Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple: Do not open Vault B! – Megha Varier

Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple Vault B

Megha VarierConveying the family’s stand that Vault B should not be opened, Adithya Varma, member of the royal family, told TNM that the “secret and the sacred needs to be preserved.” – Megha Varier

The demand to open the last of the six vaults in the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram has once again created a divide in opinions.

Vault B, a chamber said to contain mysterious treasures remains closed even as other vaults in the temple were opened to take stock of the inventory as per directions of the Supreme Court.

While the CPI-(M)-led LDF government in the state has begun to hold discussions with the erstwhile Travancore Royal Family (that once managed the temple), members of the family continue to stick to beliefs that Vault B must remain closed.

Conveying the family’s stand that Vault B should not be opened, Adithya Varma, member of the royal family, told TNM that the “secret and the sacred needs to be preserved.”

“It is a sacred and a secret place. It is said that there is a passage from this Vault B that leads to the sreekovil (sanctum of the temple). Why should it be exposed to the public? And we have heard so many stories about the consequences of opening it,” Adithya Varma argued.

Even while maintaining that the family is bound to obey the Supreme Court’s decision on the matter, Adithya Varma said that Vault B shall remain closed, so that the “sanctity of the temple is preserved.”

Kadakampally Surendran, Minister for Devaswom, held a round of discussions with the family on Monday, regarding the opening of Vault B. However, the family reiterated their opposition.

Adithya added that although the family will not blindly oppose the opening of the chamber, the final call was to be taken by the Thanthri of the temple.

“Even when this issue came up in the past, we (the family) relied on Thanthri’s decision. That will be so this time around too. In the past when Devaprashnan (a ritual to ask God’s opinion) was done, the Thanthri advised us against opening the vault. People’s movement will only disturb the sanctity of the chamber and that is not advisable,” Adithya Varma said.

Asked whether the family was trying to hold on to its powers, even in a democratic set-up, the young member of the family said, “See, we don’t have anything to hide. People are saying that there is something in there that we are trying to hold on to … in the sense that we have some personal interest in keeping it closed. But we have seen what happened when they tried to open the vault previously. Justice Rajan and Justice Krishnan had, in 2012, tried to open the vault. But one person sustained injury and began to bleed profusely, after which, they had to drop the idea,” he said.

Former CAG Vinod Rai in his report to the SC had said that the royal family’s opposition was incorrect as Vault B had been opened several times in the past.

Responding to this, Adithya Varma said, “Vault B has two chambers. Only the ante-chamber, a small room, was opened in the past. The inner chamber has never been opened.”

Adithya Varma, however, added that it was up to the SC to give its decision and that everyone, including the family was bound to obey it.

“The state government is of the opinion that the Vault B should be opened. They will give their affidavit to the court, we will do so too. But ultimately, we have to go by what the apex court decides,” Adithya Varma said. – The News Minute, 10 July 2017

» Megha Varier reports for The News Minute from Kerala and Karnataka.


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