Living with us in Skanda Vale are three very beautiful Asian elephants called Valli, Lakshmi and Camela. They live in a big purpose-built barn at the top of the ashram, close to the Shakti Temple. They have free roam of the fields near their barn and go for walks twice a day in our woodlands.
If you are very lucky, you might see them grazing in the fields on your way to and from the Shakti temple, or see them being taken out on a walk by the monks who are the elephant keepers.
Daily Life for a Skanda Vale Elephant
Elephants eat a lot! Their diet is quite broad – they eat grass, hay, tree bark, leaves, fruit, pre-prepared buckets of pellets and nutrients, and other things as well. They especially like to eat the bark and stems from willow trees. Valli is fussier than Lakshmi and Camela, and won’t accept any other tree.
Every day they spend time in the fields and out in the forest, where they are accompanied all the time by the team of keepers. There are four monks who live and work very closely with the elephants.
They are regularly bathed by their keepers, either using a pressure washer or scrubbed by hand by the diligent monks tasked with their care. It is important for elephants’ skin that they have a good mud scrub as well! They especially enjoy doing this outside during the summer.
Valli has spent almost her whole life in Skanda Vale. She was the original temple elephant and has been there for almost the entire life of the ashram.
However, her story started very far away, in Sri Lanka. She was born in the wild but orphaned as a baby. People found her being sheltered by a herd of water buffalo, who are usually sworn enemies of elephants! Those water buffalo took her in and looked after her, until she was taken by people to a very famous elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka.
She lived there for a little while, before the Sri Lankan President of the time decided to give her as a gift to Guru Sri Subramanium, the founder of Skanda Vale. So she came to Skanda Vale, and arrived as a little elephant in 1980. Since then, she has been cared for by the Community alongside so many other animals.
Swami Karunananda has been a primary carer for Valli more or less since she arrived. When she still needed milk, he gave her milk every four hours, day and night. Later he walked her, fed her, cleaned her and gave her the affection and attention she needed.
To look after Valli was, for Swami, both a beautiful expression of love and a real spiritual discipline! After some 40 years of living together, you can still see her and Swami Karunananda walking off into the forest together, sometimes bickering like old friends.
Valli spent many years living in a barn next to the Shakti Temple. However, she kept growing bigger and bigger, and eventually, it was felt it wasn’t suitable for her anymore. Finally, a special purpose-built elephant barn was built – she moved in in 2012 and has been very comfortable there.
Valli Takes a bath
A poem by Mab Jones
I step through a hatch of shadow and we’re
nose to trunk, my white eye drawn up to that one
which is liquid as amber, brown as a coconut,
tufted lashes thick as the brush the monk uses
to soap the creature clean. Valli
is two years younger than I am, but
her wrinkles are rivulets to let the water run,
to hold the mud her dermis needs to breathe.
She was born as my hands, my face, will become:
lined and creased, parchment pressed into shape
around the cosmic dust of bones. I watch as she dips
the soft lips of her trunk into the metal bowl
and blasts her body with suds. Brother
bathes her twice a week, he says, sloughing
the flesh from her hulk so it can replenish,
the fresh skin a regeneration which, in this
land, requires man’s hand in the place of palms.
My own show paths fanning into futures I won’t know as
the frayed map edge of her ears gently furl,
the mala beads of her forehead shine. Her strength and her
tenderness are as everyday and as unstoppable
as time; as humble and as powerful as a birth.
She is a firebreath of life wrapped in a dinosaur form,
natal yet ancient, primordial but still in the hands
of the priest as, during our end, that great cleansing, we all are.
Lakshmi & Camela’s Story
Lakshmi and Camela are much more recent arrivals at Skanda Vale, arriving in the ashram in 2018 and 2022 respectively. They’ve had rather an eventful life!
They were born in Myanmar but came to the UK in 1973, the same year Skanda Vale was founded, to be part of the Chipperfield Circus. They toured Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong and as far as New Zealand. They then spent time in Ireland and France, before moving to the USA, where they stayed for four years.
In 1998, the Chipperfield Circus stopped touring. All the animals had to be sold, including the elephants. Lakshmi and Camela moved to a circus in France and stayed there until they came to Skanda Vale.
The Elephant Barn
The elephant barn is a massive purpose-built structure. It was made for Valli, with the possibility in mind that other elephants might come and join her. It is an awesome building, 440 square metres in size, heated with a woodburning boiler, and insulated with polystyrene bricks pumped full of concrete.
Most of the inner area is covered in a thick floor of sand. This is a good surface for their joints, and is also easily moulded into mounds and pits. There is also a rubber area where have their baths.
The barn also has several heated wall sections, from which heat emanates to warm the whole shed, but which they can also cuddle up against if they feel like it. They also have a waterfall and waterhole in the corner, and toys like massive tyres and balls. There are also big speakers, in case the elephants are in the mood for a bit of music. They certainly have their preferences.
Lastly, a couple of the elephant keepers live in rooms adjoining the elephants, so they can feed them first thing in the morning and check on them last thing at night. Every now and then, Valli will get hungry in the night and wake them up to bring her some food, but this is very much frowned upon.
Some Common Questions Answered
Pilgrims and visitors to Skanda Vale cannot go into the elephant barn to visit them. While you may see them out and about, they are not available for visits by the public.
We have a strict rule against photography in Skanda Vale, and this includes Valli, Lakshmi and Camela. Like everything else in Skanda Vale, the elephants are not a tourist attraction.
We don’t have any more elephants on the way at the moment. We don’t want to say we won’t get any more, and it is perfectly possible, but any elephants coming to Skanda Vale would come in its capacity as an animal sanctuary, and because this was the best place for that individual elephant to live.
Elephants have a very large volume to surface area ratio! If an elephant is warm, it takes them quite a few hours to start to get cold, even outside in the winter. The barn is heated by a massive woodburner, so they get warmed up inside. If it’s really cold and wet, their walks might be curtailed for a bit (perhaps for the benefit of the keeper as well as the elephant).