Face to face with the Skanda Vale elephant

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Skanda vale is a Hindu temple, hidden in the hills of Camarthen, West Wales. The temple monks believe in the sanctity of all life and have a collection of rescue animals – including one magnificent elephant.

Respect and leeches

No technology is allowed inside the ashram, in the temples or where the animals are kept. So I was unable to take any pictures, other than the above road sign on the way through the winding hills. As the ashram is a spiritual place, they do not want people to go as tourists but as pilgrims. This ashram considers itself ‘the many faces of God, so you do not have to worship Hindu Gods whilst in the temple. The service was mesmerizing, I have never been to anything like it before. We all sat on the floor at first with pillows, women on the left men on the right. I felt the need to keep the straightest back I could out of respect, even though other worshippers were slouching. It was then I noticed a leech clinging to my arm (luckily I was wearing sleeves). Everyone was quiet and I had no idea what to do with the leech. I couldn’t kill the creature, especially in a sacred place (not that I would anyway). So I tried to put the animal onto a tissue and it pooed on me! Which was not pleasant but at least it wasn’t on me anymore!

The monks chanted, played drums and rung bells, bringing in the temple offerings one by one whilst doing so. Then we were told to stand as they blessed the offerings. I am not sure how, I was stood behind 20 people or so. Which was closer than the meat eaters, who had to sit right at the back of the temple. After the food was blessed the monks came forward with a candle. Starting with the men they made their way around all us pilgrims. Anxiously I watched the others to see what we had to do. When it got to my turn I wafted the flame to my face three times as I had seen others do, looking to the monk for reassurance. Then two bowls were offered with two different powers, one red, one white. Unsure if there was an order to the dabbing or a rule of how much powder to use I quickly took some white and some red and dabbed it onto my forehead, between the eyes as I had seen others do. Then we were brought rose-water, which was poured into our hands and straight after we drank that, honey milk. I slurped up the liquid from my hands, careful not to ingest leech poo. I really hope I did not drink leech poo!  Then once everyone had drunk the liquid the service was over. It did feel rather abrupt. Happily the leech made it through – well for most of the service anyway. Somewhere along the line the tissue folded on itself and the leech stuck to both sides. I tried to open up the tissue to release the leech but it was determined to stay stuck to both sides and lets just say the poor thing has passed on… I do hope that I haven’t been cursed now!

An elephant in West Wales?  Not likely…

After the temple service the people I attended with and I went to explore the land where the animals are kept. They had a huge variety of beautiful birds including; white peacocks, mandarin ducks and turkeys (possibly saved from becoming Christmas dinner). There were some wonderful goats, causally walking around the field and some deer. The stag seemed particularly displeased to see us. He was sat wearing a heavy scowl of his face. We walked further one and then there she was – the magnificent elephant. They had recently built her a new enclosure that was much bigger for her. She stood, with evidence clinging to her skin of  a mud bath she enjoyed not long before. I must admit, when I first saw her I felt a mixture of admiration, awe and sadness because she was on her own. I watched her for a while, wondering what her history was and how she came to be there. I imagined how she would look in the wild. Then along came her keeper and announced he was going to take her for a walk and we could watch if we liked. So, of course we waited. A few minutes later there she was walking towards us, looking full of life. She had no lead, no chains, he guided her only with a bag of apples and voice commands. It was amazing. When the gate opened and she saw us it was like time stood still. She began walking towards us hoping we had treats and I savoured every second. How often do you get to be that close to elephant that isn’t behind bars of some kind? Then almost as quickly as she came our way she moved back onto the path and away from us under his command. It was a moment of utter magic and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I followed her along the path as she walked away until she turned the corner and was completely out of sight. That day I felt more in love with elephants then ever before. So yes, you can find an elephant in West Wales and if you’re very lucky it could be one of the most amazing encounters with an elephant you may ever have.

Since the visit I have heard that they are trying to source a friend for her as company. It was also obvious her and her keeper had an amazing relationship and she was not lonely when he was around. So do not worry about her she goes on many walks and the monks treat her well.

Elephant conservation

In the wild the Indian elephant is classified as endangered by the IUCN Red list and the African elephant is classified as vulnerable. If you want to learn more about elephant conservation please follow these links to some elephant charities.

https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/
https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/indian-elephant
http://www.worldlandtrust.org/news/2003/06/india.htm

If you want to do your bit for elephants there is a charity run you can take part in called The Enormous Elephant run that takes place in London and Manchester. I’m considering taking part next year.

 

 

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