In August 2014, the Madras High Court constituted a 3-member committee … to investigate the status of goshalas attached with temples under the HR & CE Department. … In a subsequent sitting, the High Court extended the mandate of the committee to inspect elephants and their maintenance. Hence, the committee members began inspecting elephants while inspecting cows and goshalas. – B. R. Haran
As the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department of Tamil Nadu government has been irresponsible in the maintenance of cows and goshalas in its temples, after more than a dozen cows died in the goshala of Thiruvannamalai temple, animal welfare activist and writer Radha Rajan filed a Writ Petition (WP 28793 & 28794 of 2013) in the Madras High Court, praying for constitution of a committee to look into the omissions and commissions with regard to the HR & CE Department’s maintenance of temple goshalas.
In August 2014, the Madras High Court constituted a 3-member committee, comprising petitioner Radha Rajan, Dr. Sumathi of Animal Welfare Board of India and L. Anantha Padmanaban, Joint Director, Animal Husbandry Department, to investigate the status of goshalas attached with temples under the HR & CE Department. The committee was ordered to submit its report within two months.
The committee inspected 21 temples and sent its report to HR & CE Department and obtained their reply too. The final reports were submitted to the High Court and arguments recorded. The HR & CE Department was unable to give a convincing reply to the committee’s findings; its indifference and irresponsibility came out in the open.
Accepting the committee’s recommendations and suggestions, the High Court directed it to include 10 more persons and carry out inspections at temples all over the state and report to AWBI. It directed the HR & CE and Animal Husbandry Departments to cooperate. The HC closed the case by ordering the state government and HR & CE Department to comply with the recommendations given by the committee. The court said it would have periodical review of the inspections being carried out and steps being taken by the government.
In a subsequent sitting, the HC extended the mandate of the committee to inspect elephants and their maintenance. Hence, the committee members began inspecting elephants while inspecting cows and goshalas. Following such inspection, the three elephants of Kanchi Kamakshi Amman Temple were sent to a rehabilitation center of the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, at Marakkanam, in Villupuram district.
Sandhya alias Kamakshi from Karnataka suffers from cataract detected prior to 2007. The same year, she developed a non-healing deep wound in the right thigh, which degenerated due to the pressure exerted while lying down. Due to irregular treatment, she developed abscesses in the right and left thigh and hip region and left hind foot as also a lesion in a damaged nail. In due course, she became blind in her left eye.
Skin lesions were found on her head and forehead. The tail was fractured due to multiple dislocations of vertebrae; the hairs on the tail were found to be removed, allegedly to make money in the black market. As Sandhya had to stand and walk on concrete / granite floors for years, her feet weakened and foot-pads thinned, making her gait abnormal due to deviation and fusion of the left foreleg fetlock joint; she is on the verge of developing arthritis.
Indhumathi from Kerala is suffering from overgrown and broken nails in both forelegs and hind legs. She suffers from non-healing wounds on elbow joints and forelegs. Her foot-pads have also thinned due to continuous standing and walking on hard surface. Skin lesions are found all over the body, particularly on the back, head and forehead regions. Overall she was found dull and restless.
Eighteen year old Jayanthi from Assam has started getting callouses and wounds, which would become chronic if she continues standing and walking on hard surface. A healed lesion was found on her right hip. Her gait is abnormal as evidenced by the dropping of her left hip.
On seeing the poor health of these three elephants, the AWBI decided to send them to a rehabilitation centre for treatment and care. The Kanchi Mutt understood the seriousness of the issue and extended full cooperation to shift the elephants.
Amirdhakadeswarar Temple, where Bhagwan Shiva saved Markandeya from Yama, is one of the most famous temples of Tamil Nadu. Devotees throng the place all around the year to celebrate their Sashti Aptha Poorthi (completion of 60 years) and Sathabishekam (completion of 80 years). Sri Muthukumaraswami Thambiran of Thirupananthal Adheena Matham donated a 4-years old female calf named Abirami to the temple.
Abirami has been serving there for more than 20 years. On 28 November 2012, she was sent to the Annual Elephant Rejuvenation Camp conducted by the Tamil Nadu government at Mudumalai forests near Ooty; she returned on 13 January 2013. From that day she fell sick, could not eat as usual and started losing weight. She was under saline administration, but collapsed in the early morning of 25 January and died; she was only 28 years old! The normal lifespan of an elephant is 70 years. She was buried at Yanaikulam, nearly. The autopsy revealed a polythene cover, a river pebble and an undigested banana peel in her stomach. Possibly she consumed the pebble at the rejuvenation camp as there are no river pebbles in the vicinity of Thirukadaiyur.
Abirami died within 12 days of her return from Mudumalai. What kind of treatment was given to her during those 12 days? Were the doctors able to identify her problem? Shouldn’t the HR & CE Department conduct an enquiry? Shouldn’t the state government order an enquiry? Sadly, both did not bother.
Sri Ramaswami Raja, founder chairman, Ramco Cements, had donated two elephants, Bhavani and Ramalakshmi, to the Rameswaram Temple. Bhavani was sent to the same elephant rejuvenation camp as Abirami. She reached on the evening of 25 November 2012; the camp was scheduled to begin the next day. A local doctor had issued a “Fitness for Transportation Certificate” on 9 November. As she looked dull on arrival, she was taken to the river for bathing. The moment she entered the river, she fainted. As the mahouts could not lift her, a crane was brought to lift her out of the river. She remained motionless, and doctors on arrival found her dead. The forest veterinarian, Dr Manoharan, issued a death certificate saying Bhavani died of exhaustion resulting in cardiac arrest. Her body was sent back to Rameswaram; she was 52.
Was it right on the part of the authorities to subject a 52-years old elephant to a tiresome travel, standing for more than 12 hours? Was Bhavani sick at the time of leaving Rameswaram? That being the case, was she subjected to more stress during transportation? Who decided to send her to the camp? How did the doctor give a fitness certificate to a sick elephant? Or was there a problem at the camp? Why didn’t the HR & CE Department conduct an enquiry? Why didn’t the government order an enquiry? The sordid fact is that the actual reason for Bhavani’s death has not been made public.
Devadasa Sundaram, a former trustee of Thiruchendur Murugan Temple, donated 4-years-old male calf, Kumaran, to the temple in 2006. Kumaran was not sent to the Annual Rejuvenation Camp which began on 11 December 2014 at Mettupalayam. He was reputedly not sent to the camp as he was allegedly in a state of musth and discharge from the temporal glands was noted. In this condition, Kumaran suffered from diarrhea on 7 January 2015. Despite treatment by doctors, he passed away early in the morning of 9 January. He was barely 13 years old.
When the local people heard of his death at such a young age, they protested and demanded an autopsy. As per the Tamil Nadu Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules 2011, an autopsy is mandatory, but it was not done. The temple officials refused autopsy on the grounds of affecting sanctity. It is not clear if the HR & CE Department had intimated the Forest Department of his death.
What kind of a care was given to Kumaran? Did the doctors have enough experience in treating elephants? What was that the cause of death? As the rejuvenation camps are organized for the well-being of elephants, what was the real reason behind not sending him to the camp at such a young age? What exactly was his health condition then? When the autopsy is mandatory, why was it not done? Who decided not to do it?
It may be added that the Animal Welfare Board of India, in its affidavit to the High Court, cited local media reports alleging that Kumaran was subjected to electro-ejection method to extract sperm from him, and that his tusks were also removed after his death. Only an enquiry can establish the truth.
In 1960, as a mark of thanksgiving to his ishta devata, Devi Punnainallur Mariamman, for the success of his movie Veera Pandiya Kattabomman, actor Shivaji Ganesan donated a 10-years old female calf, Vellaiyammal, named after a character in the movie. Vellaiyammal was shifted to the famous Big Temple in 1985. Soon, her health deteriorated. Legs became weak and she started suffering from joint pains. Her condition worsened and her legs became hard and stiff. She could not bend her limbs and she was unable to sit and lie down. She had to sleep in standing posture for several years.
Despite this, her mahout, Baskar, his brother and assistant Sarangan, used to make her stand for hours in front of the second entrance of the Big Temple tower; they used her to make money. They would charge devotees Rs. 5/- for her blessing, Rs. 10/- for sitting on her back and Rs. 25/- for a photograph with her. This money was never handed over to the temple office. They also used to remove hair from all over her body with a crude razor, and sell them in the black market.
The HR & CE officials never bothered to take any action against the mahouts. After complaints from local people, the department suspended only assistant Sarangan and put up a notice saying, “Elephant Vellaiyammal is being fed as per the advice of doctors. Hence devotees should not feed her with fruits, coconut, etc. Devotees are requested not to take blessings from the elephant and sitting on its back and taking photos are also prohibited. Do not give money to the mahout. Those who want to support by cash or kind, can hand them over to the temple office”.
The Regional Joint Director of the Animal Husbandry Department, Lourdusamy, issued a stern warning to HR & CE officials in the temple against the physical abuse of the elephant. He instructed the officials to reprimand the mahout and to ensure that such abuse did not occur again.
Having years of prolonged illness, Vellaiyammal breathed her last on 14 September 2013 at the age of 62. What kind of a treatment was given to Vellaiyammal and why was there no improvement? Were the doctors experienced in treating elephants? Why was she kept at the temple and not taken by the forest department? Why were the mahouts allowed to use and abuse her for begging? Why didn’t the officials bring in an experienced mahout to replace Baskar? Who is responsible for the years of pain and suffering by Vellaiyammal?
Sulochana was serving in Valasubramaniaswami Temple in Virudhunagar. She was blind in one eye; the second eye developed cataract. She was also suffering from arthritis. With literally zero vision and painful limbs, she was unable to walk.
How she found it difficult to take a single step can be seen in the video below.
In December 2015, as her mahout didn’t guide her properly, she fell down and her shoulder was severely dislocated. Since then, she could not sit or lie down and used to sleep standing against the wall. This made her even weaker and affected her dietary intake as well. Her sufferings can only be imagined. On the midnight of 21 March 2016, Sulochana fell down in her sleep and did not get up again. She breathed her last at 8.30 am on 22nd morning; she was just 32.
Why did the authorities keep her in the temple knowing well that she was blind and afflicted with arthritis? What was the necessity to keep her for temple services in such a condition? Why wasn’t she sent to the forest department or any other rehabilitation centre? Didn’t the doctors advice the department? Who is responsible for her life of distress and suffering?
(To be continued…)
» B. R. Haran is a senior journalist in Chennai.