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!

When will Velankanni’s true history be known? – Dev

Our Lady of Good Health at Velankanni

Our Lady of Good Health at Velankanni, Tamil Nadu : The Portuguese-style idol is dressed in an Indian Tamil-style sari and kept in a glass box high above the church hall.

Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is a Christian pilgrimage site—that is what most of us have been led to believe. We may however be surprised to learn about its Śaiva origins.

‘Kaṇṇi’ in Tamil means ‘she who has beautiful eyes’. In the ‘agam’ poems of the Sangam corpus belonging to the ‘kuriñjithiṇai’, we find the name of an ancient lady poet bearing the name ‘Kāma-kaṇṇi’

In the history of the Śaiva tradition in Tamil Nadu, there is one thing that draws our attention—in the Śivālayas that were constructed after the lifetime of the Samaya-kuravas, the tradition of using unique Tamil names to refer to the Śiva and Śakti deities in Śaiva temples, which was established by the Dēvāram-trinity, is faithfully followed. When we read the Dēvāram poems, we come across several such names of Ambikā.

‘Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi’ is etymologically derived from the old name ‘Vēlana-kaṇṇi’a name by which Ambikā is known in the Dēvāram:

mālai mathiyoḍu nīraravampuṉai vārchaṭaiyāṉ
vēlanakaṇṇiyoḍum virumpummiḍam…

— Srī Jñāna Sambandhar

Being known for possessing eyes (kaṇ) shaped like fish (cēl), she is known as cēlaṉa-kaṇṇi;  similarly owing to her eyes appearing like a spear-head (vēl = spear) eyes, she is also known as vēlaṉa-kaṇṇi. Feminine epithets such as cēlaṉa-kaṇṇi and vēlaṉa-kaṇṇi are based on uvamai (similes).

About 10 kilometres south of the site of the Veḷāṅkaṇṇi basilica, we find another town named ‘Karuṅkaṇṇi’ (“she who is black-eyed”).

‘Karuntaṭaṅkaṇṇi’ is also one of the epithets of Ambā. Vēliṉērtaru-kaṇṇi is also one of the epithets by which she is praised in the Dēvāram.

Iru-malar-kaṇṇi is another beautiful epithet of Himavān’s daughter. The undying fame of Maduraiyaambati (Madurai) is due to the power of aṅgayaṟkaṇṇi (Meenakshi). At the temple of Tirukkaṟkuḍi, she is known as maiyār-kaṇṇi, or maimēvu-kaṇṇi (añjanākṣī).

At Kōḍiyakkarai in the kuzhagar-ālayam, Ambā is known as maiyār-taṭaṅ-kaṇṇi. Chēramān Perumāḷ Nāyanār and Sundaramūrti Swāmi have arrived and worshipped together at this sthalam. Aruṇagirināthar has also composed hymns on this shrine. This site is also pointed out in the late Śri Kalki R. Krishnamurthy’s famous novel ‘Ponniyiṉ Selvaṉ’. This is also a śiva-sthala located near the shore. Vāḷnutaṟkaṇṇi is another name—when Īśa was deep in tapas, and her oblique glance disturbed him, the result was the appearance of Muruga. One can come across her other similar names such as Kāvyaṅkaṇṇi, Nīḷneḍuṅkaṇṇi, Vēlneḍuṅkaṇṇi, Varineḍuṅkaṇṇi, Vāḷārkaṇṇi, etc.

Māṉeḍuṅkaṇṇi is another name—it means ‘she who has wide eyes like a deer’ (deer = maan in Tamil):

māṉeṭuṅkaṇṇi maṇikkatavu aṭaippa
iṟaiyavaṉ itaṟkuk kāraṇam ētu eṉa
maṟikaṭal tuyilum māyavaṉ uraippāṉ….”

Kāḻipiḷḷai describes the fish-like eyes of Ambikā thus:

“nīlanaṉ māmiṭaṟṟa ṉiṟaivaṉ ciṉattaṉ neṭumā vuritta nikaril
cēlaṉakaṇṇi vaṇṇa morukū ṟurukkoḷ tikazhtēvaṉ mēvupatitāṉ….”

Thus have the saints submerged in the ‘science of beauty’ described the mother’s beautiful and karuṇā-laden eyes using many epithets.

All these names are most certainly influenced by the Dēvāram. It was considered the duty of the king to inscribe at least one or two patikas (poems of the Tirumurai) on the paliṅku (marble) boards in every śivālayait was to demonstrate that the patika of the Devāram had an inseparable association with that town.

Even Māṇikkavāchakar has praised the beautiful eyes of Ambikā:

“māvaṭuvakiraṉṉakaṇṇi paṅkāniṉ malaraṭik kēkūviṭuvāy” 

— Thiruvāchakam

Seashore  Śivālayas

All along the eastern coast of Tamilnadu, the Śaiva tradition had prospered. Jñānasambandhar describes the māsi-magha festival thus:

“maṭalārnta teṅkiṉ mayilaiyār mācik
kaṭalāṭṭuk kaṇṭāṉ kapālīc caramamarntāṉ….”

In all the shore-temples, for the māsi-magha tīrthavāri, it is an ancient custom to take the deity’s utsava murtis (idols) to the seashore for a ritual immersion into the waters, and this tradition still prevails today.

Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is also one among  several seashore temples like Ādipurīśvara at Tiruvoṟṟiyūr, Kapālīśvara at Mylāpūr, Marundīśvara temple at Tiruvānmiyūr, Vēdapurīśvara temple in Pondicherry, Kāyārohaṇeśvara temple in Nāgapaṭṭanam, Kuzhagar temple in Kōḍiyakkarai, Vēdavananātha temple in Vēdāraṇyam, Darbhāraṇyeśvara temple in Kāraikkāl, Māsilāmaṇinātha temple in Puhār, which are situated along the southern coast.

In Mylāpūr we have Vālīśvara, Mallīśvara, Veḷḷīśvara, Kāraṇīśvara, Tīrthapālīśvara, Virūpākṣīśvara sthalas—apart from the Kapālīśvara temple. Across Chennai, most areas are filled with Śivālayas, which are too numerous to cover here.

Tiruvadikai Vīraṭṭānam (one of Śiva’saṣṭa-vīrasthānas where He is worshipped as Tripurāntaka)—is associated with the history of Tirunāvukkarasar and one of the sthalas that the samaya-kuravas have composed hymns on. Here the main deity is called Vīraṭṭānēsvara (Vīrasthānēśvara) and his consort is named Periyanāyaki (Bṛhannāyakī).

Tiruchōpuram (also called Tyāgavalli)—is a shore temple near Kaḍalūr on which Jñāna-sambandhar has composed hymns. The main deity is Chōpuranātha (also called Maṅgalapurīśvara), his consort is Vēlneḍuṅkaṇṇi.

Tiruchāykkāḍu (also called Chāyāvanam)—again this is a seashore temple located at the mouth of the Kāvēri river, built by Chola king Kōcheṅkaṇāṉ, worshipped by Iyaṟpagai Nāyanār and is also the site of his mukti.

Tirunāvukkarasar, Kāḻipiḷḷai and Aiyaḍikaḷ Kāḍavarkōṉ have composed hymns on this shrine. The main deity is Chāyāvanēśvara.

“Nitta lunniya mañceytu nīrmalar tūvic
citta moṉṟaval lārkkaru ḷuñcivaṉ kōyil

Matta yāṉaiyiṉ kōṭumvaṇ pīliyum vārit
tattunīrp poṉṉi cākara mēvucāyk kāṭē” 

— Jñānasambandhar

Tiruvalampuram is one more important seashore temple. The main deity is Valampuranāthar and his divine consort is called Vaḍuvakirkaṇṇi.

aṅkorutaṉtiruviralāliṟaiyēyūṉṟi
yaṭarttavaṟkēaruḷpurintaaṭikaḷinnāḷ
vaṅkamalikaṭalpuṭaicūḻmāṭavīti
valampuramēpukkaṅkēmaṉṉiṉārē!

The 9th century hymn itself makes it amply clear that it is a temple located near the sea shore.

Currently the temple comes under the area called Melapperumpallam.  Situated near Puhār (Poompuhar)

The Silappadhikāram says that there were temples of the Unborn One (Śiva) and the six-faced god (ṣaṇmukha kārttikeya) in Puhār:

“piṟavāyākkaipperiyōṉkōyilum,
aṟumukaccevvēḷaṇitikaḻkōyilum….”

In today’s Puhār, we find a temple for Śiva (known as Pallavaneśvara, with his consort known as Saundarya-nāyaki).

There is a small town called Paravai about 2 kms west of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. Sundaramūrti Swāmi’s wife Paravai Nācciyār was born there. In Tamil, ocean is called Paravai. Upamanyu Bhakti Vilāsam refers to this lady as Sāgarikā. Since the ocean has retreated, the temple here is not situated close to the shore now like it once used to be.

Nāgūr has a shore-temple of Śiva as Nāganātha (Lord of Nāgas) with goddess Nāgavalli. The town gets its name from the name of this deity. Associated with Kāmika-āgama, this is a very ancient temple. The Nagore Dargah (grave site of a Sufi dervish known locally as Nagūr-āṇḍavar i.e. the god of Nagūr) was established much later during the Maratha rule. The true nāgūr-āṇḍavar (god of Nāgūr) was the consort of goddess Nāgavalli—Śri Nāganātha.

In the Nāgapattanam region, one of the 63 Nāyanmārs called Adipatta Nāyanār who was born in a kula (family) of fishermen in a village called Nuzhaippāḍi by the seashore—where there exists a temple.

Before Lord Muruga (Skanda) went to war against the asuras, he is said to have got the blessings of the three-eyed lord (Śiva) at Tirucchendūr.

Rāmeśvaram has the world-famous pilgrimage site where Lord Rāma sought the help of Śiva on his way to Laṅkā.

Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is just one more such shore temple like all these.

Idols unearthed in Velankanni

When a building site in Velankanni was dug up to lay the foundations, Somaskanda, Rama, Goddess Sivakami, Saint Sundarar, Narttana Vinayaka and 13 other panchola silas (murtis) were found. They have been deposited at Kilavelur Taluka Office.

Archeologists have found large number of daiva-śilās and pañcaloha idols buried in this location. In the Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi  town, there is another śivālaya called Rajatagirīśvara. Whether this is an ancient temple or a recently rebuilt one is yet to be established. If its origin is found, it is possible to unearth other bits of the place’s history.

Sri Rajatha Giriswarar Swami Temple at Velankanni

Sri Rajata Girisvarar Swami Kovil at Velankanni

A few centuries back, when the Portuguese, Danish, and French invaded these shore sites, they destroyed several Hindu temples. They also established Christian churches there. The demolition of the Kapālīśwara temple at Chennai and the Vedapurīśwara temple at Pondicherry are good examples of the level of Christian tolerance.

The Goa shores also had several temples which were destroyed by the Portugese. In 1567 Portugese missionaries destroyed about 350 temples in Goa. In those times, Hindus were even forbidden to grow the tulasi (holy basil) plant.

Cultural appropriation by missionaries

Wearing kāvi (saffron) robes, building churches that resemble temple architecture, placing Koḍi Marams (dhvaja sthamba) in front of churches, deliberately using Sanskrit words like Vedāgamam, Suviseṣam, Agni, Abhiṣekam, Sarvāṅgadahanabali, flag hoisting, doing ratha yātras and other rituals are being appropriated and used specifically to lure Hindus into their religion, and this has been happening over centuries. One of the aspects of this deception involves clothing idols of Mother Mary in sarees according to the Tamil style and using the name of the local Hindu deity ‘Vēlana-kaṇṇi’ to refer to Mary as Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. This is the truth.

Mother Umā is known as Periyanāyaki (Skt. bṛhannāyakī). In the famous Thanjāvūr temple, Śiva is known by the name Bṛhadīśvara and his consort is called Bṛhannāyakī—and this is known to all. This name has been stolen without shame and used by missionaries as the name of Mary, as Periyanāyaki-Mātā.

Truth hurts. Christians have no reason to get annoyed. After insulting Hindu deities calling them devils, demons, etc—and on the other hand appropriating their names and symbols and using them in Christianity to refer to Jesus and Mary—this is in no way proper. Christians in Tamilnadu who have a conscience should reflect on these things.

Some Questions

Today Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi has been promoted and established as an extremely popular Christian pilgrimage site. But the questions that probe how it came to be a Christian site remain.

Is there any Biblical proof to show that Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is a Christian name?

Else who named it Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi? Were they Portugese sailors, or the Papal authority in the Vatican? Or is it the missionaries who came later?

Is worshipping Mary as an independent deity (opposed in Trinitarian Christianity) acceptable to Biblical and Christian theology?

If this is a common Christian shrine, why don’t all sects of Christians come and worship here?

What is the relation between Ārogya and the name Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi? (Arogya Matha—Lady of Health)

What is the relation between Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi and Lourdes of the East conceptually? Is there any tradition of flag hoisting and ratha yātras at other Lourdes shrines? Will European devotees of the Lady of the Lourdes shave their heads?

It has been accepted by Christians themselves that there is no basis for the apparitions of Mother Mary that are claimed to have occurred in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. That being the case, how did this church become ‘Lourdes of the East’?

Why is Mary, the Lady of the Lourdes, not commonly worshipped in other places as the Lady of Good Health?

Why did this site where many miracles are said to have occurred not gain the status of basilica until 1962? The miracles are claimed to be hundreds of years old, yet why did it not gain basilica status during British rule?

They say this holy site was believed to have mahimā right from the start. Yet from Warren Hastings until Mountbatten, among the forty or so governor generals who ruled India, there is no record of any of them having visited the Lady of Health at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. What is the reason for this contradiction?

Even those native Christian scholars such as Henry Albert Krishna Piḷḷai, who wrote Rakṣaṇya Yātrikam (a Tamil retelling of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’), Māyūram Vedanāyakam Piḷḷai, etc., who lived just a century ago do not appear to have mentioned anything about the Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi apparitions, or shaved their heads in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi.

Even in the ‘Christian Songs’ book of Devaneya Pāvāṇar who passed away in 1981, there are no songs about Arogya Mātā (Lady of Health). Is there anything more to say?

Although large numbers of Indian Christians congregate and worship at the Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi Church, no pope has visited or prayed to Arogya Mātā. What is the reason?

Without the approval of the Holy See, how did this become a basilica?

Does Biblical authority support ostentatious rituals in worshipping Mary, as well as large celebrations such as what we see in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi?

Only when someone looks for answers with substantive proofs for all these questions, Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi’s true history will be known.

» Tamil to English translation support by Sri Ram Sury

Basilica of Our Lady of Health at Velankanni, Tamil Nadu

Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health at Velankanni, Tamil Nadu

Gold worth Rs 186 crore missing from Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala – ENS

Padmanabhaswamy Temple Gopuram

Vinod RaiIn July 2011 the Supreme Court committee stumbled upon six vaults in the temple, with just one vault left to be opened. The treasure that has been found in the other five vaults have been estimated to be valued at more than Rs 100,000 crore. – ENS

In a startling revelation, the Vinod Rai committee special audit report on Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, stated that a lot of financial irregularities and corruption is going on in the temple administration and gold worth Rs 186 crore have gone missing.

According to sources, the report by former comptroller and auditor general Vinod Rai are in two volumes and five parts running into 1,000 pages. The Supreme Court had asked Rai in October 2015 to complete the audit and submit its report.

This directive came on the recommendations of amicus curiae and senior advocate Gopal Subramaniam, who had sought overhauling of the functioning of the temple.

The report states that there is a loss of 263 gold on the name of purification and states that gold worth Rs 186 crore in the form of 769 gold pots are not traceable.

Rai, in his report, has recommended a committee probe to oversee these irregularities.

“Gold worth Rs 2.50 crore was lost because of change in ratio adopted for purification. Moreover, the residual quantity of gold was not recovered from the contractor which lead to a loss of Rs 59 lakhs,” sources said.

“There was a lack of transparency in kanikka [gift offering] counting. Gold and silver worth Rs 14.18 lakh had not been entered in the nadavarav register, which is illegal,” according to the report.

“Silver bar with value of Rs 14 lakh was found to be missing,” the report said.

Gopal SubramaniumThe temple trust illegally sold 2.11 acres of land in 1970 and no records were found.

The report also expressed surprise over the sudden increase of expenditure in temple management over several years and termed it as “abnormal”.

The committee has also recommended major changes in the temple administration system and suggested that it should now be a seven-member committee headed by a retired section-level officer, tantric, two prominent citizens, representative of state and the royal family.

The report also suggested major changes in the temple’s security arrangements and said, “Priceless items in the temple should be housed in a modern museum and security installments need to be altered a bit.”

The audit was done for the financial year 2004-2014.

In July 2011 the apex court committee stumbled upon six vaults in the temple, with just vault B left to be opened. The treasure that has been found in the other five vaults have been estimated to be valued more than Rs 100,000 crore.

Since then, armed security guards, besides state of the art security equipment, have been deployed for the safe upkeep of the treasure. – The New Indian Express, 15 August 2016

Sri Padmanabhaswamy's treasure.

Whether UPA or NDA, discrimination against Hindus and Hindu temples continues – Kanimozhi

Padmanabhaswamy Temple Gopuram

Lady ReporterWhy should government control Hindu temples, while churches and mosques are given a free hand? Why is the government spending, tax-payers’ money towards churches and masjids, while diverting most of the money collected from temples into non-temple, non-Hindu activities? – Kanimozhi

There are as many as 2,07,000 temples in Karnataka and the total income of these temples amounts to Rs 72 crore. Only a sum of Rs. 6 crore is being spent by the Government for their upkeep. On the other hand, the Government spent a phenomenal amount of Rs. 50 crore for the madrasas and Rs. 10 crore for the churches,” Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said in 2003.

That was when S. M. Krishna of Congress was the chief minister of Karnataka. In the last 13 years, while the income from the temples has doubled, and the amount spent towards madrasas and churches has also doubled, the amount spent on the upkeep of the temples has remained the same. During these 13 years, Janata Dal (S) and the BJP were in power between 2006 and 2013 and the Congress is in power since then, but the condition of temples continues to remain pitiful.

Here are some key-facts from a 2003 article by Anjali Patel, which are dated but still relevant today:

  • 70% (Rs. 50 crores) of Hindu temples’ money is diverted for Muslim madarasas and haj by Indian Government.
  • 5,000 temples in Karnataka were to be closed down due to lack of funding and maintenance.
  • During Kumbh Mela in Nasik, each Hindu devotee was forced to pay Rs. 25 to Rs. 50 for a dip in the holy water. Congress, BJP and Shiv Sena said nothing about this (while giving money to Muslims and Christians).
  • If a Hindu or a Sikh wishes to visit holy places in Kailash Mansarovar or Gurudwara in Pakistan, leave alone subsidy, they are forced to shell out large amounts of money to visit their holy places, while Muslims enjoy massive 70% subsidy for their visit to haj in Saudi Arabia, which is paid from the pockets of taxpaying Hindus. The gross income of TTD for the year (2014-15) is estimated to be Rs. 2359.2 crores ($385.33 mn)

The issue here is not just about the government misusing the funds collected from the temples, or taxpayers’ money being spent on subsidizing religious travel of a particular community, the issue is much beyond that.

But, let us first understand the difference between Hindu temples and the places of worship belonging to other religions.

Dr. Subramanian SwamyAccording to Dr. Subramanian Swamy, as he explains very clearly in this video (see below), the temples are the places of inhabitance of our Gods, and not simply a place to offer prayers. The construction of a temple and the subsequent installation of the idol involves processes called prana pratishta, by which the very presence of Gods are established within the premises of the temples and thus, the temples become the abode of the Gods. On the other hand, a mosque or a church, is simply a place to offer namaz or prayers, respectively, and they have no conception of these places as being the very abode of God.

Most Hindu temples have a rich story to tell and during ancient times they were also utilized as places of learning. But, today, it is disheartening to see, how temples have transformed from being places of learning to being commercial complexes, from which government is pocketing crores of rupees as income every year. The ground situation for adherents of Hinduism has become critical over the last seven decades, mainly due to political interference and politics of discrimination and appeasement. Though, India got independence in 1947, and the constitution guarantees Right to Religion, it appears that the implementation has catered to the needs of all communities, except the Hindus. This is especially troubling, since India is a Hindu-majority nation.

The successive governments and political masters, need to answer why this discrimination against Hindus? Why should government control Hindu temples, while churches and mosques are given a free hand? Why is the government spending, tax-payers’ money towards churches and masjids, while diverting most of the money collected from temples into non-temple, non-Hindu activities?

If only the Hindu community is given back the control of the temples and their activities, then the money collected from the temples could be utilized for so many community oriented, religious, cultural, and educational activities.

Hindu temples are not the sacred places that they should be, because, they are not under the control of Hindu community. The income from most of the Hindu Temples, the offerings by the devotees, etc. goes to the government treasury and become government revenue and hence, the Hindu community has no say as to how the temple money is utilized. Prior to 1925, the Sikh Gurdwaras were in control of Udasi mahants, who were largely perceived as corrupt and degenerate from the mainline Sikhs. The Sikhs fought hard and forced the British to pass a law, which brought the administration of Gurdwaras under the control of an elected body of the Sikh people. That law is the Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925. That law has worked exceptionally well and has satisfied the Sikhs’ desire of being in control of their Gurdwaras and overseeing them as per the group’s mandate. This is one of the best examples that Hindus can emulate.

Sri Siddhivinayak TempleTemple statistics

The government takeover of temples has resulted in several state governments running full-length ministries for the management of various activities of those temples. The erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government, for instance, employed 77,000 people to ensure “smooth conducting of pujas” in its 33,000 temples. Similar numbers could be found in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. Ministries for management of temples are present in some north Indian temples as well. This is one of the immense incongruities of Indian secularism is that a vocally non-religious government sees no contradiction in overseeing Hindu sanctuaries, and just Hindu temples.

Such systematized oppression and discrimination against the majority community, which constitute around 80% of the population of the country, is without parallel on the entire planet. Some Hindu sampradayas, for example, the Ramakrishna Math and Mission have even attempted to claim “minority” status so as to preserve their institutions from government interference. This continuing grip of the government over administration of Hindu sanctuaries is not only an infringement of the religious rights of the Hindus, but has also resulted in massive corruption and abuse of assets. Add to this, the government’s apathy and utter disregard towards the sacredness and sanctity of the temples.Add to this, the utter disregard and contempt shown towards the sacredness and sanctity of the temples.

In 1980s, the then Kerala chief minister K. Karunakaran had ordered the Guruvayur Temple to transfer 10 crore rupees from its bank account to the state treasury to offset financial deficit. Whether the amount was ever returned or not is doubtful. What’s more, the temple’s property was reduced from 13000 acres of land to a meagre 230 acres of land by the Land Reforms Act (pdf), which helpfully avoided non-Hindu foundations. In 2004, the Maharashtra government admitted to diverting US$ 190,000 from Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak temple to a charity run by a politician, in the Bombay High Court. In Tamil Nadu, the HR&CE Department controls more than 4.7 lakh acres of land of horticultural area, 2.6 crore square feet of structures and 29 crore square feet of urban place that is known for temples. The earning from these properties must be at least few thousand crore rupees, yet the government collects a meagre Rs 36 crore in rent. This is a classic case of corruption and underhanded dealings.

Politically influential people have shamelessly appropriated temple property for individual use. A friend of mine narrates how a representative from the Tamil Nadu HR&CE Department would arrive at one of the small temples in the state to collect the money deposited in the temple hundi and would pocket a part of it for his personal use. Petty corruption, underhanded dealings, and misuse of temple assets are rampant in the government administration of the temples.

Ram Lalla VirajmanAyodhya, Will a temple be built there ever?

Ayodhya is among the most sacred places for Hindus across the country. According to Hindu Itihasa (history) texts, Lord Rama was born, brought up, and ruled from Ayodhya. But, for the last many decades Ram Janmabhumi has been in the middle of political dispute. The dispute traces its origin to the destruction of the Hindu temple in Ayodhya and construction of a mosque in its place during the reign of Babar of Moghul dynasty in the 16th century. The recent excavations in the area have also confirmed the presence of a Hindu temple beneath the demolished Babri mosque. Yet, a new temple for Lord Ram is yet to see the light. Though, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has expressed a certainty that such a temple will be built soon, it remains to be seen how much of his assertion will materialize on the ground.

Conclusion

It is high time that Hindus realize that their government is discriminating against them in the name of secularism. Income from Hindu temples should be spent on those very temples and on activities that enrich Hindu community and propagate Hindu religion. For this, it is vital that temples are freed from government control and are instead managed by the community. Hopefully, the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear today, the petition of late Swami Dayananda Saraswati to free temples from government control, will be able to address these genuine concerns of the Hindu community. IndiaFacts, 13 July 2016

» Kanimozhi is a NRI living in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. She is an engineering electro-mechanical consultant and the founder of the Kurukshetra2019.com web portal. 

Venkateshwara Temple Tirumala

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

Death of the Thiruchendur Temple elephant Kumaran

B. R. HaranIn August 2014, the Madras High Court constituted a 3-member committee … to investigate the status of goshalas attached with temples under the HR & CE Department. … In a subsequent sitting, the High Court extended the mandate of the committee to inspect elephants and their maintenance. Hence, the committee members began inspecting elephants while inspecting cows and goshalas. – B. R. Haran

As the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department of Tamil Nadu government has been irresponsible in the maintenance of cows and goshalas in its temples, after more than a dozen cows died in the goshala of Thiruvannamalai temple, animal welfare activist and writer Radha Rajan filed a Writ Petition (WP 28793 & 28794 of 2013) in the Madras High Court, praying for constitution of a committee to look into the omissions and commissions with regard to the HR & CE Department’s maintenance of temple goshalas. 

In August 2014, the Madras High Court constituted a 3-member committee, comprising petitioner Radha Rajan, Dr. Sumathi of Animal Welfare Board of India and L. Anantha Padmanaban, Joint Director, Animal Husbandry Department, to investigate the status of goshalas attached with temples under the HR & CE Department. The committee was ordered to submit its report within two months.

The committee inspected 21 temples and sent its report to HR & CE Department and obtained their reply too. The final reports were submitted to the High Court and arguments recorded. The HR & CE Department was unable to give a convincing reply to the committee’s findings; its indifference and irresponsibility came out in the open.

Accepting the committee’s recommendations and suggestions, the High Court directed it to include 10 more persons and carry out inspections at temples all over the state and report to AWBI. It directed the HR & CE and Animal Husbandry Departments to cooperate. The HC closed the case by ordering the state government and HR & CE Department to comply with the recommendations given by the committee. The court said it would have periodical review of the inspections being carried out and steps being taken by the government.

In a subsequent sitting, the HC extended the mandate of the committee to inspect elephants and their maintenance. Hence, the committee members began inspecting elephants while inspecting cows and goshalas. Following such inspection, the three elephants of Kanchi Kamakshi Amman Temple were sent to a rehabilitation center of the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, at Marakkanam, in Villupuram district.

Kanchi Math elephants Sandhya, Indhumathi and JayanthiKamakshi Amman Temple Elephants

Sandhya alias Kamakshi from Karnataka suffers from cataract detected prior to 2007. The same year, she developed a non-healing deep wound in the right thigh, which degenerated due to the pressure exerted while lying down. Due to irregular treatment, she developed abscesses in the right and left thigh and hip region and left hind foot as also a lesion in a damaged nail. In due course, she became blind in her left eye.

Skin lesions were found on her head and forehead. The tail was fractured due to multiple dislocations of vertebrae; the hairs on the tail were found to be removed, allegedly to make money in the black market. As Sandhya had to stand and walk on concrete / granite floors for years, her feet weakened and foot-pads thinned, making her gait abnormal due to deviation and fusion of the left foreleg fetlock joint; she is on the verge of developing arthritis.

Indhumathi from Kerala is suffering from overgrown and broken nails in both forelegs and hind legs. She suffers from non-healing wounds on elbow joints and forelegs. Her foot-pads have also thinned due to continuous standing and walking on hard surface. Skin lesions are found all over the body, particularly on the back, head and forehead regions. Overall she was found dull and restless.

Eighteen year old Jayanthi from Assam has started getting callouses and wounds, which would become chronic if she continues standing and walking on hard surface. A healed lesion was found on her right hip. Her gait is abnormal as evidenced by the dropping of her left hip.

On seeing the poor health of these three elephants, the AWBI decided to send them to a rehabilitation centre for treatment and care. The Kanchi Mutt understood the seriousness of the issue and extended full cooperation to shift the elephants.

Death of the Thirukadaiyur AmirdhakadeswararTemple elephant Abirami Thirukadaiyur Temple Elephant Abirami

Amirdhakadeswarar Temple, where Bhagwan Shiva saved Markandeya from Yama, is one of the most famous temples of Tamil Nadu. Devotees throng the place all around the year to celebrate their Sashti Aptha Poorthi (completion of 60 years) and Sathabishekam (completion of 80 years). Sri Muthukumaraswami Thambiran of Thirupananthal Adheena Matham donated a 4-years old female calf named Abirami to the temple.

Abirami has been serving there for more than 20 years. On 28 November 2012, she was sent to the Annual Elephant Rejuvenation Camp conducted by the Tamil Nadu government at Mudumalai forests near Ooty; she returned on 13 January 2013. From that day she fell sick, could not eat as usual and started losing weight. She was under saline administration, but collapsed in the early morning of 25 January and died; she was only 28 years old! The normal lifespan of an elephant is 70 years. She was buried at Yanaikulam, nearly. The autopsy revealed a polythene cover, a river pebble and an undigested banana peel in her stomach. Possibly she consumed the pebble at the rejuvenation camp as there are no river pebbles in the vicinity of Thirukadaiyur.

Abirami died within 12 days of her return from Mudumalai. What kind of treatment was given to her during those 12 days? Were the doctors able to identify her problem? Shouldn’t the HR & CE Department conduct an enquiry? Shouldn’t the state government order an enquiry? Sadly, both did not bother.

Death of the Rameswaram Temple elephant Bhavani Rameswaram Temple Elephant Bhavani 

Sri Ramaswami Raja, founder chairman, Ramco Cements, had donated two elephants, Bhavani and Ramalakshmi, to the Rameswaram Temple. Bhavani was sent to the same elephant rejuvenation camp as Abirami. She reached on the evening of 25 November 2012; the camp was scheduled to begin the next day. A local doctor had issued a “Fitness for Transportation Certificate” on 9 November. As she looked dull on arrival, she was taken to the river for bathing. The moment she entered the river, she fainted. As the mahouts could not lift her, a crane was brought to lift her out of the river. She remained motionless, and doctors on arrival found her dead. The forest veterinarian, Dr Manoharan, issued a death certificate saying Bhavani died of exhaustion resulting in cardiac arrest. Her body was sent back to Rameswaram; she was 52.

Was it right on the part of the authorities to subject a 52-years old elephant to a tiresome travel, standing for more than 12 hours? Was Bhavani sick at the time of leaving Rameswaram? That being the case, was she subjected to more stress during transportation? Who decided to send her to the camp? How did the doctor give a fitness certificate to a sick elephant? Or was there a problem at the camp? Why didn’t the HR & CE Department conduct an enquiry? Why didn’t the government order an enquiry? The sordid fact is that the actual reason for Bhavani’s death has not been made public.

Death of the Thiruchendur Temple elephant Kumaran Thiruchendur Temple Elephant Kumaran

Devadasa Sundaram, a former trustee of Thiruchendur Murugan Temple, donated 4-years-old male calf, Kumaran, to the temple in 2006. Kumaran was not sent to the Annual Rejuvenation Camp which began on 11 December 2014 at Mettupalayam. He was reputedly not sent to the camp as he was allegedly in a state of musth and discharge from the temporal glands was noted. In this condition, Kumaran suffered from diarrhea on 7 January 2015. Despite treatment by doctors, he passed away early in the morning of 9 January. He was barely 13 years old.

When the local people heard of his death at such a young age, they protested and demanded an autopsy. As per the Tamil Nadu Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules 2011, an autopsy is mandatory, but it was not done. The temple officials refused autopsy on the grounds of affecting sanctity. It is not clear if the HR & CE Department had intimated the Forest Department of his death.

What kind of a care was given to Kumaran? Did the doctors have enough experience in treating elephants? What was that the cause of death? As the rejuvenation camps are organized for the well-being of elephants, what was the real reason behind not sending him to the camp at such a young age? What exactly was his health condition then? When the autopsy is mandatory, why was it not done? Who decided not to do it?

It may be added that the Animal Welfare Board of India, in its affidavit to the High Court, cited local media reports alleging that Kumaran was subjected to electro-ejection method to extract sperm from him, and that his tusks were also removed after his death. Only an enquiry can establish the truth.

Death of the Thanjavur Big Temple elephant VellaiyammalThanjavur Big Temple Elephant Vellaiyammal

In 1960, as a mark of thanksgiving to his ishta devata, Devi Punnainallur Mariamman, for the success of his movie Veera Pandiya Kattabomman, actor Shivaji Ganesan donated a 10-years old female calf, Vellaiyammal, named after a character in the movie. Vellaiyammal was shifted to the famous Big Temple in 1985. Soon, her health deteriorated. Legs became weak and she started suffering from joint pains. Her condition worsened and her legs became hard and stiff. She could not bend her limbs and she was unable to sit and lie down. She had to sleep in standing posture for several years.

Despite this, her mahout, Baskar, his brother and assistant Sarangan, used to make her stand for hours in front of the second entrance of the Big Temple tower; they used her to make money. They would charge devotees Rs. 5/- for her blessing, Rs. 10/- for sitting on her back and Rs. 25/- for a photograph with her. This money was never handed over to the temple office. They also used to remove hair from all over her body with a crude razor, and sell them in the black market.

The HR & CE officials never bothered to take any action against the mahouts. After complaints from local people, the department suspended only assistant Sarangan and put up a notice saying, “Elephant Vellaiyammal is being fed as per the advice of doctors. Hence devotees should not feed her with fruits, coconut, etc. Devotees are requested not to take blessings from the elephant and sitting on its back and taking photos are also prohibited. Do not give money to the mahout. Those who want to support by cash or kind, can hand them over to the temple office”.

The Regional Joint Director of the Animal Husbandry Department, Lourdusamy, issued a stern warning to HR & CE officials in the temple against the physical abuse of the elephant. He instructed the officials to reprimand the mahout and to ensure that such abuse did not occur again.

Having years of prolonged illness, Vellaiyammal breathed her last on 14 September 2013 at the age of 62. What kind of a treatment was given to Vellaiyammal and why was there no improvement? Were the doctors experienced in treating elephants? Why was she kept at the temple and not taken by the forest department? Why were the mahouts allowed to use and abuse her for begging? Why didn’t the officials bring in an experienced mahout to replace Baskar? Who is responsible for the years of pain and suffering by Vellaiyammal?

Death of the Virudhunagar Valasubramaniaswami Temple elephant SulochanaVirudhunagar Temple Elephant Sulochana

Sulochana was serving in Valasubramaniaswami Temple in Virudhunagar. She was blind in one eye; the second eye developed cataract. She was also suffering from arthritis. With literally zero vision and painful limbs, she was unable to walk.

How she found it difficult to take a single step can be seen in the video below.

In December 2015, as her mahout didn’t guide her properly, she fell down and her shoulder was severely dislocated. Since then, she could not sit or lie down and used to sleep standing against the wall. This made her even weaker and affected her dietary intake as well. Her sufferings can only be imagined. On the midnight of 21 March 2016, Sulochana fell down in her sleep and did not get up again. She breathed her last at 8.30 am on 22nd morning; she was just 32.

Why did the authorities keep her in the temple knowing well that she was blind and afflicted with arthritis? What was the necessity to keep her for temple services in such a condition? Why wasn’t she sent to the forest department or any other rehabilitation centre? Didn’t the doctors advice the department? Who is responsible for her life of distress and suffering?

(To be continued…)

» B. R. Haran is a senior journalist in Chennai.

 

See also

No more elephants at Pazhavangadi Temple – Deccan Chronicle

Pazhavangadi Mahaganapathy Temple

V. K. VenkitachalamThough smaller temples had begun to keep elephants out, bigger temples continued to shy away from breaking with convention. “This decision by a big temple like Pazhavangady will definitely inspire others to follow suit,” said V. K. Venkitachalam, the state’s foremost elephant activist.

On Vinayaka Chathurthi, September 5, the Elephant God will not move around the Fort area on the back of an elephant.

Pazhavangadi Mahaganapathy Temple, which lies in the shadow of the Sreepadmanabha Swamy Temple and is maintained by the Indian Army, will soon become the first major temple in South India to avoid the use of elephants during its annual festival. From this year, the Ganesha deity will be taken around in an open vehicle. The temple has also decided to do away with the traditional fireworks display.

“The Puttingal tragedy has definitely got us thinking,” said Captain Sudhakaran, the manager of the temple. “As for the decision on elephants, we could not turn our backs on the increasing incidents of torture against these animals in the name of religion,” he said.

The proposal was put up before the advisory committee of the temple headed by noted neurosurgeon Dr Sambhasivan, and was promptly passed. “The temple thantri was also of the view that we had to change according to the times,” Captain Sudhakaran said.

Elephant in chainsThe temple authorities have also informed the Pazhavangadi Poura Samithi about the decision. “It was important to tell the people living in the area as the use of elephants had a long tradition. They too are aware of what is happening to elephants and have respected our decision,” Captain Sudhakaran said.

The decision could turn out to be revolutionary. “Elephants were always tortured in the name of religion. This decision by a temple like Pazhavangadi is a reminder that rituals can be subjected to timely reforms,” said Animal welfare Board member M. N. Jayachandran.

“If all the Devaswoms in the state take a cue from Pazhavangady and ban the use of elephants, there can be no better message the state can convey,” he added.

Though smaller temples had begun to keep elephants out, bigger temples continued to shy away from breaking with convention. “This decision by a big temple like Pazhavangady will definitely inspire others to follow suit,” said V. K. Venkitachalam, the state’s foremost elephant activist. – Deccan Chronicle, 16 June 2016

Thrissur Pooram Festival