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Are the temple elephants being used to negatively portray India and Hinduism?

By Nithin Sridhar

“sham no astu dvipade, sham chatushpade” meaning “let the two-legged (humans) and the four  legged (animals) attain welfare” says one of the famous mantras used in Hinduism.

India and Hinduism have always recognized animals as an inseparable part of their ecology and ecosystem and hence not only worshiped various animals but also prayed for their welfare. Many animals were brought into our festivals where they played an important role. Many animals are considered highly sacred and as an embodiment of God. In the case of elephants, they are considered as a representation of Lord Ganesha.

The manufactured discourse around temple elephants

BigTemple_ElephantOn 15-August, Daily Mail published a story by Liz Jones that made shocking claims about the condition of temple elephants. The story begins dramatically “They seem like statues, or stuffed exhibits in a museum – 57 of them, studded around a patch of scrubby forest.” Then it moves on to reveal how Nandan, a 43-year old tusker, has been chained to the same spot for 20-years; how Padmanabhan’s leg was deliberately broken 15-years ago; and how Devi, a female elephant, has been chained to the same spot for 35 years and has never ever moved even a single inch.

Of course these tales are horrible, but thankfully it turns out that they may have been “manufactured”. On 18-August, Prem Panicker, of Peepli.org published an article where he clearly established how many of the heart-wrenching facts narrated in the Daily Mail story were nothing more than a figment of imagination of the author.

This is what Prem Panicker writes: “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.’”

This is not to suggest that there are no issues with the upkeep of the temple elephants, only that the discourse depicted in the Daily Mail story not only did great disservice to the issue of status of temple elephants by opting for distortion and exaggeration instead of ground facts, but also it comes across as a deliberate hit-job trying to associate India and Hinduism with animal cruelty.

For example, in the Daily Mail article, the author states: “We discuss whether condemning the way the animals are kept will be perceived as attacking Hinduism (as so many people have told me since I arrived in Kerala, I will be insulting traditions going back thousands of years).”

So, a subtle suggestion is introduced in the discourse about how criticism of elephants may be perceived as criticism of Hinduism. But, in reality the author also appears to be doing the same thing. No body perceived various study and reports by experts regarding the issue of condition of temple elephants as a criticism of Hinduism. On the other hand, the author of Daily Mail story appears to be using distortions and fabrication of facts regarding temple elephants to make veiled commentary about India, Hinduism and Hindu practices. The question is, if there are no hidden agendas, why opt for distortion and fabrication?

Prem Panicker rightly sums up: “Such 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.”

The real issue surrounding temple elephants

The most important issue with respect to temple elephants is the fact that elephants by nature are independent and like to roam freely. They need large space to live and move. But, in temples there is a great restriction on their movements due to reduced availability of space compared to wilderness. Elephants are often chained due to this reason as well. Another issue is that of availability of clean water in sufficient amount. Also, the work schedule may be too hectic and the living shelters may not be up to the mark. Temple elephants often suffer from isolation as well. The extreme methods used in taming of elephants is a grave issue.

Elephants_Kerala_festivalTraditionally, mahouts are usually classified into Reghawan, Yukthiman, and Balwan. Reghavan controls the elephant using love and care and develops a bond with his elephant. The Yukthiman uses wit and intelligence to outsmart the elephants and hence tame them. The Balwan uses forceful means to achieve the same.

The temple authorities, as well as the government, must make sure that only the first and second types of mahouts are employed in the handling of elephants. Secondly, various modern equipment and techniques can be combined with traditional methods of taming elephants so that the activity of taming and transporting of elephants are done as smoothly and peacefully as possible. Utmost care must be taken to not handle elephants violently.

Further, the living conditions and the infrastructure provided for the elephants including, food, water, shelter etc. must be conductive to the health and happiness of the elephants. Their working conditions must be improved and they must be allowed to rest more and work less.

The 2009 report “Captive Elephants of Temples of India” written by Surendra Varma and others observers that, if the temples were to cater to the welfare of elephants, there are only two ways. The first way, the report says is to put a complete end to the practice. This is what is being demanded by the Bangalore-based Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, which has filed the PIL in the Supreme Court for banning the use of elephants in religious functions and processions. But, there are some serious issues with this argument.

elephantsIf a ban is demanded on keeping the elephants captive in temples, then such a ban must be demanded about any kind of captivity of animals. That would mean shutting down of not only various zoos across the country, but also prohibiting the practice of having pets at home. After all, if captivity itself is the issue and not the living conditions, then even a dog or a cat or even a cow are all in captivity in one way or the other. But, most people will definitely disagree with this suggestion.

Therefore, it is not proper to target a ban on captive elephants in the temples. If such a ban must be enforced, it must be equally enforced across the country on all kinds of animal captivity, including captivity of animals for scientific research. As such a blanket ban is not practical, it is better to improve the living conditions of the temple elephants. This is the second way suggested in the Surendra Varma and other’s report. It suggests that the owners of elephants must be mandated to provide natural conditions for the living of elephants like large space with sufficient vegetation, presence of companions and keeping at least 2-3 elephants together. The report further suggests following measures to be stipulated for temples that own an elephant:

1. The work load on the elephants should not be too much. The work schedule of the elephants should not be packed with as many festivals as possible in order to generate higher income. This can be achieved by charging higher fee per festival but limiting the number of festivals that elephants attend.

2. Another aspect of work is that the elephants should be provided natural transit living conditions in between periods of work. This implies not only restricted duration of work for the elephants but also taking care of all its needs during working hours.

3. Temples within a region could think of setting up a common facility capable of holding elephants belonging to different owners. This can be done independently or in association with the forest department. This will ensure presence of companions for the elephants and provide socializing opportunities.

4. Feeding the elephant needs to be managed scientifically, that is, not only the nutrient needs of the elephant but also psychological stimulation can be an objective while feeding the elephant; cultivation of fodder crops by temples can be practiced.

5. Formulation of policies/ monitoring/ providing recommendations on the captive situation for temple elephants needs to be streamlined to a single person or group of persons.

6. Establishment of mobile veterinary units to provide health care for temple elephants.

7. Motivational measures to be implemented for boosting morale of mahouts and schemes to improve their welfare.

8. General public must be allowed to view elephants at a distance and not allowed to touch or abuse elephants during parades, festivals, transportation, or rest.

When seen in the backdrop of the recommendations of the Surendra Varma report, the Supreme Court’s directive in the PIL by Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre is a very positive step.

The SC has ordered a head-count and registration of all captive elephants present in Kerala. It has asked the concerned authorities to issue “declaration of ownership” to the elephant owners. This will help in pinning responsibility for the health, safety and security of the elephants on the owners of the elephants and on the organizers of the festivals.

Cruelty towards animals is a ground reality. It is not just limited to treatment of elephants at few temples. When chickens or cows are slaughtered for food, even that is cruelty. When animals are hunted for their horns or fur; that is also cruelty. To use this issue of cruelty towards animals to create a negative discourse about India and Hinduism will serve no useful purpose. It will instead do a great damage to the genuine issue of animal welfare.

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