Gods in shackles

Temple elephants in Kerala, and other parts of the country, have more to do with trade and tourism than religion.

Updated - October 25, 2015 12:42 pm IST

Published - October 24, 2015 04:25 pm IST

PICTURE OF TRAUMA: Nandan, a magnificent tusker at Guruvayur, is always chained. The plight of other elephants can be much worse. Photo: Dev Gogoi

PICTURE OF TRAUMA: Nandan, a magnificent tusker at Guruvayur, is always chained. The plight of other elephants can be much worse. Photo: Dev Gogoi

Adithyan, his forelimbs deliberately fractured, is permanently handicapped. Peethambaran spends his life chained in the open. Padmanabhan’s hind leg was deliberately broken. He now wobbles around, and is always chained. Keerthy is traumatised after being in isolation for a long time. Nandan, his hind feet bound to a stump and his front legs chained to a tree, has never been released for even an hour in 20 years. Devi has always been chained to one spot, at the entrance to the temple, for 35 years and has never moved freely. Mukundan’s hind legs are fractured… The list goes on.

This is the plight of the elephants of Guruvayur in Kerala, a temple town near Thrissur that attracts a sea of pilgrims round the year. Each of these animals has been broken in one way or another. Most of them just want to stand upright, have a drink of water, stretch their bruised and pus-filled legs, or simply walk freely.

Were the minders of these elephants aware of World Elephant Day that was observed on August 12 or that Ganesh Chaturthi was celebrated on September 17? No.

Recently, the British newspaper, the Daily Mail , published a stomach-churning article by journalist Liz Jones on the plight of these elephants (“The terrible plight of Indian elephants” — http://goo.gl/of9cTl) that drew criticism for what was seen as an example of sham journalism because she had patently not really witnessed the things she wrote about. But long before she wrote her piece, there have been reports by three official committees that investigated the abuse of elephants at Guruvayur.

The findings of the third committee, headed by Kerala’s poet-activist, Sugatha Kumari, resulted in another official document titled "Report on the Welfare and Veterinary Status — Captive Elephants at Punnathur Kotta, Guruvayur Devaswom Board Thrissur, Kerala". Authorised by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and conducted by Dr. Arun A. Sha of Wildlife SOS and Suparna Bakshi Ganguly of Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, it is field-based, scientific and empirical.

The investigation was carried out over three days, in August 2014, using field observations and a detailed examination of veterinary records. Ownership certificates, work registers, diet charts, interviews with staff and mahouts, records of offences, details of elephant donations and donors and even dung samples were all studied to evaluate the condition and the physiological and psychological profiles of the elephants.

The facts reveal a violation of several laws and guidelines such as The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, Project Elephant’s Guidelines for Care and Management of Captive Elephants 2008, the Central Zoo Authority of India’s guidelines called Zoos in India — Legislation, Policy, Guidelines and Strategy 2014, The Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act, 2002, the Performing Animals Rules 1973, and Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules 2012. India must perhaps be the only country that has drafted so many acts and laws for animals yet enforces so few of them.

The report shows that all the elephants at the Punnathur Kotta sanctuary are chained with absolutely no exercise. Often, these chains cut into the skin or become embedded in the flesh and have to be surgically removed. The animals are in complete solitude for about 23 hours; some are chained by one hind and one fore leg, while for others it is the hind legs and one fore leg.

The animals stand for hours in slush, mud and dung which is tragic as elephants are mammals that roam freely over stretches of land in closely-knit herds. In Guruvayur, they are exposed to the elements throughout the year as there are only eight sheds available. Very often, they are tethered to the same spot, where they eat and defecate resulting in festering infections such as septicemia and foot rot apart from tuberculosis, lung infections and heart conditions. Many try to break free from their shackles and exhibit what is scientifically called “stereotypical behaviour”. There are no enrichments like allowing them access to water bodies, dust or mud baths.

The fact is that keeping temple elephants has little to do with religion and everything to do with trade and tourism. “Perhaps it may be easier to comprehend, although not condone, why these gentle giants are exploited in the name of culture and religion when you consider the significant revenue these elephants generate for the Guruvayur temple. It is also easier to understand why the Guruvayur Devaswom Board encourages the hiring and use of its elephants, and disregards stern warnings against such practices by the Government of India,” says Mr. V.K. Venkitachalam, Secretary of the Heritage Animal Task Force.

According to the AWBI report, between January 2014 and April 2014, out of a total of 120 festival days, 38 out of the 59 elephants were leased out. In the four-month span, 52-year-old elephant Gopikrishnan worked for 77 days. In the case of a celebrity elephant like the 74-year-old Padmanabhan, he was made to toil for 18-20 hours, earning up to Rs.7 lakh for the temple in a day, even though his retirement age is 65. The revenue that festival elephants generate annually adds up to Rs.3.7 crore. The revenue for 2014-15, including donations by devotees, sponsorships and elephant camps, is estimated to touch Rs.7 crore. The “work” the animals have to do includes being loaded and unloaded from trucks, chained in alien environments, exhibited to the public for up to 10 hours a day, being subject to stress and the noise of musical instruments, facing surging, chaotic crowds, submitting to the dreaded metallic bull-hook or ankush , being adorned with heavy coverings in the oppressive heat, and having to do with no proper food, water or shelter. Welfare is secondary to the elephant’s commitment to a festival schedule, often with no intervals for rest. “Cultural practices cannot be considered greater than the laws of the land, whereby the exploitation of India’s heritage animal is condoned,” adds the AWBI report.

The commonest excuse to keeping temple elephants in captivity is “tradition”. Any exposé on the condition of these elephants is considered an attack on Hinduism. “But, it is the opposite of Hinduism. There were no elephants at that temple before 1969, which is when Hindu families, experiencing hard times due to land reforms, donated their elephants because they could no longer care for them,” says Mr. Venkitachalam. “With the West Asian oil boom of the 1970s, when lots of Indians became rich, the act of donating a ‘sacred’ elephant became a status symbol. Using elephants in festivals only started in the mid-1970s. This is not ancient, this is new.”

The AWBI report is damning and places the responsibility squarely on the Dewaswom Board. “No institution, however prestigious and powerful, can hope to insulate itself when it is on the wrong side of public opinion on a long-standing issue of humane concern. In just a few short years, the Devaswom’s elephant-keeping model has lost its shine, seen its value downgraded, mishandled tragic incidents involving the brutal assault on the captive elephants, and its reputation being affected by swelling public scepticism of its elephant facility.”

What is required now is to permanently outlaw the practice of incarcerating elephants in temples in India. It is time to act, now.

Rukmini Sekhar is a writer and activist, committed to the protection of animals.

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