Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Plight of Temple Elephants in South India

Plight of Temple Elephants in South India
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Thirukadaiyur, a sleepy place, some 350 km from Chennai on way to Trinquebar, the seat of Danish East India Company in the Nagapatinam district has its own significant place in the history of Tamil Nadu.

An ancient temple dedicated to goddess Abirami, the consort of Lord Shiva, is the hallmark of Thirukadaiyur that remains abuzz with large number of devotees thronging the place in search of spiritual solace.

An elephant stationed outside the doors of the temple greets the visitors raising its trunk and then putting it on top of devotees head, blessings them in traditional of South Indian style.

There are about 300 temple elephants in Tamil Nadu and over 500 in Kerala that form part of temple ceremonies and festivals as many major temples own and use them for ritual processions and blessing of the visitors.

The lone elephant at the Abirami temple epitomises the plight of all those temple elephants held in captivity in various parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. This sentient and social animal remains chained surrounded by urban noise and human crowds. Standing alone on the hard stone flooring of the temple, it was visibly suffering from heat exhaustion.

Talking to the elephant trainer or mahout I realized that he had no formal education in animal care and his training methods and was typically involved in the systematic act of physical pain, hitting his whip on the leg to make the elephant raise its trunk to bless the devotees. A rough guess could be, the elephant gets hit, at least 2000 times a day to offer blessings.

Tamil Nadu government has recently issued a circular to ban the practice of elephants 'blessing' in the temples of the state. Chief wildlife warden R Sundarajaru has issued a circular instructing the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department, which is maintaining the temples, to put an end to such age-old practice.

Wildlife warden had also asked temple authorities not to keep the elephants on concrete floors, as it damages the foot of the animals. It has also asked the mahout to take the elephants for a walk for a distance of 6 km and give them shower bath twice a day, that in case if they cannot take the elephants to a lake or a pond. The wildlife warden has also asked the temple management to take steps to part-simulate the forest environs in the respective elephant sheds.

Though the contention of the Wild Life Department appears to be genuine, it has stirred up a hornet's nest amongst the Hindu religious groups in Tamil Nadu. “Getting blessing from elephants is considered sacred for Hindus and any move to ban it would be against religious sentiments,” said Shaktivel, an activist of Hindu Bakta Sabha, a religious outfit that oppose the ban.

Barbara Gerard, founder and director of Art and Conservation of the Asian Elephant talks at length about the protection and conservation of the temple elephants. Supporting the ban on the practice of elephants 'blessing' pilgrims in temples, she says it may reduce stress on the jumbos.

Barbara, who comes from New York, and has worked in Africa for the conservation of the elephants, is based in Thrissur, Kerala. She is leading a campaign against the practice of temple elephants and equates them with the Devdasi system that was abolished after a long and protracted campaign. She wants the elephants to be set free and be sent to wild where they belong.

She says nearly 90 per cent of the temple elephants are suffering from one or more serious ailments. They suffer from foot ailments like, arthritis and joint pain. Elephants standing for long on the concrete floors, literally wear away the bottoms of their feet, she says adding that they also suffer from diseases like diabetes and rheumatoid, asthma and tuberculosis.

She points out that most of the temple elephants are male, kept in solitary confinement and little attention given to address their sexual needs. It is only in cases of extreme stress or provocation like sound or physical pain that these animals break down, she quips.

Barbara, who runs an Elephant House, a museum and learning centre children, remains busy in teaching the tiny tots how mild by nature the elephants are and kids need not fear them because they are the giant sized. It is only when the young generation starts understanding the nature of the elephants they may be able asses their plight and in turn join the clarion call to set them free from captivity.

Heeding to bring about a change to ensure proper care of the temple elephants, the Tamil Nadu governments Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department has drawn up a new diet and fitness plan for the temple jumbos.

The daily menu for an adult temple elephant includes 250 kg of grass or supplemented by 50 kg of twigs and leaves from mango or neem trees. Thrice a day they are fed with large nutritious that include 7 kg of cooked rice, mixed with 1.5 kg each of green gram and horse gram, 1 kg of jaggery, 100 grams of common salt and 25 grams turmeric powder. After each meal, the jumbos get at least a dozen bananas, as desert!

Some of the temple gives periodic oil massages to the elephant. They also give multi-vitamin tablets to ward off indigestion once a month. Every three months the elephants also get 3.5 kg of the Ayurvedic nutritious supplement, ‘Chavanapraash’. Every fortnight, allopathic veterinary doctors examine the elephants. Some temples have installed exclusive shower system to bathe the elephants. The shower uses 5,000 litres of water a day to clean the elephant twice a day.

Implementing all this is not easy task for all the temples. The maintenance cost of each elephant is estimated roughly to be; Rs 80,000 per month. The shrines that have large incomes are able to meet with such elaborate arrangements, but those with meagre income are unable to act upon it.

As the situation, stand now, the temple elephants are send every year for a month long "relief camps" to relieve them from stress. The camps that are now runed for the past seven years are organised at the elephant sanctuary at Mudumalai forest, in Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. The elephants in the camps are fed with nutritious food; bathed elaborately’ and given proper medical care to prevent them from contacting any disease.

However, the big question remains; is a month of freedom enough for eleven months of captivity? When the agony and pain of these exotic animals living may end? When the awareness to free them may lead to a march to the doors of the temples and break the chains, and set free the majestic beasts whom many worship as god of wealth. Can any one find answers to these questions? Your guess is as good as mine.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

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