The animal welfare activists and organisations … have started demanding the removal of elephants from temples altogether. However, the temple authorities, devaswoms and followers of traditions have opposed this, saying it would be against the centuries old religious tradition and temple culture. … Hence, a fair and equitable solution has to be taken by the stakeholders, including the courts of law, taking into consideration the significance of centuries old traditions and the welfare of elephants as put forward by animal welfare activists and bodies. – B. R. Haran
Kerala is the state which has the largest number of captive elephants. This is also the state where captive elephants are most abused and subjected to utmost cruelty. The parading of caparisoned elephants and their role in temple rituals gain a lot of importance during the time of festivals. Its significance has come to such a stage that there would be no temple festivities without elephants.
Thrissur Pooram is a classic example. The magnificent festival celebrated jointly by Vadakkunathan Temple of Thrissur along with the Paramekkavu Temple from the east and the Thiruvambadi Temple from the north is called as Thrissur Pooram. Similarly, apart from Thrissur, elephant parades form an important part of temple festivals in the districts of Palghat and Kollam.
Like elephant parades, fireworks have also become part of temple festivals over the years. The fireworks and elephant parades together make the festivals magnificent and colourful. The UNESCO has declared Thrissur Pooram as the “Most Spectacular Festival Event in the Planet”. Hence, the Kerala temple festivals with parade of caparisoned elephants and huge firework displays have become famous internationally. The fame, focus and significance gained by Thrissur Pooram have motivated the other temples in the state to enhance their festivities, resulting in large-scale commercialization of temple festivals in Kerala as a whole.
Commercialisation of temple festivals
Of late, commercialization has become the order of the day in temple festivals. For owners of elephants and those who trade in explosives, temple festivals have become a good source of revenue. Elephant owners are able to get Rs 75,000/- to Rs 100,000/- as daily rent for giving elephants on hire. The Devaswoms also get revenue of Rs 700,000/- to Rs 10,00,000/- during festivals.
Here, it must be noted that even churches and mosques are using elephants and parade them during festivals.
Owning an elephant is considered a prestige issue. Owning an elephant and donating an elephant to a temple are considered as prestigious acts.
An important aspect of this commercialization is that “Ownership Certificates” are available for sale. The ownership certificates of dead elephants, which are not recorded by the forest department, are used for illegally obtained elephants. The officials of the forest and animal husbandry departments are a part of this illegal business.
Abuse of elephants during festivals
The parading of caparisoned elephants and usage of high decibel explosives are a recent phenomenon. Earlier, elephants were used for carrying deities during utsavams, bringing the kalasams (pots) with sacred waters for consecrations, regular Gaja Poojas and other important rituals which require the role of elephants. Even the Vedi Vazhipaadu (worship by bursting a cracker) used to be an ordinary affair, performed away from the place where elephants are present, with very low decibel levels. Even the display of fireworks used to be a low-key affair for a few minutes duration only.
But, of late, due to commercialization of festivals, the participation of elephants for parade and procession has increased and the duration of fireworks display has also increased with the usage of high decibel explosives. Thousands of people congregate for these festivals. For famous festivals like Poorams, people gather in lakhs.
For the safety of the public and to avoid incidents of elephants running amuck, the elephants’ legs are tied with chains, rendering them immobile and making them stand for hours together. Even during normal times, captive elephants are tied with chains in one or two legs. During festivals, all four legs are tied with chains which are also tied around their bodies. They are made to stand for 8 to 10 hours during festivals. So, festivals are a huge ordeal for the elephants which are already suffering with so many problems like wounds, abscesses, arthritis, etc.
Elephants hired for festivals are also transported for hundreds of kilometers from one temple to another temple in another city or town, without proper rest during the entire festival season. This again is a different kind of ordeal for them.
Elephants have a remarkable hearing capacity and their ears are very sensitive. Even an artificial low decibel sound would affect the elephants badly. When the surrounding area is noisy, they tend to go way from that place. Sometimes, when the sound is of high decibel, they immediately attempt to run from that place. One can imagine the plight of such a highly sensitive animal and the pain and suffering it undergoes, being tied with chains and made to stand for hours together in a place, where high decibel fireworks are displayed.
Hence, the hustle and bustle of the festivals with thousands of people, irritation caused by the sound of drums (chenda melam) and other instruments, high decibel fireworks and explosives, pain caused by chaining of body and legs and the mahouts pinching them with ankushes all make their suffering unbearable!
Mostly “tuskers” are used in Kerala festivals. As they appear tall and majestic with their long trunk and tusks, huge body, long legs, etc., they are welcomed, received and greeted with cheer by the public. However, the tuskers are subjected to extreme cruelty during the period of musth, say three to four months, during which time the secretion of testosterone increases and the tuskers yearn for female companions. They tend to be aggressive and during such times they do not even obey their mahouts, with whom they supposedly have a close relationship. Sometimes, they even kill humans or other animals standing nearby.
So, the owners and mahouts keep them chained in an isolated place. They will not be given any work. They are given only reduced quantity of food and water until the end of the period of musth. They are also beaten mercilessly to keep them silent and under control. They are not only prevented from acting as per their natural behavioral traits, but are also made to undergo pain and suffering in isolation, leading to psychological problems.
Due to immense suffering in isolation, the captive elephants tend to escape from captivity whenever they get an opportunity, and in the process, they also take revenge on the mahouts who have been abusing them during the period of captivity. When the elephants run amuck, mahouts and members of general public also get killed. Sometimes, elephants also die due to various reasons. Such untoward incidents are quite common and happened many times in Kerala.
• 2006-2007: 15 persons (10 mahouts and 5 from public) died
• 2007: 64 elephants died
• 2008: 72 elephants died
• 2009: 79 elephants died
• 2007 to 2010: 215 elephants died in the four southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra. In the same period, 71 mahouts and 88 persons from the public also died
• 2010: 12 mahouts and 5 persons from public died
• 2010 to 2013: 269 elephants died
• Between January and August (8 months) in 2013: 36 captive elephants died, of which 29 belonged to private owners and 7 belonged to the Forest Department
• 2014: 24 captive elephants died
• 2015: 11 captive elephants died
• Up to June 2016: 11 captive elephants died
• In the last 15 years up to 2015: 526 people have been killed by captive elephants running amuck in the state
Moreover, many lives have been lost due to the explosives used for fireworks. Like Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, fireworks and explosives are produced in small towns in Palghat and Trichur districts. Vedi Vazhipadu is a tradition practiced in Kerala and these explosives are used for that purpose. Large scale fireworks display is carried out in more than 150 temples in Kerala. These have led to many untoward incidents and heavy casualties.
• 1978: 8 people died in Thrissur Pooram festival
• 1987: 20 people died in Velur temple festival in Thrissur district
• 1990: 26 people died in Malanadu temple festival in Kollam district
• 2006: 7 people died in Thrissur Pooram
• 2013 to 2015: 213 accidents occurred in which 451 people died. Of these, 50 accidents were in Thrissur and Palghat districts, in which 101 people lost their lives
Court cases and orders
The Supreme Court has already ordered that fireworks display using explosives must not be conducted between 10 pm and 6 am. However, in Puttingal Devi Amman Temple festival in April 2016, fireworks using high decibel explosives (above the permitted level) were conducted in the middle of the night for more than three hours.
In the aftermath of the Puttingal accident, a judge from Kerala wrote a letter to the High Court of Kerala demanding a ban on display of fireworks in temple festivals. Treating his letter as a PIL, the HC Bench (Justices P. Radhakrishnan and Anu Sivaraman) ordered a ban on firework display between sunset and sunrise. They permitted fireworks display with a specified decibel level during day time.
People die due to accidents caused by explosives; people also die when elephants run amuck; the explosives and fireworks cause immense sufferings to elephants; mahouts die trampled by elephants. Because of all this, animal welfare activists oppose the use of elephants and explosives in festivals.
During the Makara Vilakku festival season in the famous Sabarimala Temple, procession of elephants following the lead elephant carrying the deity is a tradition. During last year’s procession, a woman aged 68 years died after being trampled by an elephant which deviated from the procession and ran amuck. Subsequently, the Special Commissioner of Sabarimala submitted a report, and based on that report, the HC solicited the views of the Tantris of Sabarimala, Mahesh Mohanararu and Kanthararu Rajeevaru.
Although both of them concurred that elephants are not an integral part of temple rituals, they differed in their opinion with regard to the usage of elephants in festivals. The Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages around 1200 temples including Sabarimala, opposed the views put forward by the Tantris and submitted that the present rituals and traditions must be retained intact. Finally the HC banned the use of elephants during the Makara Vilakku season, but permitted the use of one elephant for carrying the deity during the annual festival.
Prior to this order, during the first week of April, the HC Bench comprising Justices B. Radhakrishnan and Anu Sivaraman directed all Devaswom Boards to ascertain from the Tantris (chief priests) if elephants are an integral part of temple festivals and their use in temple rituals and practices is an inexcusable component and required to be continued. The Devaswom Boards are expected to file their reports soon.
Consequent to the accident at Puttingal Devi Amman Temple and the High Court’s order in Sabarimala case, the management of the famous Pazhavangady Mahaganapathy Temple (located close to the famous Thiruvananthapuram Padmanabaswamy Temple) decided against the use of elephants for procession in future. Hereafter, the Deity is likely to be taken in a motorized vehicle instead of an elephant. The temple’s Tantri seems to have agreed to the decision. The management has also decided to do away with the display of fireworks.
The animal welfare activists and organisations have welcomed the High Court’s order in the Sabarimala case and the decision of the Pazhavangady Temple management. They have started demanding the removal of elephants from temples altogether. However, the temple authorities, devaswoms and followers of traditions have opposed this, saying it would be against the centuries old religious tradition and temple culture.
Hence, a fair and equitable solution has to be taken by the stakeholders, including the courts of law, taking into consideration the significance of centuries old traditions and the welfare of elephants as put forward by animal welfare activists and bodies. In the process, the stakeholders and courts of law must also pay serious attention to the atrocious aspect of commercialization of temple festivals and find out ways to curtail it.
(To be continued)
» B. R. Haran is an independent senior journalist in Chennai.