7 – Temples, Elephants and Traditions – B.R. Haran

Elephants at Guruvayur Temple

B.R. HaranWhile animal rights activists and animal welfare organizations are demanding the removal of elephants from temples as they are not well maintained and subjected to utmost cruelty, a section of devotees, traditionalists and temple devaswoms opine that removal of elephants from temples is against tradition, as elephants are used in various temple rituals. They allege that temples and temple traditions are undermined and demeaned in the name of elephant welfare, and point to a recent article and documentary as evidence. 

Liz JonesSangita IyerThe journalists

Liz Jones, a British journalist, wrote a lengthy article titled, “Tortured for Tourists: Chained to the same spot for 20 years. Beaten into submission at secret jungle training camps. The terrible plight of Indian Elephants,” for UK’s Daily Mail (15 August 2015).

Sangita IyerDuncan McNair, a Canadian citizen and native of Kerala, who is also a journalist and documentary maker, released a documentary titled, “Gods in Shackles”. When she came to Kerala for the death anniversary of her father in 2013, she had visited a few temples and seen the sufferings of elephants in captivity, resulting in this film.

The article and its effect

Liz Jones says she was with Duncan McNair, the London lawyer who founded the non-government organization Save The Asian Elephants (STAE) in January 2015.  She visited Kerala (Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple) and Karnataka (a ‘secret’ camp), saw the pathetic plight of captive elephants and interviewed concerned people. Her findings include:

  • Elephants are chained to tree stumps and beaten with metal sticks at temples in Kerala.
  • Before arriving at the temples, they are forced to spend months at ‘secret’ training camps where they are tortured. There are 12 such secret camps in Kerala.
  • At the entrance to the temple is Devi, who has been chained to this spot for 35 years. As a female, she is never taken to festivals, so has never, ever moved. Not one inch. Temple leaders (politicians, businessmen) refuse to allow the animals to be walked for one hour a day.
  • From October to May, an elephant will take part in 100 to 150 festivals. They will travel 3,720 miles in three months on a flat-bed truck. They are surrounded by thousands of people, noise, firecrackers.
  • They are routinely temporarily blinded, to make them wholly dependent on the mahout.
  • If in musth (when males are ready to mate), they are given injections to suppress the hormones. Three elephants died due to this practice this year.
  • The only food given here is dry palm leaves. An elephant in the wild will eat a wide variety of grasses, fruit, leaves and vegetables, and drink 140 to 200 litres of water a day. Here, they are lucky if they get five to ten.
  • Elephants are now big business. Each is worth £80,000, and can earn anything up to £5,000 an hour for appearing at festivals and weddings.
  • I asked Indian families at the Guruvayur Temple what they thought of the elephants. While some said it was sad, most thought the animals were fine. They had each paid to enter the temple, while Hindus from all over the world donate money.
  • Later that day, I meet theologian and elephant expert Venkita Chalam, a man who has received death threats for his views. We discuss whether condemning the way the animals are kept will be perceived as attacking Hinduism (as so many have told me since I arrived in Kerala). He shakes his head. “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,” he says. “With the oil boom in the 1970s, when lots of Indians became rich, donating a ‘sacred’ elephant became a status symbol. And using elephants in festivals only started in the mid-1970s. This is not ancient, this is new.”
  • We have to release the 57 elephants in that temple, and close down the secretive ‘training’ camps: 12 in all. Wildlife SOS has told me it can take them. We have to release them.

After this article appeared, many Indian newspapers and magazines came out with columns, stories and articles referring this article of Liz Jones and quoting her verbatim. Some websites republished her article.

Prem PanickerRefutations

Three reputed persons refuted the contents of Liz Jones’s article. Prem Panicker, editor of the portal Peepli.org published his article on 18 August 2015 three days after the publication of Liz Jones’s article in Daily Mail. In “Temple Elephants… And What Lies Beneath”, Panicker refuted the allegations made by Liz Jones, as follows: 

Jones: At the entrance to the temple is Devi. She has been chained to this spot for 35 years….

Panicker: This is just so sad. No, it is beyond sad—it is horrific. It is inhuman. And the fact that this scene plays out at the entrance to Guruvayur, one of India’s richest, most famous temples, multiplies the horror manifold. Or it would if the passage from an article by Liz Jones for the Daily Mail were true.

It is not. Guruvayur temple has two entrances. The main entrance faces the east; the only other gate opens to the west. At neither of these two entrances is an elephant—of whatever sex—chained. Ever. For any length of time, let alone for decades at a stretch.

The passage also nods at another trope—of the pervasive Indian misogyny that extends even to its interactions with animals. Devi, we learn, is doomed to spend her life tied outside a temple she, being female, cannot enter.

Not true. In Guruvayur, bulls typically outnumber females six to one or more, but this gender disparity is more a function of the fact that devotees like to donate males with tusks, and is not indicative of any discrimination on the part of the temple itself.

As far as entering the temple goes, the visual highlight of the day (every day) is the concluding sheeveli (procession). It features three elephants; the central one is almost invariably a male but, as often as not, he is flanked by two females—particularly during the monsoons, when most of the males are in musth and thus unavailableDevi is, in fact, a regular during such processions.

Jones: The only food given here is dry palm leaves…. 

Panicker: The panampatta, leaf of the palm tree, is a staple of captive elephants, certainly in Kerala where the sight of an elephant walking down the road carrying his lunch in his trunk is a sight common enough to merit no comment. However, it is not the only item on the menu for Guruvayur’s elephants. Banana pith and specially cultivated fodder grass are also part of the diet. 

Anayootu (feeding the elephant) is one of the rituals of Guruvayur. Devotees offer to feed the temple’s elephants, for which there is a fixed tariff, as an offering to Lord Ganesh. Big balls of boiled rice, jaggery and bananas make up the ritual offering, and the practice is so popular that devotees have to get on a waiting list for a turn.

Additionally, during July-August each year (during the Malayalam month of Karkidakam), all elephants in residence are subjected to sukha chikitsa, the practice of cleansing and rejuvenation prescribed by Ayurveda that incorporates massage and a special diet for an extended period from 21-45 days.

Jones: I asked Indian families at the Guruvayur Temple what they thought of the elephants….

Panicker: There is no entry fee for Guruvayur. There never has been. Ever.

Jones: Later that day, I meet theologian and elephant expert Venkita Chalam….

Prem Panicker: Discussing how elephants are kept in Guruvayur won’t lead to wholesale Hindu ire—but more on that later. This passage purports to make a central point: that temple elephants in Guruvayur are a recent phenomenon traceable not to religion but to the economic boom of Gulf money pouring into the state from the 1970s on.

Elephants are deeply enshrined in the literature and lore of ancient Kerala. Aithihyamala, Kottarathil Sankunni’s compilation of the foundational myths and legends of Kerala, concludes each “book” with the story of a temple elephant that had already attained legendary status by the beginning of the 1900s. But never mind that—it took me precisely two minutes, and one Google search, to find this:

On January 7, 1928, the Guruvayur temple management wrote to the Zamorin of Calicut to say, inter alia, that the temple elephant Padmanabhan (not to be confused with the one who, despite his deliberately broken leg, has a few hundred fans on Facebook) had just died. So in 1928—that is, 40-plus years before Indians per this report became wealthy overnight—Guruvayur had an elephant, and it was part of the rituals.

Guruvayur’s most famous elephant is Keshavan, donated by Sri Manavedan, valiya raja (senior king) of the royal family of Nilambur. Keshavan died at the age of 72, on December 2, 1976. When an elephant is gifted to the temple, the prescribed ritual is nadayiruthal (seating the elephant before the lord as a formal introduction). Keshavan’s nadayiruthal was in 1922—47 years before elephants came to Guruvayur according to Ms Jones.

After recording such refutations, Prem Panicker says, As a Keralite, and a Hindu who has visited the temple on a few occasions, my reaction to this article would be bewildered amusement.

“But as a journalist and editor, my reaction is far more visceral. I have many problems with this piece—beginning with the fictions, the distortions and the exaggerations. Only some of them are cataloged above; all of them are examples of journalism so shockingly inept that they can be disproved given a functioning internet connection and a few minutes of time.

“Then there is the overt racism embedded in declarations of the order of “The mahout, a vicious-faced little thug….

“There is, too, the incredibly patronizing depiction of mahouts as ‘tribals’ reveling in the misfortune of the elephants in their charge, and even capturing such suffering on their phones: ‘One has a video on his smartphone (they all have smartphones; the government pays their salaries).’ she says.

“Sorry? The government pays the mahouts wages and so they all have smartphones? Not only is the line tone-deaf, it displays a stunning level of ignorance on the part of a journalist who has ostensibly put feet on the ground to ‘report’ this story.

“But if that were all, you could shrug the whole piece off as yet another example of a journalist parachuting into an area with a pre-determined agenda, with eyes and mind open only to those ‘facts’ that support a prefabricated conclusion. And sadly, there is a lot of that going around.”

Panicker adds, “However, the problem is that there is a problem on the ground. Guruvayur’s elephants are housed in the grounds surrounding Punnathur Kotta, a small palace about two kilometers away from the temple. The grounds measure approximately 11 acres—too small a space to adequately house the population of between 50-60 elephants Guruvayur owns at any given point in time.

“Whatever the reason, the captivity is real, it is restrictive, and it is a problem for animals programmed to roam free, far and wide. The constant presence of the shackles creates festering sores—and while vets (of inferior quality, in Ms Jones’ estimation) regularly attend to it, treatment can only be palliative; the shackles remain, and sores fester again. These and other problems, repeatedly documented by animal lovers, activists and even lay visitors (without rousing the Hindu backlash Ms Jones is wary of), even led to a 2012 probe by the Animal Welfare Board of India, led by Dr Arun Sha of Wildlife SOS and Suparna Ganguly, co-founder of Compassion Unlimited Plus Action.”

Prem Panicker concludes, “In its final report submitted in late 2014, the AWBI submitted that among other measures, the elephants must be moved to a larger space; their water sources should be cleaned regularly; visiting hours to the camp should be restricted from the current ten hours so that elephants need not be kept in fetters for extended periods, and so on—a slew of suggestions the temple’s governing body says it has begun to act upon. At a larger level, the process of capturing and taming elephants is brutal, to an almost unbearable degree. We have problems, major issues, that need to be addressed and corrected. And the first step to such correction is honest, factual documentation which in turn leads to awareness and to the resulting public pressure that can produce remediable action.

“It all starts with awareness. And that means real stories. Not self-serving fiction, not half-truths, not outright lies masquerading as reportage. Distortions and untruths harm the very cause the reporter purports to espouse, because they dent the credibility of not just the particular story, but of any reporter or activist raising this issue now and in the future.”

Kalyan VarmaKalyan Varma’s refutation

Kalyan Varma, hailing from Kerala, is one of India’s best wildlife photo journalists. He wrote an “Open Letter to Daily Mail” describing the background of Liz Jones’s visit to India and refuting some of her allegations, which was published by Peepli.org on 18 August 2015:

“This letter is in response to this article written by Liz Jones published on Aug 15th 2015. The article is factually and chronologically wrong, misguided and misinformed, and lacking in basic journalistic ethics. I wish I didn’t have to call this out, but such stories—more fiction than fact, intentionally sensationalised in some parts—actually harm rather than help, and do great injustice to elephant conservation and welfare efforts in India. I write this on the basis of having personally interacted with Jones on her recent visit to India.

“A few days after I published my elephant capture story, I got a mail from one Duncan McNair. He said he was a lawyer from the UK, and was really passionate about conservation of Asian elephants. He runs a charity called Save The Asian Elephants (STAE).

“Duncan mentioned in his mail that he was coming down to India in a few weeks. Elephants in captivity and their management were his main concern, he said, and although he was visiting Kerala to look at elephants in the temple, he also wanted to visit some of the elephant camps in Karnataka. I shared information in a spirit of trust.

“A few weeks later, McNair landed up in India—not alone, as he had told me initially, but with Liz Jones, a journalist/photographer. This was unexpected. Still, I spent hours discussing the complex issues of elephant conflict, capture, and taming with them. McNair seemed to care; Ms Jones on the other hand seemed to me to be clueless about India and about elephants. No amount of conversation—involving me, and others in the conservation movement I introduced them to—managed to dent their preconceptions or cause them to rethink the half-baked information they had already internalised.

“Liz Jones’ trip was funded by Duncan McNair, who runs a charity to support Asian elephants. Jones came here to write a story about elephant torture. I first met her in Bangalore, and at the time reiterated to her that in Karnataka at least, elephants are not tortured and are not exploited commercially. She seemed however to have already made up her mind. Although she asked questions, she refused to accept the answers detailing what really happens here. The impression I had was that she had already constructed her story, and wanted evidence to back it up.”

Having given the background of Liz Jones’s visit along with Duncan McNair, Kalyan Varma rebuts her allegations as follows: 

Jones: Before arriving at the temples, they are forced to spend months at “secret” training camps where they are tortured. There are 12 such secret camps in Kerala.

Varma: The “secret camps” are not secret at all, just regular camps for captured elephants. Such elephants, just trans-located from the wild, are in a transitional phase and the intent is to disturb them as little as possible—therefore, such camps are not meant for the lay tourist. Therein lays the “secrecy” Jones makes so much of. Most elephants in these camps wander free of restraint, and since mahouts do not accompany them at all times, it is unsafe for lay tourists to enter the camps.

Jones: Children of mahouts who live on site in huts throw rocks at him, and the giant, hobbled by chains, retreats, trembling. The mahouts, tribal people who have been living and working with elephants for generations, gather around me. One has a video on his smart phone (they all have smart phones; the government pays their salaries). They howl with laughter as the video shows a wild elephant being captured by dozens of men….

Varma: Mahouts and their children have an amazing family bond with the elephants they look after. I have personally witnessed children, as young as five years old, walk up to a giant tusker and accompany it into the forest. Their “throwing stones” and the reaction of the elephant is an exaggeration—one of many in the piece.

Jones describes the mahouts watching a video one had shot on his smart phone. Again, that is not true—the video they were watching was this one, shot by me and part of my narrative series. The mahouts were part of that operation, along with several elephants from that camp. They were excited to see the video, since it featured them and their elephants—hence the delight, and not because they were reveling in scenes of torture.

Kalyan Varma goes on to rebut some more allegations made by Liz Jones and finally says, “It is in fact true that we have a long way to go in the management and welfare of captive elephants in India. But the situation can only be improved by engaging with the mahouts and the forest department, and by investing in positive-reinforcement training, in addition to solving some elephant conservation issues. Basically, this article is a sensationalized view of the fate of the captive elephants, with lots of “observations” cooked up in the writer’s imagination. I cannot comment about the intention of the piece—it may be good, for all I know—but the primary responsibility of a good reporter, or even a concerned citizen or animal activist, is to tell the truth, plain and unvarnished. Distortions and untruths hurt the very cause such pieces are ostensibly meant to help”.

Sreedhar VijayakrishnanSreedhar Vijayakrishnan’s Refutation 

Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan from Kerala is a wildlife biologist, who has been working in the field of captive elephant management for 15 years, and interacted with Liz Jones. He also wrote an “Open Letter to all self-proclaimed (Social Network) elephant lovers” and published his observations with regard to Liz Jones’s article:

“I’m appalled by the information being passed on by several individuals/organisations about elephants of Kerala—often as shoddy journalism, unfortunately—in the name of facts, many of which off late are baseless allegations. Typical example for this is a latest article in which one of the several random photos posted is that of a musth bull elephant displaying a behavioural trait—a trait common during musth—and the caption reads as atrocities and elephant suffering due to confinement.

“I do admit that there have been stark changes that have been happening in this field, which has not been very positive to elephants, and also several mahouts. The way to prevent the whole process deteriorating any further is not by fighting online, not by raising voices within, not by making ridiculous arguments/photographs/videos and protesting against, but by working more closely with the stakeholders, and realising that it is not an overnight change. It needs slow phasing out. Clearly this is not like rescuing and rehabilitating one or two elephants, we are talking about hundreds … for which you will have to find shelter, caretakers, water, food and what not.

“The fact that is often overlooked, particularly by the western activists is that these people are not born to torture these animals and knowing them, I know that given an option they wouldn’t do any of those acts. It is often true that the mahout—elephant duo do share a bond, which perhaps can be absent in several recent cases as is evident from the various torture videos and photographs. I personally know mahouts who have lost family prioritising elephants over them and mahouts who have lost mental health following demise of their elephants, and these portray the deep relations they maintain(ed). However there are stray incidents off late, where elephants have been abused badly by mahouts but blaming them completely for these actions perhaps does not make sense considering the fact that the ownership of these elephants does not lie with them and they are overseen by the owners.

“The solution to every problem underlies in understanding it at the grassroots level. In this case, most of the people who are vocal against these problems—from my limited knowledge—seem to be fairly unaware of the actual ground reality and cast their opinions based on what is portrayed in national and international media. Please understand that most reports that come these days are completely biased and report random information as facts as is evident from a recent piece in a leading International periodical.”

“There are a few things, that can potentially prove to be successful in managing these issues, such as reducing workload, regulating commercialization, giving better training for mahouts, reducing work related stress, arresting influx to the state, etc.”

Sreedhar Vijayakarishnan concludes, “I personally feel that it is very important to get all the facts in place before raising issues against a practice that has been happening for ages—particularly when it is surrounded by religious and cultural aspects. We need to work towards changing these practices slowly and with reasoned arguments based on ground realities, backed by the science of management. We cannot expect an overnight change. But we must start and engage over a long-term to bring about these changes.”

B.R. HaranMy opinion

After reading Liz Jones’s article and the refutations from Prem Panicker, Kalyan Varma and Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, one cannot help suspecting the intention of Liz Jones. But Duncan McNair has been an experienced animal welfare activist. So why should he bring a journalist with him? After reading the article written by Liz Jones, published by Daily Mail, we cannot help suspecting the intent of Duncan McNair too! Why should they bother about the welfare of animals in our country when animals in their own country are abused and subjugated cruelly?

As in the past, so in the present, we see many foreign NGOs and foreign-funded NGOs indulging in anti-India activities in many fields; animal rights seems to be one of them. The present government has started taking stringent actions against such NGOs. We need to be careful in dealing with this issue.

Having said that, we cannot deny that captive elephants are abused and subjected to utmost cruelty. Prem Panicker, Kalyan Varma and Sreedhar Vijaykrishnan have also not denied it. They are unanimous that the issue has to be addressed immediately and steps taken for the welfare of captive elephants on a war footing.

References

» B. R. Haran is an independent senior journalist in Chennai. This series of articles on Indian elephants will be continued.

Guruvayur temple elephant feast

One Response

  1. A very well researched piece. Most of these foreigner activists basically propagate the missionary funded anti-India rants. Under the veil of animal-rights activism, their sole objective is to target Sanatani culture & tradition. In the payroll of one ngo or the other, they arrive here on tourist visa & head straight to temples to concoct a hypothetical story. Some abroad studied brown slaves from India too are hand-in-glove with them.

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