tic­u­lar year skele­tons of ele­phants minus tusks were unearthed under an his­toric Fort. The loca­tion was mapped. The map­ping revealed the gris­ly rite of pas­sage a young bull ele­phant under­went as sac­ri­fi­cial offerings–elephant mur­der beneath the but­tress­es and stone ram­parts they helped build. It is a great sto­ry. Every time I look at my Elephant Sutra can­vas I seek to find equi­lib­ri­um, but the paint­ing has grown still, and I blink away tears.

Supernatural haunt­ings lend an added excite­ment to the des­o­late place in the paint­ing. Those were exceed­ing­ly dark times. People real­ly believed that de-tusk­ing adult ele­phants helped orna­ment them­selves, enrich the wom­en­folk and pro­tect them from evil spir­its. People in those ear­ly times real­ly believed ghosts of dead ele­phants roamed, tusk-less. As a child on my field trips to the old fort with my papa, I always imag­ined those pale tusks cloaked in myth­i­cal gray­ness. My big moments were in the pithy sutras. They lent courage. To this day no evi­dence has pre­sent­ed to back up this com­pelling sto­ry. Neither on why the ghosts of mur­dered ele­phants that have lit­tered the coun­try­side across the cen­turies remain in this paint­ing. No one explains.

Was it a pop­u­lar sto­ry, Ramina?” Luster asks me, although he knows the answer.

Very,” I respond, non­com­mit­tal­ly, although I’m speak­ing to the sutra apho­rism when it is ful­ly extended.

Luster goes on to deliv­er spooky ghost sto­ries, adding up the thrills. Most of his frac­tured sto­ries revolve around a trav­el­ing menagerie of exot­ic ani­mals, includ­ing ele­phants. He alludes to one Elephant Hotel, a real hotel he says, on the out­skirts of a Tyrolean vil­lage, where he stayed just one night, out of fear. Prompt on the mid­night hour two tusked ele­phants advanced from the grounds of Hotel Elephant although no one knows why or who they belong to, says Luster. Here, New York? I ask, over­come. Luster’s tales of buri­als and betray­als are unset­tling. They revolve around con­flict­ing ver­sions of his life. He clear­ly wish­es to plumb new depths with every affa­ble impulse. We give up set­tling on the right loca­tion. We give up paint­ing his­to­ry with our brush.

I won­der if inter­na­tion­al art will ever have a home to go to. It is tempt­ing to make a joke about Indian folk­lore. Elephant Sutra must be sold. I know that the paint­ing itself speaks the truth. Ritual buri­als aside that ele­phant in the paint­ing is real. The dra­mat­ic dis­cov­ery of the skele­tons at the site are real. Multiple sim­i­lar sites revealed sev­er­al hun­dred car­cass­es. Those are real. The num­bers are real. Elephant dimin­ish­ment is real. Ivory poach­ing is as rou­tine­ly real as felling trees. Luster per­sists in his the­o­ry that there is no proof, no blood bridge con­nec­tion, although stock­piles of ivory are smug­gled annu­al­ly, endan­ger­ing the African ele­phant, the Asian ele­phant, the once supreme mounts of gods and kings. Not pos­si­ble, says Luster. At Hollywood Boulevard he has a pair of wild hip­py hap­py ele­phant tat­toos in trum­pet­ing pos­es inked on his biceps to lend cul­ture cheer. I can’t help imag­in­ing those mus­cles flex­ing. I feel a queasi­ness ris­ing. I think the tat­toos ooze mas­sive suf­fer­ing. Imagine actu­al­ly liv­ing on human fore­arms. I feel a con­fus­ing pull to touch, to trace the out­lines. I’m still too much in love with Luster despite the numer­ous thralls he exerts over me.

Summer of 2015, anoth­er trip to my home­town, with Luster. I am half out of my mind. Luster does­n’t care. He wears a pair of brand name shoes I don’t doubt is ele­phant leather, although he says the ele­phant in it brings luck. The col­ors on the shoes are striking—the elephant’s intrin­sic worth lost in a shoe. For four straight days I sense a par­a­digm shift in his def­i­n­i­tion of artis­tic prac­tices. He throws sen­ti­men­tal love sutras at me, quot­ing bits of imag­i­na­tive mate­r­i­al he picks from here and there.

We take a walk below the crum­bling stone fort walls. My papa who had been here a mil­lion times nev­er showed signs of tir­ing of it, recall­ing sto­ries to me of the grandios­i­ty of ele­phants, the famous eight who wel­comed the god­dess of wealth when she rose from the ocean of milk, the spe­cial invin­ci­ble ele­phants who rode fear­less­ly into bat­tle, and the leg­end which is my favorite, of the divine breed of ele­phants which stand at the eight cor­ners to sup­port the uni­verse. It is reas­sur­ing to see the bul­buls, those lit­tle passer­ine birds small­er than their town cousins, feed­ing on the wing as they swal­low fly­ing drag­on­flies. The fort walls are rid­dled with their nests.

Do you remem­ber that trip we took across the Great Deccan Plateau when you were still at Colaba?” asks my boy-friend.

At first I don’t; I catch my breath, then some­thing slow­ly fades back into view.

I think so, Luster, yeah.”

Who was that dhoti-swad­dled painter in the art gallery with the real­ly bronzed chest?”

I think his name was Ven.”

My images from that trip, around four decades I’d guess, match today, though I recall it being hot­ter, dri­er, dusti­er, smell of san­dal­wood in the air. Taste of Ven on my mouth. Burnt sien­na as a col­or is a test of accom­plish­ment. Nothing unusu­al about that. I’m lost in aes­thet­ics today. The sen­sa­tion I am feel­ing is of mem­o­ries trum­pet­ing down the curled trunk of Ven’s ele­phant. I remem­ber root­ing around in ele­phant foot-print pools, caked and cracked. A fur­ther mix of caramelized coat­ing. Something has changed since my last vis­it though. Were things gloomi­er and weath­ered at the fort? Maybe. Light rain blinds my eyes. In readi­ness for clear­ing skies my own vague images jump dark­ly behind me. Destiny is flick­er­ing shad­ows pro­ject­ed onto the cave wall aka fort walls. I feel like we’ve stepped off the paint­ing into Plato’s cave.

We walk away from the his­toric fort along the hilly top, now look­ing some­how more man­aged and more wild at the same time. A straight path of green grass­land is flanked on either side by a danc­ing and arrest­ing mass­es of man­aged mead­ow. The view is gen­uine. As we stroll, I see fes­tive ele­phants under­tak­ing their famous head dis­plays, ears flap­ping, trunks raised and dipped, tusks gleam­ing ivory white, trum­pet­ing their vic­to­ry calls. The col­lec­tive mood one can asso­ciate with the ele­phant is exhil­a­ra­tion, some­thing that can­not be described, unless one has actu­al­ly seen an elephant’s mood thus.

These ele­phants, this sway­ing plant life, they weren’t there the last time?” I ask Luster. The ele­phants have each mul­ti­plied by seven.

For what it is worth, it is a haunt­ed cor­ri­dor,” he says, “a func­tion­ing haunt­ed cor­ri­dor.” I did­n’t think that was the right choice of words. Darkness is a phe­nom­e­non that will con­stant­ly haunt. We can­not vary the cadence. I am being told effort has been made to oblit­er­ate the past, to undo the nat­ur­al spook­i­ness of the area, some­thing so unex­pect­ed, it fills me with gen­uine hor­ror. The shad­ow of death is on every bone unearthed. I expect every­thing to be much worse than I remem­ber, always, so it is prophet­ic to be proved right. After all. ele­phants dis­pose of their dead in secret bur­ial grounds, which can nev­er ever be dis­cov­ered, as the leg­end says.

In the dis­tance stand the shape­less out­lines of three merged fig­ures, light and foliage fill­ing the gaps where their bod­ies should be. I am both dead and alive. I should know these. I approach the three fig­ures blow­ing in the wind. An ele­phant with tusks. An artist with his paints. A hunter with a knife. I imag­ine that the hunter was tak­en down by the ele­phant. I imag­ine the artist cap­tur­ing the moment. I take a men­tal pho­to­graph of the image. I am spent. I sit briefly on the wet grass. Luster stands near the hill­top and looks out toward the val­ley. The hori­zon is tinged milky white. He is chant­i­ng spir­i­tu­al vers­es, sutra apho­risms. Or, I hope he is. He does not look at me.

Things could change, but we are still trapped by the past.

Elephant Sutra retains a lit­tle residue of fame that’s now becom­ing as much a part of our ingrained mythol­o­gy as Jewel of India, or City of Elephants, or Rani of Jhansi slay­ing the demon­gogu in the Gobi Desert. The Mayans had their bur­ial the­o­ries and so did the ancient Greeks, says Luster, with his usu­al non­cha­lance. I will be expend­ing a dif­fer­ent amount of effort to go in the direc­tion of lost civ­i­liza­tions and the clas­sics. Ancient knowl­edge is spir­i­tu­al. Mortality over­takes most first-hand accounts. True tales have a way of dis­ap­pear­ing. But not sto­ries, not half-truths, sutras or leg­ends. These have a life of their own. They will con­tin­ue. I won­der if ele­phants gone will ever come back to my life. To me, they will, like ances­tors, nev­er real­ly gone.

When I was fif­teen, five ele­phant remains were found a few miles away. This time dead ivory tusks turned into heir­looms; one ivory ele­phant sits in an Island Bay Museum and Gallery, anoth­er in Regis Castle, and one at the War Museum on a North Sea isle. About half a mile from my papa’s house stands a stat­ue of Ven Raghu. Sculpted in bronze by a Swedish, Hilmar Svensson, no ele­phants com­mem­o­rate a bril­liant career that began as an inspi­ra­tion to the ele­phant-head­ed deity of good begin­nings, although Ven’s work can be found through­out the coun­try, and all around the world. Looking at the stat­ue unearths an explo­sive tale of mur­dered ele­phants watched by the ghosts of ele­phant sac­ri­fice. All set in bronze, guano encrust­ed idol approved by leg­end, by sutras.

They call these mov­ing things ele­phant carv­ings. The dis­em­bod­ied three fig­ures in out­line stand­ing atop the sandy hills, among the sway­ing grassy mead­ows, I’ve nev­er come across such a thing before—elephant, artist, hunter. Luster calls it an illu­sion. Luster says no ele­phants died here. Luster says no ani­mals, bones, or parts were ever found buried in these hills, except noc­tur­nal bats, which accounts for the guano. It does not sound right. There’s no expla­na­tion for what I see. I have nev­er returned.

So, what is Elephant Sutra?

Elephant Sutra is a sim­ple paint­ing of a life-size ele­phant against a back­ground of grainy dust made to local life, col­or and cul­ture. The col­ors have aged to a fine rust sur­face film, and become a nat­ur­al part of the land­scape. The browns blend with the grays, aes­thet­i­cal­ly. I’m uneasy with the ani­mal’s three-dimen­sion­al look, although Luster says the effect is man-made, by which he means homo sapi­en achieved, aka artist Ven Raghu, so, unnat­ur­al. I would like to know what oth­er peo­ple see. I won­der if this paint­ing sets off the same chain reac­tions of mem­o­ry and mus­ing. I won­der if peo­ple real­ly notice moun­tain like ele­phants of mea­sure­less pow­er such as those used by supreme deities, or do they see depop­u­lat­ed ele­phants, or ele­phant ghosts.

Luster has my paint­ing up For Sale. I sup­pose he thought it was nec­es­sary. Some schemes feel more like van­i­ty imper­a­tives. The ran­dom­ness of his impu­dence nev­er ceas­es to amaze me. I know, for exam­ple, the Antwerp Art Gallery failed to make a sale, so did the Hungary Art auc­tion. He has it now sequestered on Long island. It has been three years, shipped via the New London fer­ry to Orient Point. Like clock­work, I vis­it Elephant Sutra at least once every day, com­fort­ed by the life sounds of count­less oth­er old ele­phant souls sur­round­ing me. I won­der if it will ever sell.


Rekha Valliappan’s short fic­tion and poems appear in Litro Magazine, Prime Number Magazine / Press 53, The Cabinet of Heed, The Blue Nib, Red Fez, Aaduna Literary Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and oth­er venues. A post-grad­u­ate in English Literature from Madras University with an Honors Degree in Law from the University of London, she has won awards for her writ­ing and earned nom­i­na­tions to the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.