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Worshiped Inside Temples, But Mistreated Outside: The Fate Of Captive Elephants in India

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By Arati Nair:

I recently visited a popular south Indian Lord Ganesha temple, Kottarakara Sree Maha Ganapathy Temple. What struck me besides the scorching summer heat, was the horde of devotees thronging the sanctum sanctorum with fervour. Murmured chants and prayers lent an other worldly feel to the atmosphere. Having sought my share of the Lord’s blessings, I ventured outside to explore the premises of the temple.

Image source: vinoth chandar
Image source: vinoth chandar

Outside the main entrance stood an elephant tethered to a tree, flapping its ears serenely, munching palm leaves and bananas. It was a majestic creature, easily the largest I had ever encountered, with its long trunk and gleaming tusks. A small crowd of excited onlookers watched with awe and took pictures from all possible angles. The mahouts entrusted with caring for the animal sat proudly beside it, chests puffed up. The elephant, for all intents and purposes, seemed oblivious to its surroundings or awestruck audience.

Eerily, the scene was reminiscent of something similar I had been privy to quite often elsewhere. The open sky, the free breeze and the sumptuous food could hardly mask the reality. In the pious presence of the elephant-headed god, this living namesake of the deity enjoyed all the freedom of an uncaged zoo.

The Cultural Baggage

Indian culture is intrinsically linked with pachyderms, especially elephants. Across various religious spectra, they have been revered, if not worshipped, throughout the course of history. From the five-headed white elephant, Airavat, of Lord Indra in Hindu mythology to the Buddhist parable of blind monks feeling an elephant, this gentle giant features as a positive symbol in legends as well.

Historical accounts illustrate how elephants were used in warfare or as means of conveyance by the affluent and ruling class. It was believed that donating elephants would usher in good luck and many kings followed this tradition, usually gifting the animal to the local temple.

Often associated with wisdom, royalty and power, these animals traipse the tightrope of domesticity and wilderness to indulge the whims of humans.

The Fall From Grace

But the cultural connection is now a fast growing niche market. India currently has an elephant population of about 32900. The halo of divinity does not feed captive elephants. And the owners, in these fast paced corrupt times, resort to different means to earn their keep.

The Street Urchins and Circus Freaks

Tourist destinations become money-minting grounds for poor mahouts. Many captive elephants, over the years, have been roped in to resort to begging on the streets for their owners. Dressed up in colourful garbs, these animals are forced to walk long distances on concrete floors and roads, deprived of any natural vegetation and fed inadequate, unhealthy food and water. They are chained, whipped and beaten to submission during the training period. Raju, the rescued elephant from Allahabad, endured this cruel fate for many years. He recently celebrated the first anniversary of his freedom from servitude.

Sharing the good fortune of escaping a life of abject misery is Suzy, one of India’s 68 captive elephants forced to perform in circus shows. This blind elephant is only the first to return to a natural existence, thanks to Wildlife SOS India, a rescue group for suffering animals. Following the ban of pachyderms in circuses, renewed efforts to save the remaining 67 elephants from the clutches of cruelty are on the anvil. The physical and mental trauma suffered by the animals in such freak shows has finally stirred the authorities to take stringent decisions.

Playthings up for display and sale:

The Sonepur Trade Fest

Known as the largest animal fair in Asia, the Sonepur Cattle Mela in Bihar is most popular for its ‘Haathi Bazaar’. Even though the sale of elephants is illegal in India, this bazaar is infamous for their covert trade in large numbers. Assam, home to almost 2000 wild elephants, is the main source of elephants in such trade fairs. The inter-state nexus drags these beasts from the jungles in Assam to the streets of Bihar and UP.

A report published by Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA), a charitable trust for animals based in Bangalore, in 2010, revealed shocking details of the ill-treatment of elephants brought in for trade at Sonepur. They were usually made to walk long distances (sometimes 80 km) to reach the venue, shackled to a tree for long hours, denied interaction with other elephants, forced to sleep on concrete floors (as a result many elephants developed bed sores) and beaten for indulging in their natural behaviour (like breaking tree branches or taking mud baths). The local animal welfare groups took cognizance of the issue and led a legal crusade against this exploitation.

The Sonepur Cattle Fair, however, continues every year with much fan-fare.

The Thrissur Pooram Extravaganza

Image source: wikimedia commons
Image source: wikimedia commons

The elephant business in the southern part of India is far more entrenched than the mere monetary dealings of the north. In Kerala, captive elephants are venerated as divine beings and employed during temple festivals. Caparisoned with heavy ornaments and paraded around in all their mighty glory, they are emerging celebrities with devout groupies and even fan websites dedicated to them.

Thrissur Pooram, a famous annual temple festival in Kerala, garnered much publicity this year for the abuse of participating elephants in the event. Dubbed one of the largest festive spectacles of Kerala, Thrissur Pooram is also an important tourist attraction, pumping huge revenue into the state coffers.

According to the report submitted by Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) before the Supreme Court, elephants were made to stand for long hours on their own urine and faeces without any safeguards against the sweltering heat of the day. The medical examination of the animals, a mandatory procedure before such occasions, was haphazard at best, with the report alleging that the Kerala State Animal Husbandry Department paid little heed to the abuse and most elephants displayed signs of physical and mental illness, including painful blisters, infected wounds and bruises, partial vision loss, mutilated tail and foot diseases.

The apex court, in turn, passed an order prohibiting the cruel treatment of animals used in poorams (festivals). While a heartening decision in its principle, no explicit guidelines or procedures to ensure adherence of the same were specified.

However, fewer elephants are available today for temple exhibitions. The acute demand-supply deficit following the 2007 ban on the sale and purchase of elephants was resolved by most elephant owners leasing their animals. This lucrative business became especially beneficial for owners of large elephants like Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, who earns a whopping 4.5 lakh per day for temple parades.

While animal lovers bemoan the ill fate of elephants in the state, staunch religious followers hardly see anything amiss. An elephant enthusiast I talked to was dismissive of all allegations. “The relationship between man and elephants in Kerala is centuries old. They understand our traditions and abide them. They are emblems of faith, who would dare mistreat them?” At my response quoting the ruling by the Supreme Court, he shrugged and countered flippantly, “Sometimes, elephants become naughty. It is important to tame and teach them. The beatings are a necessary evil.”

The Wild Beast Behind The Docile Alter Ego

What this breed of fanatics forgets is that no matter how docile or tame an elephant may seem, it is by nature a wild animal. News reports indicate that between 1998 – 2010 captive elephants had killed 212 people in Kerala.

Most deaths happen during festival season when the animal is either provoked or goes into musth (a hormonal condition in bull elephants characterised by elevated levels of testosterone leading to aggressive behaviour). Elephants cannot work with the onset of musth and need to be isolated as they are prone to turn violent. Mahouts starve the bull for a few days to reduce the duration of musth, an inhuman practice to curtail the loss of income from the elephant.

The Ivory Treasure Trove

When elephants aren’t being paraded for aesthetic pleasure, they are hunted down and scavenged for the booming underground ivory trade. The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) recorded the death of over 121 elephants due to poaching from 2008-2011. During this period, WPSI provided records of 781 kg of ivory, 69 tusks, 31 cut pieces of ivory, 99 pieces of ivory carvings and 75 ivory bangles seized from across the country. The issue grabbed eyeballs after the carcasses of two elephants were discovered in the Idamalayar woods.

All rules are flagrantly disobeyed due to shoddy implementation. Technological support systems, such as installation of cameras in forests, are yet unexplored domains of conservation efforts.

The Official Conservation Drive

The government has not always been comatose in the face of such tragic incidents of elephant cruelty. A slew of measures to mitigate man-animal conflicts, restoration of elephant habitats and conservation of protected areas have been undertaken, including Project Elephant.

However, beyond arithmetic increments, the elephant deserves a safe haven to flourish. According to Vedic legend, sixteen elephants carry the weight of the earth upon themselves as embodiments of strength, stability and protection. Today, while the revered elephants of mythology are worshipped, their living counterparts are increasingly at risk. Let’s spare a thought for them too.

You must be to comment.
  1. Paddy

    Beautiful article Arati. I love elephants and everything about them interests me. They are such gentle giants, and have such complex social structure such emotional bands amongst their heard, that they seem more humane than human’s. Every so often video’s about elephants and their kind-heartedness keep surfacing. I recently saw video about a gentle pachyderm who crosses wire mesh laid by villages everyday to reach to her munching grounds across the field, and she has never damaged a mesh. Always steps politely all four legs, one at a time over the mesh and crosses them methodically. She has never trampled or damaged the mesh.

    Such intelligence is not brought to forefront by Indian media. Whereas if a pachyderm goes berserk due to the intense heat and inhuman condition they are kept in, Indian media instantly jumps on the news item/video and keep running it for days together.

    As you have rightly pointed out the irony of the situation in quite unbelievable. On one hand we worship the elephant headed god as the most intelligent, and on other hand we see it fit to treat them as circus fixtures.

    1. Arati

      Thank you, Paddy!

      I’m happy that you liked the article. This situation had irked me for quite some time. I’ve been witness to some cruel practices against elephants in temples; so much worse than what I could articulate here. And yes, I totally share your sentiments of elephants being more humane than us. Such atrocities against these creatures ought to be stopped completely, and soon.

  2. Maisie

    What an intelligent and beautifully written article Arati. That elephants are ‘domesticated’ is the biggest myth to overcome – elephants have never been selectively bred over generations like dogs or horses due to long gestation periods and poor breeding in captivity – but must be forcibly tamed with the pajan. If you don’t know what Pajan is please have a look at our website here and join us on twitter @stae_elephants! Or on Facebook at Save The Asian Elephants. We’d love to hear from you Arati, and anyone else interested in this issue!

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