Far from their natural habitat, friends and family, elephants in captivity lead desolate lives

“How old is the elephant?” I ask the mahout. His sits at the feet of his elephant, his head buried inside a notebook. He pauses, looks up briefly, and gets back to what he was doing. “What’s her age?” I persist. This time, he regards me with derision and replies: “I don’t know.” I stare, open-mouthed. But he couldn’t have cared less.

Flanked by stone pillars in a temple of architectural splendour, the magnificent elephant stands with her front legs chained. Her mahout seems to be in a bad mood today — this is bound to affect her. After all, a captive elephant’s physical and emotional well-being depends on the mahout. I walk on, sending her a quick prayer.

Elephants live in groups. They travel together, and eat and drink together. There is a bond among every elephant in the herd that is headed by the most experienced and efficient matriarch. They walk several kilometres a day, along routes that are stored in their minds. For an animal that huge who has to eat and drink mammoth quantities to survive, what better home than the wild?

Imagine their life inside a temple. Their job? To stand for hours on end and ‘bless’ people. Elephant expert Ajay Desai feels that it’s like “life-imprisonment” to confine elephants inside temples. “The worst punishment for a prisoner is solitary confinement,” he says. Temple elephants are forced to live in a similar state, he says. “If you look closely, temple elephants display odd behaviour. They keep shaking their heads, waving their trunks, moving their feet…” He says these are indicators that the animal is under stress.

Of course, these elephants are exposed to a lot of food — but this is not enough, says Ajay. Walking for long hours on tar roads “is not good for their feet.” “Unlike humans, they don’t sweat. They cool their bodies by standing in shade and by spraying cool water on themselves. They cover themselves with mud as a shield from the sun.” Temple elephants do not have the opportunity to engage in such activities. “The heat reflected from buildings is much more than what they are exposed to in the forest,” he says. Also, they don’t have their mud-packs.

According to Gods in Chains by Rhea Ghosh, a survey conducted by Project Elephant in late 2000 indicates that there are around 3,400 to 3,500 captive Asian elephants in India, of which 1,270 are in Assam, 620 in Kerala, 570 in Arunachal Pradesh and 130 in Tamil Nadu. These are “used primarily to generate income,” writes Ghosh.

The mahouts of temple elephants are “not well-trained” feels Nanditha Krishna, founder-director, C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, a centre of excellence of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Some of them are cruel to the gentle giant. “They ill-treat the elephant…they poke it with the ankush. This hurts the elephants a lot.” Nanditha recalls the Thanjavur temple elephant that died after several years of knee-pain. “The elephant couldn’t sit for years,” she says. Some even develop arthritis as a result of standing for long hours in one spot.

Kethan, a retired mahout at the elephant camp at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, says that he has observed some temple mahouts treating their elephants unprofessionally. “They don’t know how to handle a male when it is in musth. They can be extremely dangerous during such times.” But, some temple mahouts treat elephants with care. At the rejuvenation camp for temple elephants held last year in Mettupalayam, some stood out for their love for the animal. But are they well-trained?

What is the solution? “There is no real soft solution at this point,” feels Ajay. The best thing to do, however, is to send them to camps where they can live in groups in conditions that are similar to the wild. “But this is costly,” he adds. In his book The Story of Asia’s Elephants, Raman Sukumar writes of how the approach should be to “set standards for the upkeep of captive elephants and ensure that these are enforced.”

What would these elephants say if they could talk? Guruvayoor Krishnan Kutty, a mahout and a poet, gives them voice in his poem ‘Mochanan’. Here is the English translation: (Source: Living Gods in a Living Hell by Peter Jaeggi, published in Gods in Chains)

Never in my life I shall love a man/for my existence means captivity/and sadness/My memories tell me of the forests/They are far away/ My crying is silent/A sea of sadness and the fire of anger are within me/In my thoughts,/revenge is burning like lava/Yet, to break my chains will forever remain a/ dream/I long for the forests/Never in my life I shall love a man/I beg you, free me from this hell.

My Husband And Other Animals will resume in the first week of December

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