Freeing temples from state control – Subramanian Swamy

Srirangam Temple Gopuram

Subramanian SwamyWhat is scandalous is the corruption after the takeover of temples as politicians and officials loot the temple’s wealth and land, and divert donations of devotees to non-religious purposes. – Dr Subramanian Swamy

The Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment on January 6, 2013, allowing my Special Leave Petition that sought the quashing of the Tamil Nadu Government’s G.O. of 2006 which had mandated the government takeover of the hallowed Sri Sabhanayagar Temple (popularly known as the Nataraja Temple).

The Madras High Court Single Judge and Division Bench had in 2009 upheld the constitutionality of the G.O. by a tortuous and convoluted logic that new laws can overturn past court judgments that had attained finality earlier. The Supreme Court in 1953 had dismissed the then Madras Government’s SLP seeking the quashing of a Madras High Court Division Bench judgment of 1952 that had upheld the right of Podu Dikshitars to administer the affairs of the Nataraja Temple while dismissing all charges of misappropriation of temple funds against the Dikshitars. The Supreme Court thus made this judgment final and hence that which cannot be re-opened. But in 2009 the Madras High Court did precisely that. In 2014, in my SLP, the Supreme Court Bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and S.A. Bobde therefore termed this re-opening of the matter as “judicial indiscipline” and set aside the 2009 Madras High Court judgment as null and void on the principle of res judicata.

In their lengthy judgment, the Bench has clearly set the constitutional parameters on the scope of governmental intervention in the management of religious institutions. In particular, the Court has opined that any G.O. that legally mandates a takeover of a temple must be for a fixed limited period, which I had suggested as three years.

The Dravidian movement intellectuals and politicians in various parties in Tamil Nadu are incensed with the judgment. The recent article “Reforms in the House of God” (A. Srivathsan in The Hindu January 13, 2013) is one such example that laments the Supreme Court judgment.

In this Dravidian movement background, it is not difficult to understand the views of those who believe that Hindu temples ought to be managed by the government, and that any deviation is a social, ethical, moral and legal sacrilege! In Mr. Srivathsan’s article it is stated that: “For almost a century, the Tamil Nadu government has been trying to bring the Chidambaram Natarajar Temple or the Sabanayagar Temple as it is officially known, under state administration”. This is one expression of the outlook that only Hindu religious affairs need to be managed by the government. The obvious question, why should a “secular, socialist” government control only Hindu places of worship, but not Muslim and Christian religious institutions clearly has been avoided.

But the country has moved on after the phase of British imperialist grip on Tamil Nadu during which phase the Dravidian Movement was founded. Prominent leaders of this Movement had declared that “blowing up of the Nataraja Temple by a cannon is the goal of the Dravidian Movement”. Unfortunately for them, in the last two decades, the rising popularity of the Hindu religion among the youth, and the debilitating corruption in financial affairs of the Dravidian movement have made such a violent aim unattainable. But the biggest roadblock is the Constitution of India.

In fact, what is scandalous is the corruption after takeover of temples by the Tamil Nadu officials, MLAs and Ministers by looting the temple wealth, lands, and jewels, and the reckless diversion of donations of devotees to non-religious purposes.

For example, temple properties: Tamil Nadu temples, under Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Department, has control over more than 4.7 lakh acres of agricultural land, 2.6 crore square feet of buildings and 29 crore square feet of urban sites of temples. By any reasonable measure, the income from these properties should be in thousand of crores of rupees. The government, however, collects a mere Rs. 36 crore in rent against a “demand” of mere Rs. 304 crore—around 12 per cent realisation. How much is under the table only a court-monitored inquiry can reveal. In any corporate or well-managed organisation with accountability, those responsible would have been sacked. Yet, we have people rooting for “government administration”.

Temples themselves: The Srirangam Ranganathar Temple paid the government a (yearly) fee of Rs. 18.56 crore (2010-11) for “administering the temple”; for employees rendering religious services, like reciting Vedas, pasurams during the deity procession, no salary is paid. There are 36 priests in Srirangam who perform the daily pujas—they are not paid a monthly fixed salary. They are entitled to offerings made by devotees and a share in the sale of archana tickets. Yet the temple pays a monthly salary ranging from Rs.8,000 to Rs.20,000 for the temple’s government-appointed employees, like watchman, car drivers etc. who perform no religious duties.

The situation is “significantly” better at the famous Nelliappar Temple in Tirunelveli. In this temple, priests performing daily pujas are paid monthly salaries, but ranging from Rs. 55 to Rs. 72 (and this is during 2010-11). But did some politician not say you can have a hearty meal for Rs. 5 per day? But it is just Rs. 1.65 per day, going by the standards of the “secular” government.

Many large temples maintain a fleet of luxury vehicles, typically the “fully loaded Toyota Innova”, for the use of VIPs! And for the use of assorted Joint and Additional Commissioners and, of course, the Commissioner himself. It is very difficult to understand the religious purpose such extravagance serves or even a ‘secular’ purpose! The HR & CE Dept takes away annually around Rs. 89 crore from the temples as administrative fee. The expenditure of the department including salaries is only Rs. 49 crore. Why does the government overcharge the temples—literally scourging the deities—for a sub standard service?

Temple antiquity: The third “contribution” of the government is the mindless destruction of priceless architectural heritage of our temples.

There are several instances of sand blasting of temple walls resulting in loss of historical inscriptions; wholesale demolition of temple structures and their replacement by concrete monstrosities; in a temple in Nasiyanur near Salem, an entire temple mandapam disappeared, leaving behind a deep hole in the ground, literally.

Recently the government started covering the floor of Tiruvotriyur Thyagaraja Temple with marble, a stone never used in south Indian temples. The original floor was of ancient granite slabs with historical inscriptions. There are several initiatives for “renovation” of temples—the bureaucrats rarely consult archaeologists or heritage experts. Without knowledge, experience, competence or appreciation and with great insensitivity they use inappropriate chemicals on ancient murals, insert concrete/cement structures, use ceramic tiles to “embellish” sanctum sanctorum and construct “offices” within temple premises. Ancient monuments 300 to 1000 plus years old are never “renovated”, only “restored”, a distinction that escapes the babus.

More importantly, the Supreme Court, in the 2014 Chidambaram case has held that the government cannot arbitrarily take over temples, which is what has been happening in Tamil Nadu under the Dravidian movement’s influence.

In the case of Trusts and Societies, takeover of temples can happen, the Supreme Court held, only on establishing a clear case of mal-administration and that too the takeover can be for a limited period, and the management of the temple will have to be handed back immediately after the “evil has been remedied”.

There are several large temples in Tamil Nadu under government control for several decades. If the Supreme Court judgment is applied, then the government is in illegal, unethical and unfair control of these temples. apart from being answerable for innumerable acts of dereliction of duty, defiling of temples that has resulted in loss of several thousands of crores of rupees to the temples and to their antiquity. That is my next move—to liberate all Hindu temples presently in government control on expired GOs. In the future we need to bring some mosques and churches to rectify the mismanagement going on in these places. Then the secularism of India’s intellectuals will be truly tested. – The Hindu, 12 September 2016

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple

SC should not draw false equivalence between Haji Ali and Sabarimala issues – R. Jagannathan

Swedish women pilgrims to Sabarimala

R. JagannathanIn the case of Sabarimala, there is no real issue of gender justice involved, for the ban does not affect all women, only those who are menstruating. While this is still a form of discrimination, it can be justified by references to traditions involving the celibate deity. Lord Ayyappa is not just any deity, and the restrictions placed on women in the 10-50 age group are not applicable in any other temple in Kerala. The intention is not discrimination, When a temple is created with a specific aim, to bring gender justice into the argument is needless meddling in tradition. – R. Jagannathan 

Swami AyyappanThat the Sabarimala temple case has become a political football-cum-ego-battle is increasingly apparent. None of the parties involved—the state government, the Travancore Devaswom Board, or the three-judge Supreme Court bench hearing the case—has been consistent or even coherent on the issue.

The bench, headed by Justice Dipak Misra, and comprising Justices R. Banumathi and Ashok Bhushan, was told yesterday (7 November) that the Kerala government had yet again changed its stand, the fourth change in nine years on the issue. This time it is favouring the entry of women aged 10-50, currently barred. This was the original stand of the government in 2007, when the Left was in power; the UDF government that intervened, went with the Devaswom Board’s stand, that “the restriction on women between the age of 10 and 50 has been prevailing in Sabarimala from time immemorial. This is in keeping with the unique pratishta sankalp or idol concept of the temple.”

The LDF has changed its stance probably because it knows that the larger issue of triple talaq and uniform civil code (UCC) will come up for a judicial decision some time next year. It is hoping to look even-handed by throwing the Sabarimala issue into the pot. The unstated reality is this: if the bench upholds the Devaswom board’s arguments and allows it to restrict the entry of women, the Left and “secular” forces can then use this precedent to argue against banning triple talaq or introducing UCC.

But this is false equivalence. The temple does not allow menstruating women to enter the sanctum sanctorum due to the tradition of seeing Lord Ayyappa as an eternal celibate. The entry ban in the 10-50 year age group is related to the assumption that this is the normal span during which women menstruate.

The Devaswom Board, instead of merely explaining the tradition as unique and unrelated to gender injustice, did not cover itself with glory last year when its chief, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, made a silly remark. He said the day a machine to detect menstruation is invented, the board would give up its 10-50 ban. He did his case no favours by making such crude statement. This is not only unscientific, but also rubbish. Menstruation is related to a woman’s child-bearing capacity, while celibacy is about abstinence from marriage or sexual relationships altogether. The two are not one and the same thing.

And then we had the court itself mixing up issues. According to The Economic Times, the bench sees the Haji Ali Dargah case and Sabarimala in the same way. The Dargah allowed women to enter the sanctum sanctorum a few weeks ago, and this precedent could be used to deal with Sabarimala too.

The Supreme Court bench had this observation to make about Sabarimala on Monday: “A temple is a public religious place. You cannot refuse entry to a woman who comes there…. It violates the rights of women.”

Supreme Court of IndiaThis is debatable. First there is false equivalence between the Haji Ali Dargah’s restrictions on women entering the sanctum sanctorum and Sabarimala. The restrictions on menstruating women are age-old; in the case of Haji Ali, says this report, the ban was a recent imposition dating to 2012. Two reasons have been adduced for this: one was a belated recognition that Islamic tradition does not allow women to visit graveyards or mazhars; another reason was said to be occasional inappropriate dressing by women.

In the case of Sabarimala, there is no real issue of gender justice involved, for the ban does not affect all women, only those who are menstruating. While this is still a form of discrimination, it can be justified by references to traditions involving the celibate deity. Lord Ayyappa is not just any deity, and the restrictions placed on women in the 10-50 age group are not applicable in any other temple in Kerala. The intention is not discrimination, When a temple is created with a specific aim, to bring gender justice into the argument is needless meddling in tradition.

Consider a parallel situation: if a club is created for promoting the interests of and/or bonding of women, it is not an issue of gender justice for men to demand an entry. The same applies to an association created for a specific purpose—say vegetarianism—which can bar non-vegetarians from being its members.

The court’s assumption that all temples are public places is fine in theory, but when public places are created for specific purposes, they become public-private places, ruled by the traditions that dictated its creation in the first place. As long as a discriminatory law is not added as an after-thought, as was the case with Haji Ali, the constitutional principle of allowing cultural and religious groups to maintain their own traditions and practices is sacrosanct.

It is high pretence to assume that gender justice is merely about allowing women entry rights to Sabarimala or Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra. In our patriarchy, gender injustice is so deeply ingrained in public attitudes and religious practices, that true equality is a distant reality.

The discrimination against women runs deep in all religious denominations, whether Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim. For example, no religion favours women priests. This is clear and simple prejudice and discrimination. How many women bishops do we have in the Roman Catholic Church? Why are there absolutely no women among the ulema? In Hinduism, there are at last attempts to end this discrimination, with some groups in Pune commissioning women priests to officiate at ceremonies.

Sabarimala is a distraction, where women may be sold a pup. Let’s say the Supreme Court allows women in the 10-50 age group to enter Lord Ayyappa’s abode. It will be hailed as a huge gain for women’s empowerment, when it is nothing of the kind. It will be used as a sop to deny women the more material equality that they truly desire in all spheres of activity.

As for the Supreme Court taking a position on gender justice using Sabarimala as scapegoat, it must ask itself a simple question: how has it implemented gender justice in its own backyard?

Not very well, one must state. Of the 26 sitting judges in the court, there is only one woman judge, Justice R. Banumathi (who is part of this bench). And this is not something you can blame anybody else for but the collegium itself. Higher court judges are selected and decided by the collegium, and if there are not enough women judges, they themselves are at fault.

It is possible to claim that women don’t find the judiciary an enticing career opportunity, but how is it possible to ensure diversity of opinion when there is only one woman judge? –  Swarajya, 8 November 2016

Pilgrims at Sabarimala

Negligence killing Kerala’s elephants – Mini Muringatheri


The HinduImpaired vision and signs of mental illness are also manifest in several elephants. Starvation-induced exhaustion, ear-splitting crackers and unruly crowds often push these normally gentle animals to aggression at times. Mahouts are known to use brutal methods to contain elephants during musth. Ten people lost lives in elephant attacks so far this year and nine of them were mahouts. – Mini Muringatheri

On World Animal Day (October 4), Venattumattam Ganeshan, a 32 year-old elephant, died at Kottayam, the 18th captive elephant to have died in Kerala this year.

Take Ramankutty, for instance. Eleven-times winner in the anayottam (elephant race) at Guruvayur, he was one of the most sought-after elephants for festivals in Kerala; majestic, remarkably obedient, Ramankutty was hugely popular.

On September 15 Ramankutty (76) was found dead, legs swollen, pus oozing out of his trunk and mouth, at Punnathur Kotta (Guruvayur Devaswom’s elephant camp). The news came as a shock partly because he was the 17th captive elephant to have died this year. During his last days, he was also reported to be in musth (mating season). Animal activists, alleging torture, claim he had not been able lie down and sleep because his legs had been chained to trees. The Thrissur-based Heritage Animal Task Force has alleged that Ganeshan died from severe tuberculosis and neglect.

Elephants are much sought after for festivals, and yet negligence, lack of proper shelter, denial of nutritious food cause death, allege animal activists. The elephants are owned by temples, trusts or individuals. The trouble arises when contractors take over the elephants on lease during festival seasons. Each elephant fetches Rs. 50,000 to Rs. one lakh, sometimes even more, for every festival. They are made to work despite illness or grave injuries.

Elephant with leg spikesFestering wounds

“The animals, used to feasting on more than 70 types of leaves and many types of barks of trees in the forests, are given mostly only palm leaves at their shelters. They need at least 250 litres of water and need a three-hour bath in running water for normal blood circulation. They also walk 20 to 25 km in the wild. Chained for long hours they are prone to diseases and injuries. The festering wounds in their massive limbs say a pathetic story,” explains V. K. Venkitachalam, secretary of the Thrissur-based Heritage Animal Task Force

Alarmingly, in the estimation of the task force out of over 601 captive elephants, more than 450 show symptoms of tuberculosis. Many jumbos suffer from foot rot too from being in chains for hours together among their own filth of faeces and urine.

“Most jumbos develop grave wounds after continuous parading and captivity. Mahouts also deliberately inflict wounds on their legs, usually called chatta vranam, to enable them to manage the animals during parade. They poke such wounds with ankush (a banned weapon with metal hook at its end) to control them. The wounds become septic at the unhygienic surroundings. The chains hinder smooth movement during processions and lead to deep wounds on the legs,” points out Mr. Venkitachalam.

Devidhathan, another elephant, who was brought from Andaman in 2002, had been paraded in many festivals in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The 63-year-old animal was rheumatic and had foot rot when he breathed his last at Manissery near Palakkad on September 11. Both his hind limbs were paralysed, his body full of sores.

Indrajit too came from Andaman and Nicobar islands when he was only two. His owner found it difficult to keep Indrajit (a makhna elephant, a male elephant without tusks) as he started turning unruly as grew up. Indrajit didn’t take kindly to fetters and attacked mahouts whenever they tried to chain him, eight of them over the years. Finally his owner handed him over it to the forest department two years ago when he turned 19. For two years, Indrajit was kept in chains at the Konni elephant camp. Finally when the chains got embedded in his flesh, he was given a tranquiliser shot to remove the chains from his legs. He died two days later, only 21.

Elephants have almost the same life span as human beings, according to veterinarians. There are elephants which live after 90. Dhakshayani, an elephant with Travancore Devaswom Board, was conferred with Gaja Muthassi (Elephant Grandma) title recently when she turned 92.

State Animal Welfare Board member M. N. Jayachandran notes that over-work, stress, malnutrition and various diseases have taken a heavy toll on the animals. Impaction (erandakkettu), a digestive problem, has been another cause of death. Forced to travel in lorries for long hours and deprived of sleep during journeys have affected bowel movement leading to severe constipation. “Apart from TB, foot rot and impaction, herpes is also a health concern,” Mr. Jayachandran points out. “Like human beings, elephants are also social animals, very attached to their herd. Stress due to isolation from their herd adversely affects their life span.

Lack of proper health monitoring and care is one of the main reasons for the high death rate. Health certificates have been issued without proper check-ups. “For example, though there is a record in Kerala High Court that Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran is partially blind, the elephant has been paraded for festivals regularly, ” Jayachandran adds.

Impaired vision and signs of mental illness are also manifest in several elephants. Starvation-induced exhaustion, ear-splitting crackers and unruly crowds often push these normally gentle animals to aggression at times. Mahouts are known to use brutal methods to contain elephants during musth. Ten people lost lives in elephant attacks so far this year and nine of them were mahouts.

Veterinary experts allege gross violation of Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) 2012 Rules, by elephant owners, mahouts, contractors and festival organisers. Strict adherence to the existing elephant management norms will address 80 per cent of the problems, they stress.

Veterinary doctors refute allegations of animal activists about the large number of TB cases among captive elephants. They claimed that hardly 10-15 per cent show symptoms. They claim that many of these elephants died due to old age.

However, elephant activists contradict the claim of the veterinary experts that most of the elephants died old. “The age of elephants which died this year ranges from 2 to 76. – The Hindu, 10 October 2016

Elephant head-lifting competition in Kerala

Elephant race in Guruvayur

The HinduEarlier Report: Season of death for Kerala’s captive elephants – Mini Muringatheri

Some of Kerala’s captive elephants are not left to lick their wounds after the torture they underwent during the now-concluded temple festival season in the State. Eleven of them died in the past six months, nine of them subjected to brutal torture, activists say.

During the lean season now, poor food and sheer neglect have pushed the elephants into misery, they add.

The Director of Project Elephant forwarded a complaint by the Thrissur-based Heritage Animal Task Force and animal-welfare activists to the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State on June 12, a day after the last of the deaths. Project Elephant, which functions under the Union Environment and Forests Ministry, has sought a report, which is yet to materialise. The activists say that after the festival season, the animals are left to fend for themselves.

Mahout with a homemade ankushNo valid ownership certificates

“None of the dead elephants had valid ownership certificates. All of them were forced to stand in the open without proper shelter at the time of their death. Severe torture, unscientific diagnosis and treatment for their ailments and a lack of care and food had led to the death of these elephants,” says V. K. Venkitachalam, secretary, Heritage Animal Task Force.

Citing the death of an elephant near here on June 10, Mr. Venkitachalam alleges that the animal was paraded during festivals with wounds all over the body.

“Many of these elephants are kept at unauthorised elephant-care centres, managed by purported veterinarians who do not have any degree issued by an authentic institution. Many of these centres do not sport even a name board, or show details of certificates issued by the State government or the Union Ministry,” the task force says.

The activists allege that mahouts injure the elephants often. Many of the mahouts still wield the banned ankus, a goad, they say.

Parading blind and injured elephants for festivals, in violation of Forest Department guidelines, is common in the State. – The Hindu, 15 June 2016

Elephant "training" techniques

Elephants are always chained except when performing

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

Sangita Iyer and Digby Cook are the director and writer for the film 'Gods In Shakles

B.R. HaranThe documentary Gods in Shackles is full of negativity and the makers have not attempted to show anything positive about temple traditions. It appears as though the film was made with an intention to end the use of elephants in temples. – B. R. Haran

Traditionalists, devaswoms and a section of devotees are of the opinion that elephants are a part of temple tradition and that some foreign forces which are inimical to Hindu traditions are campaigning for the removal of elephants from temples in the name of animal rights. As they have pointed towards the widely spread article by Liz Jones (seen in the last instalment) and the rebuttals given by Prem Panicker, Kalyan Varma and Sridhar Vijaykrishnan.

Unidentified Elephant Subsequent to Jones’s article, a documentary titled Gods in Shackles was released by one Sangita Iyer from Canada. Though the professionally well made documentary spoke in detail about the cruelty and abuse heaped on captive elephants in Kerala temples, the tone and tenor of the film sounded as if it was against temples and their traditions.

Sangita Iyer, a native of Kerala, lives in Toronto as a Canadian citizen. She has a MA degree in Environmental Science and a PGD in Journalism, and has been working as a media person in the field of environmental science since 1999. She has worked for American Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System and Discovery Channel. At present she is a columnist for Huffington Post and an independent photo journalist and a documentary maker.

Sangita Iyer came to India for her father’s death anniversary. During the trip a friend took her to some temples, where she saw the sufferings of elephants, which resulted in the documentary “Gods in Shackles”. Recently she gave an interview to Christina Russo for National Geographic, published on 25 May 2016. Some excerpts:

• When I returned to Toronto, my friend said he’d send me materials about the temple elephants. At first I was excited. I thought the information was going to be amazing, but it was shocking—I was shattered like a broken glass.

• So I saved up every penny I could … and returned to Kerala in December 2013. My friend took me to temple after temple after temple. I was horrified. Every elephant I saw—these majestic male tuskers—were completely enslaved. They’d surrendered to these puny human beings.

• During festivities the elephants are forced to walk around the temple three times and then brought before the altar, or in front of the temple. Then they’re forced to bow down…. When they bow down, a heavy plaque is put on them. Altogether, the elephants carry about 500 pounds on their delicate spine. (in a fund-raising initiative at INDIEGOGO, Iyer says, “There are over 3000 festivities in Kerala between December and May, most of them displaying ornate elephants. They are forced to carry more than 1000 kg of weight on their back, including the deity, ornaments, massive chains, and 3-4 men…)

• Between December and May there are hundreds of festivities based on the Hindu astrological calendar, culminating in the Thrissur Pooram. The elephants are trucked in absolutely precarious conditions and within a day transported to two or three festivities. The more the elephants participate, the more the owners are paid. For example, at 8 a.m. an elephant will be at one temple, then at 11 he’ll be at another, then at 3 p.m. he’ll be trucked to another. In the process the elephants are deprived of basic necessities of life.

• It’s a 36-hour nonstop festivity that starts at 10 a.m. The chikkottukavu Ramachandran is the star who inaugurates the ceremony. He’s actually killed more than 20 people and three other elephants, but he’s still used. (In one of her earlier articles in Huffington Post, 8 November 2015 she had written, “But Ramachandran also has a dark side. He has killed a total of ten people since 1988, and has been banned from festival processions.” (Reference)

Unidentified Elephant • During Thrissur Pooram, about 95 bull elephants are trucked in from various parts of Kerala and convene in the heart of Thrissur town. They’re then paraded in the streets for 36 hours nonstop under the scorching sun, on hot tar roads, and only intermittently given food and water. At night they’re still paraded. The whole time, three or four men are mounted on their backs, and the elephants are heavily shackled on their legs. Meanwhile, people are standing near them in close proximity—it’s chaotic, absolutely insane. It’s a sea of people that you can see for miles on end. Then at night they shoot off fireworks. I’ll never forget watching an old blind bull who was shackled beneath a makeshift temple, and only 300 yards away they were blowing off these high-decibel fireworks. The noise was so loud it shattered the roof of the temple. (In the fund raising initiative, she says, “This video still shot portrays the world famous festival “Trissur Pooram,” as millions of people, mostly drunk, are dancing and singing in such close proximity to the elephants.”) (Reference)

• Hindus, Christians, and Muslims—all use elephants. But it originated in Hindu temples; other religions followed suit because they didn’t want to be left behind. But nothing in Hindu scriptures says that elephants are needed in these festivities. (She preferred not to show any Christian or Muslim festivals in her film, and emphasises that elephants are tortured in Hindu temples in the name of culture and tradition.)

• The elephants are owned by private citizens as well as temples. The way the temples come to own them is when a group of devotees or one devotee makes an offering (donation) to the temple. But these elephants frequently come illegally from the wild. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 states that elephants are Schedule 1 animals and should be provided absolute protection. The elephants in Kerala are often transported illegally from places like Assam or Bihar—the law clearly says that no wild elephants can be transported between states. Neither the Central nor State Governments are doing anything at all about it because there are so many layers of bureaucracy and corruption. So you have the individual elephant owners, temples that own elephants, temples that don’t own elephants, and then a broker in between who will liaise and coordinate what elephants will go to which festivals so they can generate as much revenue as possible.

• When the elephants run amok, they’re captured and tortured. They’ll be inflicted with the worst form of barbaric torture, using the worst form of prohibited weapons to discipline them. We have lots of undercover footage in the film that exposes this brutality.

•  The musth period goes on for three to four months in bull elephants. [Musth is when bulls experience a surge of hormones and become very aggressive.] In the wild they wander for miles on end, and that’s how they burn their energy. In captivity they’re shackled even more severely—both rear legs and at least one front leg. Their owners also starve them to intentionally deplete their energies. When the elephants come out of musth, the mahouts believe the elephants have forgotten their commands. So seven or eight men usually beat the living daylights out of the animal for 48 to 72 hours. They use weapons like the bull hook and long poles that have pointed metal spikes on the ends. The wounds previously mentioned when the writer first saw elephants at the temples in 2013 are from the katti adikkai. They’re beaten continuously to shatter the animals’ spirits—and every year, every single captive bull elephant in Kerala endures this.

•  Owning elephants has been illegal, and regulations go as far back as 1879 with the Elephants Preservation Act. In the past few decades, illegal activities have intensified because Asian elephants have become an endangered species. With depleting supplies, demand has increased dramatically, despite the fact that these iconic animals are India’s heritage animal. These intelligent, sensitive animals are captured, trained, and exploited for profit. Just in March 2016 the Kerala State Government discovered more than 289 elephants without ownership certificates, but granted the owners amnesty. This has been rejected by the Supreme Court of India [article deleted].

• Many prominent Hindu priests are speaking out against the brutality inflicted upon temple elephants. Many temples in Kerala are realizing the devastation for both humans and elephants and have begun to use chariots instead.

• We filmed Lakshmi to feature a day in the life of a temple elephant. Every day, she’s woken at her owner’s home at 4 a.m. Her mahout brushes her and bathes her in a tank with contaminated, stagnant water. Then she’s given just a scoop of leftover rice. She’s then taken to the temple in shackles—her only exercise. She performs her rituals at 7:30 a.m., then again at 9:30 and does her circuit rounds with pilgrims following her. She’s then taken home and shackled between 12 and 4 p.m. She’s taken back to the temple for her evening rituals at 6:30 and 7:30. Then she’s shackled again at her owner’s home.

• First of all she’s (Lakshmi) a female. Watching her shackled and tortured … in front of my eyes, I was reminded of my own cultural confinements and so many restrictions. Women are subjugated—they don’t have the same kinds of rights in India. I was born and raised in Kerala in a Brahmin family with strict parents and had no freedom. I came to believe I was inadequate and as a woman could not be successful, and my role is to be subservient. It was only when I moved to my adopted home of Canada that I tasted freedom.

• The paradoxes are stark. On the one hand you have a nation that worships elephants as the embodiment of Lord Ganesh, and on the other hand they’re torturing and exploiting them for profit under the veil of religion. They justify their exploitation by twisting the meaning of the holy Hindu scriptures. The vast majority of people in India are unaware of the deception. We’ve received the green light from the Central Board of Film Certification in India [to show the film], and the Indian audience will one day be watching Gods in Shackles, and will decide for themselves the truth. What they decide is to be seen.

While the film was under production in 2015, Sangita Iyer wrote an article on the website to raise funds. The article also carries a trailer of the documentary.

Screening and Awards

Sangita Iyer had screened her documentary in many places and it won several awards

• Hollywood International Independent Documentary Film Festival Award (2015).

• The IMPACT Docs – Award of Merit (2016)

• Golden Award at the World Documentary Awards. (2016)

• The Los Angeles Cine Fest Award. (December 2015)

• Nominated for the prestigious International Elephant Film Festival (UN, CITES, Jackson Hole Film Festival) – 2015.

This documentary was certified by the Central Board of Film Certification in February 2016. The film was exclusively screened for Members of the Kerala Legislative Assembly on 29 June and subsequently screened for the public in Trivandrum, Thrissur and Calicut in July 2016, as also in Delhi. Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, an animal activist, attended the screening and reportedly gave an assurance that she would arrange for its screening in Parliament and for telecast by Doordarshan.

Gods In ShacklesChennai screening

Gods in Shackles was shown in Chennai on 21 July 2016 at C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer Foundation. Those who attended included poet and animal rights activist Sugatha Kumari; temple priest Akeeramon Kalidasan Bhattathirippad; Heritage Animal Task Force Secretary K. V. Venkitachalam; elephant veterinarian Dr. Jacob V. Cheeran; Professor Dr. Raman Sukumar of Indian Institute of ScienceDr. Chinny Krishna, Vice Chairman, Animal Welfare Board of India; Vinod Kumar, Assistant Secretary, AWBI; government veterinarian Dr. P. B. Giridas; elephant owner Dr. Sundar Menon; festival organizer C. A. Menon; mahouts Venugopal and Muthu; veterinarian Dr. Sanath Krishna who treated elephant Sundar of Jothibai Temple, Kholapur; R. S. Suresh of Karnataka Zoo Authority; Dr. Chaitanya Koduri, Science Policy Advisor for PETA and Suparna Ganguly, co-founder of WRRC, and this writer. Their views can be seen at the God In Shakles trailer.

The film focused on the cruelty and abuse of elephants at Guruvayur Temple, Punnathur Kotta where Guruvayur elephants are sheltered and Thrissur Pooram festival.  It showed the story of Sundar, elephant of Jyothibai temple, Kholapur, Maharashtra. Sanskrit slokas on Bhagwan Ganesha like Vakrathunda Mahaakaaya resound in the background and the Guruvayur Temple surrounding was termed a “resort”.

While the makers of the film refrained from showing anything positive about temple culture and tradition, they repeatedly reiterated that temple elephants are tortured in the name of culture and tradition. The film projects Punnathur Kotta as a place of cruelty where Guruvayur Devaswom elephants are tortured.

The film also covers the story of elephant Lakshmi and her painful ordeal at the hands of mahout Venugopal. It emphasises that Hindu scriptures do not say that elephants are an integral part of temple rituals. Although the film is about captive elephants in temples of Kerala, it shows the sad story of elephant Sundar of Jyothibai temple, Maharashtra, thereby trying to show that elephants are subjected to cruelty at temples across the country.

The documentary is full of negativity and the makers have not attempted to show anything positive about temple traditions. It appears as though the film was made with an intention to end the use of elephants in temples.

Question and Answer Session

After the screening, Sangita Iyer answered questions from viewers. She requested the animal rights activists in the auditorium to focus more on captive elephants in temples. Many viewers said the film was an eye opener for them. When a young female activist asked for her advice for youngsters like her, Sangita promptly said, “Stop going to temples”. When another person objected to this, Iyer pretended she didn’t mean what she said. She replied, “I am also a devout Hindu. Please do not misunderstand me. What I meant was that we should boycott only those temples which have elephants. Only then the temple managements will focus on welfare of their elephants and treat them properly”.

B. R. HaranThis writer took the mike and said, “The owners, mahouts and temple management must be blamed for cruelty and ill-treatment of elephants. Hindu culture and temple traditions must not be cited as reasons for the crime committed by those people. You have not brought out this fact clearly in the film. You are simply blaming Hindu culture and temple traditions for the crime committed by owners, mahouts and managements. The film which presents cruelty along with Sanskrit slokas might create hatred against temple traditions in the minds of viewers. I feel it was deliberately planned in such a way! I feel the name of the documentary also implies the same objective. If removing the elephants completely from temples is your main objective, then we will not allow that to happen. There are indeed solutions to take care of elephants’ welfare as well as to continue the centuries old traditions.”

At this, Sangita and others vociferously objected saying that elephants belong to the forest and there is no question of keeping them in temples. They also felt that there cannot be any equitable solution. With that, the question and answer session was brought to an end.

Two persons, Hari Rama Varma and Ganesh Narayanan from Kerala, came up to me and said, “We agree with your point of view. We cannot afford to put an end to our age-old traditions. We agree that there are problems in Kerala, but we can rectify it. Sangita Iyer has not done a fair research on Kerala’s culture. We will definitely oppose the agenda of removing elephants from temples”.

The documentary is very professionally made and poignantly presented. However, this writer feels that there is more to Liz Jones’s article and Sangita Iyer’s documentary than what meets the eye!

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

Chennai screening of Gods in Shackles

Gods In Shackles

VIDEO: Rebirth of the Bateshwar Temple Complex – K.K. Muhammed

Evangelist struck dumb when attempting to demolish traditional African shrine – Nigerian Tribune

Nigerian Community Shrine

Pentecostal Pastor & Traditional African Priest

If the traditionalists complain to the police about the destruction of their shrine, the Pentecostal pastor will be charged for sacrilege and malicious damage. Everybody has right to worship anything he so desires. – Ogun Police

A [Pentecostal] pastor, Wale Fagbere, was rendered unconscious and speechless after invading a community shrine at Ketu–Ayetoro in Yewa North Local Government Area of Ogun state, Nigeria.

His mission was to destroy the shrine.

Reports said he was trapped by forces suspected to be spirits. And he also became dumb. The Gods meted out instant justice.

Fagbare was said to have boasted before his members he would flatten the shrine where the community traditionalists congregate to worship.

But he was said to have struck motionless until people spotted him, according the News Agency on Nigeria (NAN), quoting from media reports.

NAN quoting from media reports said: Those who sighted him in his agony, unable to lift his feet, raised the alarm, which drew attention of priests in charge of the shrine.

It was learnt the priests demanded some rituals must be carried out before the trapped pastor could be set him free.

He was, however, said to have regained consciousness after treatment following intervention of the Alaye of Ayetoro, Oba Abdulaziz Adelakun.

Ogun Police Public Relations Officer, Abimbola Oyeyemi, confirmed the incident.

He hinted the cleric may be charged with “sacrilege and malicious damage.”

According to Oyeyemi: “The Command got the report at its Division in Ayetoro that one Evangelist Wale Fagbere went to Ketu to destroy traditional worshippers’ shrines.

“After the destruction, the man became unconscious, motionless and could not talk.

“When the policemen visited the place, the traditionalists claimed that the subject cannot be taken away until some spiritual exercise was performed.”

He added: “The Alaye of Ayetoro, Oba AbdulAzeez Adelakun, waded into the matter which led to the release of the man.

“The victim has been revived and handed over to his family.

“The police’s next step would be determined by the traditionalists.

“If they complain to the police about the destruction of their shrine, the victim would be charged for sacrilege and malicious damage.

“Everybody has right to worship anything he so desires.” – Nigerian Tribune, 26 September 2016

Ogun, Nigeria Police

Pastor Wale Fagbere will be charged – NAN

The Ogun Police Command says it will prosecute a Pentecostal pastor, Wale Fagbere, who allegedly invaded a traditional shrine in Ketu area of Ayetoro in Ogun.

The Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) in the state, Mr Abimbola Oyeyemi, told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Abeokuta on Monday that the cleric would be charged for malicious damage and conduct likely to cause a breach of public peace.

“What he did was wrong and so he must be charged to court. If it was the other way round too, they will also be charged to court.

“Everyone has a right to worship whatever deity one chooses without fear or favour,” he said.

Oyeyemi, however, said he could not tell in which court the accused would be arraigned as at press time.

NAN reports that Fagbere on Saturday attempted to pull down a traditional shrine in Ketu, Yewa North Local Government Area of the state.

But he was reported to have immediately gone numb upon entering the shrine, attracting a crowd to the scene.

He, however, regained consciousness after the traditional ruler of the town, Oba Abdulaziz Adelakun, intervened and directed that some traditional rites be carried out on him. – Naira Naija News, 26 September 2016

Destroyed African Shrine

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 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 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.


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

Guruvayur temple elephant feast