Celebrating Rajan the Swimming Elephant
Most stories of large animals in captivity are sad ones – they speak of miserable animals – magnificent lives sacrificed for entertainment and pretty pictures. Rajan – the beloved swimming elephant of the Andaman Islands – is the rare exception. His is a story where the dive community came together to give him back a freedom that had been snatched from him young, and he in turn became the perfect muse.
Elephants were first brought into the Andaman Islands when India was still under British rule. They were taken from Kerala and Karnataka and walked to the coast of Chennai. Here they were put on ships to the Andaman Islands where they were used to drag timber from the deep forests of the islands to the ships that would export them away. Rajan was one such elephant. His career in logging ended in 2002, when the Indian Government banned the practice. Shortly after that Rajan shot to fame, starring in a Hollywood film called The Fall.
It was this film, shot in the year 2004, that brought him to Havelock Island. Rajan’s owner was about to sell him off to a temple in Kerala, which would not only put him through a perilous journey but also condemn him to a life of confinement and drudgery, when a dive resort on Havelock Island stepped in. They raised money to buy him from his owners, and set him free – along with his lifelong mahout Nazroo – in the dense Havelock jungle where we was to spend the rest of his life.
Every evening Rajan used to walk down to the beach. He used to lie in the sand as Nazroo – helped by tourists and their kids – scrubbed him clean with coconut husks and seawater. He made for many an iconic picture as he walked the white sandy beach, glowing in the rays of the setting sun. But the most unique pictures of possibly any elephant in the whole world were those that underwater photographers took of Rajan as he played in the waves during his daily swim.
Divers and snorkelers flocked from all over the world came to photograph Rajan swimming in the clear Andaman sea. His big lungs gave him fantastic buoyancy. His long trunk made a perfect snorkel. He really seemed to enjoy the ocean almost as much as the tiny divers that weaved through his doggy-paddling legs.
As he grew older he swam less frequently. The dive resort was very particular about putting Rajan’s wishes first. Many a diver had to return dry and disappointed because the old man was tired. Luckily, it was bright, sunny and Rajan must have had a good night’s sleep before the morning Sumer Verma went to photograph him. It gave us some of the most stunning pictures which continue to immortalize the gentle giant after he passed away in his sleep in August 2016. He died in the wild, under a canopy of trees and stars. His last breath was the sea breeze from an ocean that had brought him luck.
- Text by Nayantara Jane. Photos by Sumer Verna.
A Video Tribute to Rajan
Read our photo essay, Wide-Angle in the Andaman Islands.
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