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

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

Thrissur Pooram Festival

B. R. HaranThe 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

Seal of KeralaKerala

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.

Fireworks at Kerala temple festival

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.

Elephants chained on four legs, made to stand 10 hours at Thrissur Pooram Festival

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.

Elephant running amuck at festival

Untoward Incidents

• 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

• January 2013: Captive elephant Ramachandran of Thethechikkottukavu Peramangalam Devaswom ran amuck in the midst of a festival in Rayamangalam and trampled 3 women to death

• 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

• 9 April 2016: 110 people died in the accident caused by explosives in Puttingal Devi Amman Temple of Paravur in Kollam district

Accident caused by fireworks in Puttingal Devi Amman Temple of Paravur, Kerala

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.

Elephants and mahouts at rest during festival. Elephants are chained so that they cannot move and inch!

Lessons from the Chennai floods for Kerala – C. I. Issac

Chennai Floods 2015

Prof C. I. Issac“Here in Kerala, the numbers and significance of the people who adore nature as ‘Mother’ is shrinking day by day. At the same time, the importance and influence of religions which advocate nature as a resource to alleviate the greed of man is also mounting day by day. The best example of this was the destiny of the Madhav Gadgil Committee Report and the role played by the bishops.” – Prof C. I. Issac

The main reason behind the disaster borne out of the unpredicted outburst of floods in Chennai was the humiliation of ‘Mother Earth’ by the regimes of the Metro City and Fort St. George for last three decades. This is not a topic confined to the Tamil Nadu state alone, but the warning of the times, the writing on the wall for the entire country, and specifically for the state of Kerala.

Kerala is the most densely populated state in India; according to the latest available data, the State’s density of population is 860 per square kilometre. A place with regular and recurring rainfall, it is now in the extra danger zone. Should a Chennai-like situation develop here, the depth and extent of the calamity could be far more disastrous than Tamil Nadu.  

Chennai Floods 2015The main reason for the present havoc caused by floods in Chennai is the creation of the greedy real estate and construction mafia. Related to this is the unscientific road construction along with the encroachment of creeks, backwaters and other traditional water-clogging areas by a highly influential section in the political class of Tamil Nadu.

These areas are vital mechanisms of nature, because while at the time of frantic and violent rain these creaks will drain-out the excess flood water, the rest will be absorbed by the lakes, backwaters and other traditional or natural water-storing areas. All these are now a panorama of bygone days in most of our cities. This write-up is concerned with the situation in Kerala. 

Kerala is the single largest metropolis of India with a population 33.3 million (2011 census), excluding expatriates. The repercussions from any sort of natural calamity in this ‘God’s Own Country’ (the land created by Lord Parasurama) will be far worse than Chennai.

This is because the topography and density of population in Kerala is entirely different from that in the rest of India. God created this land with all safety valves to overcome any such adverse situations that occur rhythmically in nature. Kerala has 44 west-flowing rivers and each river has 150 to 250 tributaries and 10 to 50 distributaries that embrace the sea; hitherto the backwaters also functioned as flood water managers.

It is a wonder that nature has provided such a fantastic device to a place with a landmass of 38,863 sq. km., and length is 580 km. This enabled Kerala to survive as a safe haven for human habitation all this time. But in recent decades, the flow of petro-dollars along with hawala money and counterfeits from the 1970s onwards, sabotaged the divine human-nature relations of Kerala.

Today, all the 44 rivers of Kerala have shrunk by 2/3 of their natural width. As many as 50 per cent tributary rivers have vanished. The banks of the backwaters are subject to encroachments in Cochin, Kumarakom (famous for its bird sanctuary), and so on in all the cities and towns of Kerala, all under the benediction of the ruling and opposition parties in the Legislative Assembly. 

One such encroachment of a backwater by a company run by an in-law of the Congress dynasty was unearthed by the visual media of Kerala. (I mention this instance only to show the power and impunity of persons who plunder nature and violate the law in this state). Under the umbrella of these administrative forces, several malls and resorts have mushroomed by acquiring government purambokku (government land belonging to none), river beds, shallow regions of backwaters and violating lease agreements in cities like Cochin.

In cities like Trivandrum and the like, the business communities are occupying roads and streets under the power of collective communal vote banks. All such violations have enjoyed the backing of both the ruling and opposition parties. This nexus has also worked to sabotage the genuine infrastructural projects of the state. What was the destiny of the Gadgil Commission ReportMadhav Gadgil Committee Report to save the Western Ghats? This is a well-known story, so I am not going to dwell upon it.

In the wake of havoc caused by the recent Chennai flood, the Chief Minister of Kerala announced that development means not two-storied buildings but skyscrapers. This response of the Chief Minister was in the light of the decision of the State Fire Department Chief to implement fire norms strictly in the case of flats, apartments, shopping malls and skyscrapers. This decision of the Fire Department opened a ‘wrestling platform’ in which doyens of the builder lobby met the State Fire Chief and the poor Fire Chief was knocked out.

The irony was that the (unfair) umpire on the platform was the Chief Minister of Kerala. The result was that the Chief of the State Fire Department lost his chair. And the State Cabinet decided to apply the 1994 State Municipal Building Rules by evading the existing National Laws and Acts relating to the building of skyscrapers in the state hereafter. A recent non-formal study says that 90 per cent of the big budget constructions since 2000 are going on in blatant violation of the vital norms of the State Building Rules. Yet all these hitherto construction violations were ratified by the authorities!

Here in Kerala, the numbers and significance of the people who adore nature as ‘Mother’ is shrinking day by day. At the same time, the importance and influence of religions which advocate nature as a resource to alleviate the greed of man is also mounting day by day. The best example of this was the destiny of the Madhav Gadgil Committee Report and the role played by the bishops.

One bishop went to the extent of threatening the State Government that “they have no hesitation to create another Kashmir in Kerala if they go with Madhav Gadgil suggestions.” Sadly, the impotent law making and implementing authority of the day in Kerala shut their ears and closed their eyes before this treasonable threat of the bishop, thereby revealing the destiny that lies ahead for ‘God’s own country’ in the days to come. – Vijayvaani, 8 December 2015

Lynn Townsend White Jr

Prof Lynn Townsend White Jr

Woman journalist threatened for describing sexual abuse in a Kerala madrassa – Haritha John

Rajeena's Facebook Profile

Haritha John“Ever since Rajeena put up the Facebook post, she was at the receiving end of a barrage of abuses and threats, forcing her to write another post in which she declared that despite everything, she would remain fearless.” – Haritha John

On 22 November, a senior journalist working with a prominent Malayalam newspaper wrote a poignant post on her Facebook account about sexual abuses her classmates had to face in a madrassa years ago. For more than 24 hours now, journalist VP Rajeena’s Facebook account has been blocked, and she continues to receive threats.

In the Facebook post that became controversial Rajeena reminisced about an ustad or teacher at a Sunni madrassa in Kozhikode city, who would feel up her male classmates’ private parts. She described how young boys in the class would be summoned by the ustad and asked to unzip their shorts. Rajeena said that even as the boys squirmed, the girls too were left embarrassed and shocked. The ustad would then tell the boys that he was only checking the size, she wrote. She also talked about how such experiences were spread out across her six years of education at the madrassa and even the girls in her class were not spared. The journalist also alleged that another ustad who was above 60 years would move around the class during power cuts and sexually abuse minor girls.

Ever since Rajeena put up the Facebook post, she was at the receiving end of a barrage of abuses and threats, forcing her to write another post in which she declared that despite everything, she would remain fearless.

“Curses… Abuses… Venom spewing… Let everything befall on me. But I am least afraid because Allah is with me. And so, even if the whole world turns against me, I will not fear. It is becoming clearer that whatever I did was the correct thing. Even my life is at stake. History is replete with such stories of annihilation of voices that dissent. I am ready to face that.” (Translated by Firstpost).

“After I put up the Facebook post my account was blocked for some time and it later came back. But from Wednesday morning it was blocked again and has not been reinstated by Facebook,” Rajeena told The News Minute (at the time of writing this on Wednesday night Rajeena’s Facebook account was still blocked, but the account was restored on Thursday morning.)

Rajeena's FB Post

Rajeena believes she is being targeted for various reasons.

“I am a woman, a Muslim woman that too and a journalist, so such a revelation from me was unacceptable for many. What should have led to a healthy debate on child sexual abuse has [degenerated] to a fight against me. I have been called an anarchist and someone with an agenda to defame a particular religion,” she said.

Read some disgusting comments that Rajeena got for her post, which show how rotten some people are.

Many prominent voices in Kerala like V. T. Balram, M. A. Baby, Sarah Joseph and B. R. P. Bhaskar have come out asking for Rajeena’s Facebook account to be restored and for a sane discussion on madrassas and other educational institutions. Read what they have to say here. – The News Minute, 25 November 2015

V. P. Rajeena

V. P. Rajeena is a Ramnath Goenka awardee. She has vowed to come out with more disclosures on sexual abuse and misconduct in madrassas through social media.

V. P. Rajeena interviewed by A. Mili in The New Indian Express

Q: You belong to an orthodox middle-class Muslim family in Malabar and studied in a madrassa run by a particular faction? Where there any religious or political reasons that prompted you to make such a post?

A: I am not a follower of any political party, and as many people claim I am not a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Though, I work for a newspaper which subscribes to that ideology, you cannot associate me with a particular ideology. I have specified in my post that the madrassa referred to was E. K. Samastha Sunni madrassa for better clarification. The divide among the separate groups of Sunnis is so deep that a less lucid post could lead to further divide among the public.

Q: There is nothing new in your post. There have been sexual abuse cases involving madrassa teachers. Then why did you make such a disclosure now?

A: I was patiently waiting for the opportune time. India is facing a major threat from communal fascist forces. Religious intolerance has grown to such a level that even girls and boys are not allowed to sit together in classes. The major criticism against me was that I gave the communal forces a reason to criticise the Muslims again. See, my point is that, in order to fight the communal fascist elements, we must be clean. We should be tolerant enough to face criticism. It is the intolerant clerics, who have given enough fodder to those flaying Muslims. Had they reacted in a healthy manner, the discussion would have brought in a sea change in the community.

Q: What next? Are you planning to move ahead with the crusade for gender equality or are you withdrawing following the online attack?

A: I am part of a progressive group of Muslim women, who want to usher in change in  society. We have issues pertaining to divorce and dowry within the community. There are many questions to be answered like, where should the girl go after the divorce, what is her status? Who should she remarry? And coming to the dowry system, it is a larger context to be discussed in the society. There is no gender inequality in the religion. It is the clerics who create the divide. Those, who threatened me, are a large group of men moulded by the clerics.

Q: Unfortunately, no major political party came to your rescue, especially the secular parties. Why?

A: I got the backing of many activists and writers. B. R. P. Bhaskar, singer Shahabaz Aman, director Ashiq Abu, critic Abdul Kareem Uttalkandiyil, Rekha Raj and many other online activists supported me. I have not faced any issues from the media organisation where I am working. I am getting the support of a majority, who are not active on Facebook. This is a positive sign. We are getting more energy to work for the better.

Q: Are you planning to bring the offensive comments to the attention of Cyber Cell?

A: We are taking the screenshots of the offensive comments and will approach Cyber Cell if needed. I am scouring all the comments on my FB wall. This is not the first time a woman has been harassed online for expressing her bold views. – TNIE, 28 November 2015

» Haritha John reports for The News Minute in Kochi, Kerala.
» Anupama Mili reports for The New Indian Express in Malappuram, Kerala.

V. P. Rajeena

Though Hindus support V. P. Rajeena, she has joined the specious intolerance debate created by the secularists and has adopted their abusive terminology!

Church and prohibition in Kerala – C. I. Issac

Prof C. I. Issac“In recent days, the Church exerted pressure over the Government of Kerala and succeeded in closing down 700 bar hotels and 35 of the 350 retail liquor outlets of the State Beverages Corporation. Now only 24 bar hotels are functioning. … The majority of bar hotels closed down were owned by the Hindu community. The Christians lost nothing! Instead, the government permitted them to open wine parlours in every nook and corner of the state. This is the greatest victory of the Church.” – Prof  C. I. Issac

Catholic Church in KeralaIt is said that the Churches in India, particularly of Kerala, are ‘a committed force’ to fulfil the dreams of the father of the nation – Gandhiji – for a spirit-free Bharat. At the time of his struggle against the British Raj, the Churches in India, notwithstanding theological differences, extended spiritual, moral and material support for the continuation of the Raj in India.

After independence, the Church adjusted to the new reality and became blind supporters of the Congress party of Jawaharlal Nehru and are still loyal to them. Our discussion concerns the Church’s dubious approach towards the policy of prohibition.  

Indian Churches are at the helm of all anti-liquor organisations in all states, though they are running more wineries than the distilleries in India! Each diocese has a winery in order to fulfill the said requirements of their priests, nuns and laities. The paradox is that they are nowadays running after the state governments to enhance the capacity of their wineries. The justification for this demand is that the Christian population has enhanced considerably.

In the last century, Kerala Christians were 22 per cent of the population; now they are 19 percent. Census reports show that the Christian population in India and particularly Kerala is in negative growth phase. The negative growth phenomenon is prevalent particularly amongst Syrian Christians, a major group of Kerala, identified by Sonia Gandhi & George Alencherrydemographers as suffering from the ‘Parsi Syndrome’. Then what is the basis of the priestly demand for more wine?

According to reports in regional newspapers, the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Ankamali of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church submitted an application to the state Excise Department seeking to enhance its wineries’ production capacity from 1600 liters to 5000 litres. (See The Hindu, Kochi & Mathrubhumi, Kottayam, 20 May 2015). Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, a leader of the Prohibition Movement in Kerala, is the applicant!

To Christians, wine is a holy drink because it was served during Jesus’ Last Supper. So it is a necessary item to fulfill the requirement of their spiritual needs. Hence nobody questions the use of wine in communion. The consumption of wine during Holy Mass by a laity is less than one drop. So what is the rationale behind the Church demand to vastly enhance production of wine?

The alcohol content in wine is 6 to 7 percent. The wine consumption promoting Churches usually blame certain Hindu temples’ practice of offering country liquor such as toddy, which contain less or equal alcohol to wine, to their deities. In recent days, the Church exerted pressure over the Government of Kerala and succeeded in closing down 700 bar hotels and 35 of the 350 retail liquor outlets of the State Beverages Corporation. Now only 24 bar hotels are functioning. This is the greatest victory of the Church.

The majority of bar hotels closed down were owned by the Hindu (Ezhava) community. The Christians lost nothing! Instead, the government permitted them to open wine parlours in every nook and corner of the state. Now Kerala is not only ‘God’s Own Country’ but also the land of ‘wine and beer’. Naturally, the Church which condemned the liquor policy of the government now kept discreet silence and extended moral support to the government’s new policy of wine and beer.

George AlencherryThe Church is clearly conflicted in this matter. Its frontal organisation to fight against the curse of liquor, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council Prohibition Movement (KCBC), proposed to conduct a two-day training camp of its prohibition workers on 18 and 19 May 2015 at the Renewal Centre, Kaloor, Ernakulam. The entire 31 dioceses from all the three rites were represented in this camp. (Mathrubhumi, Kottayam, 16 May 2015). 

Ironically, before the camp ended, the Church applied for enhancement of the capacity of one winery. The other dioceses and missionary organisations will soon follow in the footsteps of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Ankamali.

We can only acclaim, “Long lives the Church’s liquor policy”, or pray, “Forgive them, Father! They do not know what they are doing”. (Luke, Chapter 23, verses 32). – Vijayvaani, 1 June 2015 

» Prof C. I. Issac is a member of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR)

Haneesh Pathiyeri

Rally against bar closure in Kerala (2014)

PM Modi’s visit to Sabarimala will hopefully end the woes of the shrine – Rajeev Srinivasan

Ayyappan Temple at Sabarimala

Rajeev Srinivasan“The PM’s visit to Sabarimala should create an awareness of the problems faced, and perhaps it will lead to the dissolution of the Devaswom Board, just as that other white elephant, the Planning Commission was disbanded. That would be not a day too soon. Kerala’s temples deserve the right to manage themselves without busybodies from government interfering in them.” – Rajeev Srinivasan

Swami AyyappanThe hill abode of Sri Ayyappan in the Western Ghats has become one of the most-visited temples in India, and it is in the list of places where the most places converge in the world (Source: The Economist, 2013). Unfortunately, it is also a testament to the incompetence and uncaring attitude of the Indian state, because pilgrims suffer greatly if they wish to visit.

Therefore I am delighted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may visit the shrine this year, according to G. Ananthakrishnan (“Sabarimala on PM radar”) in The Telegraph, as it may force the authorities to improve the critically deficient infrastructure that they could easily upgrade, but won’t. It is also a metaphor for what appears to be active official hostility to Hindu pilgrims.

Pilgrims wait to climb the 18 steps at SabarimalaI know because I just went to Sabarimala for Deepavali. I have done the pilgrimage five or six times over many years, and can testify first-hand as to how it has deteriorated over time. My very first pilgrimage was when I was 17, and at that time there were no permanent settlements on the summit of the hill, where the shrine is. People only went there during the season (November to January) and for a few days at the beginning of every Malayalam month.

The main difference is the number of pilgrims visiting, which has grown exponentially, as it is an attractive, albeit difficult, trip, and the worship of Ayyappa has grown dramatically in the southern states. Then, I walked alone up the hill through rough paths, and I encountered only a handful of people who were going down the hill. When I went to the summit, I could pray for as long as I wanted in front of the deity’s tiny abode.

A few days ago, there were thousands of pilgrims at the summit, and I encountered hundreds returning down the arduous climb. During the season the numbers swell to hundreds of thousands of black-clad visitors, as the total number over the truncated period comes to over 30 million (which is the entire population of Kerala, to give some perspective).

Unfortunately, this tsunami of pilgrims has overwhelmed the carrying capacity of the area, and it makes the strenuous climb far more difficult than it needs to be. For, from the Pamba River staging area where vehicles park, it is a vertiginous climb up a few thousand feet through dense tropical forest to the small plateau where the shrine is. It is hard on the feet (we climbed barefoot up the granite and concrete path), on the heart (every year a few people have cardiac arrest), and on your system in general (there are only a dozen or so toilets on this path).

Once you get up to the plateau, things don’t get any better. Often, in peak-season, you have to wait for up to 10-12 hours in line in concrete sheds with corrugated-iron sheeting as roofs, which gets stiflingly hot on sunny days. Accommodation availability is utterly minimal: many sleep in these very sheds. Toilets, bathrooms, a clean place to sleep, decent food to eat, medical care—all are scarce.

The amount of plastic trash around the place is startling: bottles, bags. There are feral pigs – yes, wild pigs with mean-looking fangs – rooting in the food waste and human waste, and they add their droppings to the mess of mud and paper and flowers and plastic.

And there have been several stampedes in the past, which obviously is a problem of poor organisation and crowd management. (Tirupati, with an equally large number of pilgrims, has figured out crowd control; there is no reason why this cannot be attempted in Sabarimala too.)

This is no way to run a holy place. Nor any way to treat poor pilgrims who come from far away. I once met a barefoot pilgrim who was a Sri Lankan-origin investment banker in London, but many are ordinary folks from villages in interior Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh. They come, black-clad and bearded after 41 days of penance, carrying on their heads the twin coconuts filled with ghee that they will use for ablutions. These are the believers, that vast and invisible substratum of India that Dharampal once mentioned: they follow ancient practices of pilgrimage to holy spots, ignoring the cities and other distractions. This is eternal India, sanatana dharma.

Hiuen Tsang / XuanzangYou get a glimpse of this true India when you finally reach the sanctum with your aching and weary body, your only thoughts those about Ayyappa. Strangely, when you try to get your micro-second glimpse of the presiding deity before you are shoved forward by the press of those behind you, you tend to forget all the hassles. Because it is a point of singular power, and it has been so for millennia: historian Lokesh Chandra notes that it was once a temple to both Shiva and the Avalokiteswara Padmapani (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) simultaneously, as described by the Buddhist monk Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang) who visited some 1,400 years ago and considered it already an ancient temple. (See my old article on its history here.)

The criminal neglect of the temple is mostly due to state hostility and partly to sheer incompetence. Kerala alternatively has Communist-led and Congress-led governments, which for practical purposes means a Communist/Muslim coalition or a Christian/Muslim coalition. The Hindu vote is fragmented and divided, to the extent that the BJP is yet to have a single MP from the state, although O. Rajagopal almost unseated Shashi Tharoor in Trivandrum last May. Modi appeals to the OBC Ezhavas (the mainstay of the Communists) and to the SC Pulayas; and this may lead to some electoral realignments, and that is surely part of his calculations.

There is a monstrous entity called the ‘Devaswom Board’ that controls all Hindu temples (and note please: only Hindu temples, as Christian and Muslim places of worship are entirely free of control or even audit or tax. I read a ruling by an Income Tax appellate court that Hinduism is a way of life, not a religion, and therefore Hindu temples are not tax-exempt!)

In fact, in an allegedly secular state, there should be separation of ‘church’ and ‘state’, that is, the government should not interfere in religion. That is true for Christians and Muslims: the State leaves them alone to do whatever they want with their churches and mosques. But in the case of Hindus, the government expropriates whatever Hindu temples have. The Devaswom Board is a violation of the constitutional principles of equality before the law and freedom of religion.

This is the principal reason Hindu temples are in trouble in Kerala, as the Devaswom Board, with atheists and Communists often as board members, acts as a mechanism to commingle the revenues of temples with government revenue. In other words, the Devaswom Board, and thus the Kerala government, steal the money that pilgrims donate to Sabarimala (and other large temples like Guruvayur). No more than 5 percent of this is spent on upkeep and maintenance and infrastructure development in the big temples; the rest is swallowed by the state treasury.

Many of the smaller temples under Devaswom control are closing because there is no money spent on them at all (I read a report quoting the Travancore Manual that were some 10,000 temples in Travancore a hundred years ago; while today there are fewer than 1,500). This verges on extinction.

Temples are torn down for ‘development’. For instance, the 1,800 year-old Parthasarathy Temple in Aranmula is slated for severe downgrading for an unnecessary airport project there which is basically a land-grab. Dozens of temples were torn down to create Cochin’s airport. In the 1950s, a planter tried to burn down the Sabarimala shrine to grab the forest land around it. All this is simply abominable.

Narendra Modi greets Ganga DeviA visit by the Prime Minister should shine the spotlight on this unsavory aspect of what is quite simply apartheid against Hindus. In addition, he will see first-hand how his idea of a Swachh Bharat has a long way to go: unlike most temples in Kerala, where the abundance of water, and related habits, ensure cleanliness, poor Sabarimala is the epitome of unsanitary conditions.

The PM’s visit should create an awareness of the problems faced, and perhaps it will lead to the dissolution of the Devaswom Board, just as that other white elephant, the Planning Commission was disbanded. That would be not a day too soon. Kerala’s temples deserve the right to manage themselves without busybodies from government interfering in them.

If the PM were to visit during the season, the difficulty in ensuring security will mean disruption for pilgrims, especially if he were to make the full trek up and down the hill, which, he, as a physically fit individual, should be able to do, unlike all other PMs so far. Still, that would be a small price to pay for the possible improvements it might bring. – FirstPost, 24 October 2014

Cross crossed-out!Socio-political history of Sabarimala – Ashok Chowgule

There is a socio-political history that needs to be mentioned about Sabrimala, which would indicate the civilisational importance of the temple. From Wikipedia, we can read: “In 1950, a fire broke out which destroyed the entire temple and it had to be reconstructed. According to the official enquiry report submitted by the Deputy Inspector General of Police, K. Kesava Menon, some Christian fundamentalists committed the arson.”

This was preceded by attempts of the Christian churches to grab properties on the way to the hill, erect crosses and shrines. The objective was to block the path to the temple and so prevent worship at the site. The local RSS units (at the time this was the only mass based Hindu organisation working at the grassroot level—VHP, of which I am a senior office bearer, was formed in 1964 by the RSS) had to mount a protest against this effort, some of which had to be done in a violent way. This was successful, and yet another pilgrimage shrine was kept free for the Hindus to be able to worship in the future.

What Wikipedia does not mention is that the vandals were instigated by the Christian churches, and DIG Kesava Menon has given names of various people involved. None of them were prosecuted.

Rajeev Srinivasan, the author of the above article, does mention the vandalism when he says: “In the 1950s, a planter tried to burn down the Sabarimala shrine to grab the forest land around it.” I recognise he did not dwell on it, so that the attention to the main point, relating to the present, is not diluted.

» Rajeev Srinivasan is a popular columnist from Tiruvananthapuram. His daytime job is that of a consultant in the software industry. He blogs at Shadow Warrior here.

Pilgrims at Sabarimala

See also

Catholic Church in India: Sex, sex, and more sex – G. Pramod Kumar

Sister Mary ChandySister Mary Chandy, sixty-seven years old, walked out of the Congregation of the Daughters of Presentation of Mary in the Temple in Chevayur, Kozhikode, 14 years ago. She wrote her autobiography, Nanma Niranjavale Swasthi (Peace to the One Filled with Grace), in April 2012. Excerpts from the book are below. – Editor

Barely two years after it was slammed by An Autobiography of a Nun that catalogued the lurid details of bullying, sexual abuse and homosexuality, the Catholic Church in Kerala is again attacked by a former nun.

Sixty-eight-year-old Sister Mary, who left her Catholic congregation in Kerala 13 years ago in disgust after 40 years of nunhood, is ready with her exposé. In a biographical sketch titled Nanma Niranjavare Swasthi, she heaps more ignominy on the Church.

Sister Mary talks in vivid detail about the extreme pain she had to endure during her tenure with the congregation: physical and psychological oppression, the sexual permissiveness and abuse prevalent among some of the nuns and priests, and the harassment she faced for sticking to her values and commitment to service.

She also talks about the miserable sense of abandonment, rather than sacrifice or service, that some of the nuns feel.

For the Catholic Church in Kerala which is already under attack with a wide range of allegations ranging from oppression of its nuns, abuse, suicides and inappropriate sexual behaviour, the book will certainly be further bad publicity.

Ex-Priest K.P. ShibuTwo biographical accounts; one by Jesme Raphael who gave up the nun’s robes after 26 years of service (2009) and another by a male priest, K.P. Shibu Kalaparambil who left after 24 years in white (2010); had in the recent past, dented the reputation and order of the Catholic Church. Both of them had explosive revelations including sexual exploitation of women and men.

In her memoirs Sister Mary, born in the Palai area of eastern Kerala, describes how she wanted to be a nun at the age of 13 and ran away from home to a Catholic congregation. Although she “found her path of service at the altar of the god”, what awaited her was four decades of hardship, betrayal and absolute disappointment.

Unable to take it anymore, she abandoned her robes in 1999 but continued her service to humanity by establishing a modest orphanage at Wayanad in north Kerala. According to Jose Pazhukaran, the writer who helped Mary put together the memoir, she literally begs door-to-door to raise the resources for her orphanage. “She is now doing what she couldn’t accomplish as a nun – to serve humanity and be a mother to abandoned children,” says Pazhukaran.

“There was a lot of unbearable pain and humiliation. Some ran away, some committed suicide. I endured all the pain because of the priest’s words at my first communion as a nun – you should be ready to follow the path of Jesus Christ. These words are still throbbing in my heart and that is why I am a mother of orphans,” says Sister Mary.

Translations of two chapters of the book are given below :

A Catholic NunTHOSE WHO READ SEX MAGAZINES

Some of the nuns used to read books with filthy pictures. I used to wonder how they laid their hands on them. Once I noticed that one of the nuns mostly stayed in her room with the doors bolted.

She was very good-looking and otherwise active, but I didn’t clearly understand the “clandestine things” she was up to.

One day, I found out that she was reading a filthy magazine. A magazine that had pictures of naked men and women. I was very upset. Once you pledge yourself to be a nun, such temptations can compel you to give in. Privately, I admonished her and warned her that she should not repeat it, lest I should tell the matron of the provinciate. I also promised her that I wouldn’t tell anybody. I used to wonder who got them those magazines.

I also resented the male priests coming to the convent without any reason. I really didn’t like how some nuns spent so much time with them and flirted with them. I thought that it could lead them to wrongdoings that could bring disrepute to the congregation. I complained to the mother, but she kept evading it.

Most of the time, what you saw if you accidentally walked into a room of the nuns was shameful. I haven’t seen even a handful of them who were chaste. I just told myself that what comes from flesh has to be flesh.

There was this church hospital at one of the convents when I spent my time there. The hospital was adjacent to the church. I came to know that a doctor at the hospital and a nun had an affair. Once when a patient was brought to the hospital in a critical condition, the doctor was found missing. We, the nuns, frantically searched Medieval Monk with Nun: Mediaeval convents in Europe were high class brothels.for him; but he was nowhere to be seen.

Knowing their closeness to each other, I somehow felt that he would be closeted with the nun somewhere. Finally, my search led to a room from which I heard hushed voices. I brought them out of the room and angrily told them that such behaviour wouldn’t work.

I didn’t know what they were doing in the room, but I am sure it wasn’t something good. I told him that a doctor is worthless if he cannot attend to a patient in an emergency.

Many others also advised the nun that she could get out of the robe and marry so that the congregation’s name is not sullied. The mother, an Italian named Luccia, was informed too. I told her in Italian that those two had been carrying on for a while and they should be thrown out.

The issue simmered for some time and both the doctor and the nun went back to their old ways. Subsequently, the doctor even threatened to kill me. But, almost everyone seemed to side with them and I felt isolated. I just had to ignore what was happening.

They got married later and the nun left the congregation.

I was really disgusted with the way the convent worked and was really reluctant to continue there. It even affected my taking the communion and my confessions. I felt disgusted the way some uncommitted priests conducted the church rituals. They were plain perfunctory.

There was a practice of assigning daily duty for everyone in the convent. To avoid work that they didn’t like, such as farming, some nuns stayed in their rooms. They mostly seemed to feel that they had lost something in life.

40 years of my life as a nun went through such contradictions.

Right from my childhood, I handled the difficulties I faced without letting my family and others know. Therefore, this sense of aloofness was growing in me. In fact, I realise only now that on such situations Mother Mary was giving me the mental strength.

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Those who didn’t oblige the priests were always in trouble. They get pained in some way or the other. Some think that the oath of discipline that you take while accepting the nun’s robe is to be subservient to such men.

Such an incident happened to me as well. As somebody who had thought of Jesus Christ as the only savior since the age of six, this experience pained me immensely.

This incident, in which a priest tried to molest me and I hit him with a wooden stool in self-defence, became a big issue at the congregation. Although I was the one outraged, in their eyes, I was the culprit. The unwritten rule was: whatever the priests did, nobody could question them.

I was only twenty then.

The incident happened at the Chevayaoor convent. There was this practice of serving breakfast to the priests after the morning communion. Sometimes, it was sent to the church. The nuns needed to take turns to cook for them and serve them.

I used to get nervous whenever my turn came because I wasn’t good with cooking and would certainly be criticised for that. Nobody used to help me or advise me. Instead, they seemed to get some vicarious pleasure by pointing out the mistakes. I used to find it very painful.

Okay, let’s get into the incident. Once, I was assigned to cook and serve a priest who finished the communion (I don’t want to name him though). I went to the dining hall with egg curry and ‘appam’. He came in, washed Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias lives in a Church-owned building in Rome which also houses Europe's largest gay club.his hands and bolted the door before taking his seat.

He asked me to serve; but sensing some mischief, I stayed away. When he persisted, I started shivering with fear. At that moment, I deeply hated the rule that one should obey whatever the priests orders.

The priest got up, came to me and grabbed my hands.

Don’t you know all this, Sister Mary?, he asked.

When I cried, he tried to pull me close to his chest. I relieved myself and ran, but he chased me around the table. I really got wild as I used to do when I was a child on such situations. I got hold of a wooden stool in front of me and hit him hard.

It fell on his head and he started bleeding profusely. I got both sad and scared although I did it in self-defence – he was a priest. I screamed in fear and rushed out of the room and told everyone what happened. But most of them appeared indifferent and started scolding me.

“What did you do, are you out to shame the congregation?”

When they went into the room , the priest was on his chair, speechless and drenched in blood. He was taken to the Kozhikode medical college hospital where it was reported that he fell in the bathroom.

JesusI was the target of tremendous ire after that incident. When everybody walked away from me as if I was a proclaimed offender I prayed hard. But when I realised that it was the way things worked, I really got scared that I was trapped in serious danger. Since then, I was marked; a thorn in the flesh for the congregation.

Opposing wrongdoing was my character and that was the reason for all the conflicts that I faced in life as a nun. I wasn’t ready to blindly accept the priests and the church without looking at their deeds.

Sensing the situation I was in, Father Peter called for me one day. I told him every thing. I cried a lot in front of him. He consoled me and advised me to handle the Church and people with restraint.

But, the other nuns by then had branded me as a rogue. Nobody pointed out what was the ground for my disobedience. Since then, I was a nuisance for them. Sister Betty was the only consolation.

Since I was termed disobedient right from my stay at the novitiate, my nunhood had to wait for six months. The priests believe that they had the complete control of the nuns. They believe that they are the ultimate owners of the Church, its properties and the believers.

When people get sexually exploited, their belief gets affected; that is what is happening now. Some people commit suicide when they are unable to cope with this reality.

The priest who was hit by me is a good friend now and calls me often to enquire about my well-being. He also tells me that my response has reformed him. – Firstpost, 5 April 2012

» Nanma Niranjavare Swasthi, Malayalam, 106 pages, Rs. 85, Kairali Books, Kannur, Kerala 

Priests and nuns being married during the French Revolution.