Menu Close

Temple elephants… and what lies beneath

At the entrance to the temple is Devi. She 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. Prof Nameer has asked the temple leaders (politicians, businessmen) to allow the animals to be walked for one hour a day; they refused.

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 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.

Turn now to the next layer of that narrative, that tells the story of Padmanabhan, also of Guruvayur:

We reach the next elephant a few yards away. This is Padmanabhan, who has been at the temple for 35 years. A hind leg hangs at a terrible angle; he wobbles on three legs, all chained.

Prof Nameer tells me his leg was broken deliberately 15 years ago to subdue him. Research fellow Harish Sudhakar tells me later that this elephant too has not moved from his spot in 20 years.

Padmanabhan is among the most famous of Guruvayur’s elephants. Originally a native of the Nilambur reserve forest, he was donated on January 18, 1954 by one Cherukunnath Namboodiri as a thanksgiving gift to the presiding deity for having fulfilled the Namboodiri’s longing for a child.

He is – has been for decades – the star of the Guruvayur stable of elephants; he has a Facebook page run by his fans; he has routinely led the Pooram festival of Thrissur. In 2005, this happened:

Guruvayur Padmanabhan arrived in Kollam to captain this year’s Kollam pooram rituals. Padmanabhan was a thanksgiving offering from the Nilambur Kovilakom to the Guruvayur Temple when he was young. Last year, the 64-year-old tusker was judged by elephant connoisseurs as the most handsome among the living domesticated elephants of the State. A verdict the gave him the title of “Gajaratnam Guruvayur Padmanabhan”.

The judges found a graceful combination of jumbo physical features in him. Padmanabhan maintains a dominating height and a regal gait. Many in Kollam just stood and gazed at him awe struck. Be it on the move or just standing, he is one tusker who seems particular about sporting an impressive posture.

PrabhuThe judges found Padmanabhan’s gait “regal” – not an adjective you would apply to an elephant with a permanently broken leg.

As recently as December 2014, actor/director Prabhu Deva, on a visit to Guruvayur prior to the release of his film Action Jackson, prayed to Padmanabhan who, at the time, was resting at the elephant camp, Punnathur Kotta.

Moving on:

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. In the wild, an elephant will drink 140 to 200 litres of water a day. Here, they are lucky if they get five to ten. It turns out there are vets on call. But an expert from the Centre for Wildlife Studies says: ‘They are not even qualified. They promote bad welfare to earn more money.’

The panampatta – the 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 (literally, 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, Cancer), 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 of anything from 21-45 days.

In passing, I wish the writer had clarified the economic conundrum that ends the passage cited above. How does bad welfare help earn more money?

In this fashion, the piece piles horror on (manufactured) horror, all of it setting up a passage where a doctorate student describes in graphic detail how – and for how long – elephants are trained in order to prepare them to endure the noise of temple festivals, with their drums and their pyrotechnics.

The writer is, understandably, taken aback.

“I don’t believe him. This isn’t possible. Why hasn’t one of those BBC travelogues warned me about this?”

Perhaps because what Ms Jones hears – or quotes as having heard — is an exaggeration?

That segment concludes with this bit of eye-witness reportage:

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; everyone was laughing. They had each paid to enter the temple, while Hindus from all over the world donate money.

I don’t know – from not having been there at the time – just what those families Ms Jones met were laughing at. But the bit about paying to enter the temple? That is laughable. There is no entry fee for Guruvayur. There never has been. Ever.

Then comes a segue into history:

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 people have told me since I arrived in Kerala, I will be insulting traditions going back thousands of years). 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.’

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. The text:

… the temple elephant Padmanabhan having dead, we have no elephant for the ezhunnallath. We do not usually hire elephants for this purpose and it is difficult to get big elephants without payment. There are four fairly grown up elephants in this neighbourhood under the ownership of Punnathur and Ullanatt Panicker. We hope these elephants will be made available. We have written to some others including Kothachira mana. However, these elephants coming from outside need to be fed and their mahouts paid salaries. The estimate sent herewith includes these additional costs also.”

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.

KesavanGuruvayur’s most famous elephant is Keshavan, donated to the temple by Sri Manavedan, the Valiya Raja (senior king) of the royal family of Nilambur. When Keshavan died at the age of 72, on December 2, 1976, his portrait was placed above the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum, and his tusks framed the image of the presiding deity, Guruvayurappan  (image, left). A statue in his honor fronts the Kesavanentrance to the office of the Guruvayur Devaswom Board. The anniversary of his death is marked by a procession of all elephants attached to the temple, that ends with the elephants garlanding the statue of their fabled predecessor (see lead image, courtesy The Indian Express). A movie was made of his life and times; it was directed by Bharatan, a national award-winner. Keshavan’s story was also the subject of a year-long tele-serial that began airing on the Surya channel in 2009.

When an elephant is gifted to the temple, the prescribed ritual is nadayiruthal (literally, seating the elephant before the lord; think of it as a formal introduction).

Keshavan’s nadayiruthal was in 1922 – 47 years before elephants came to Guruvayur according to Ms Jones.

                                         *******

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).”

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.

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.

Since the acreage is limited, the elephants not participating in any of the temple rituals at a given point in time are leg-shackled to keep them from intruding into each other’s domain and equally, to ensure the safety of visitors (throughout the year, the elephant camp gets anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred pilgrims on any given day).

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.

Occasionally, elephants have run amok at festivals or at other times and in some cases, suffered for it. Ironically – and again, this is symptomatic of the shabby reporting that characterizes this piece – there is an elephant in Guruvayur whose leg was deliberately broken: Mukundan, as a result of having gone berserk while in musth and deemed, according to the mahouts, to be chronically untamable.

Ms Jones mentions the water supply and, as with so much else, gets her facts wrong. But there is a problem even here – the Kotta does not have any intrinsic source of water; elephants drink from large cement tanks filled regularly by hired tankers. These tanks are cleaned only at infrequent intervals, with the result that the water is more often than not contaminated.

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.

In its final report submitted in late 2014, the AIWB submitted that among other measures, the elephants must be moved to a larger space; that their water sources should be cleaned regularly; that 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 whole 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. My colleague Kalyan Varma has been narrating, in serial form, the story of man-elephant conflict in Hassan. His most recent story lays out in heart-breaking detail the process of capture. The next episode in Kalyan’s series, due soon, will take the reader inside the “secret camps” that Ms Jones writes about, to document the process of taming — and that is not for the faint of heart either.

So, no, it is not my suggestion that our interaction with elephants is idyllic – the reverse is true. 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. And if “lie” seems strong, consider this:

When I met Nandan, and Devi, and the two prisoners at the camp in Karnataka, I looked them in the eye. I saw shock, and incomprehension at what they had done to deserve decades of torture. I promised I would help them. The kraal and ankush, like the shoes, teeth and hair at Belsen, should exist only in a museum.

Ah, Devi. That poor female elephant who, barred from the temple for the crime of being female, has been kept chained at the entrance, immobile, for 35 years.

Looked her in the eye, did Ms Jones? How did she manage that, when neither Devi nor any other elephant is tied to the entrance of the temple, and never has been?

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.

“This must be a fabrication – remember that Daily Mail story where they said you have to pay to enter the temple?” is an inevitable reaction, particularly in the current climate where trust in the media is at an all-time low.

PS: One other point Ms Jones might keep in mind: When you either misquote, or take out of context and distort, the words of your interlocutors, of the people on the ground who took you on trust and gave you their time, you do untold damage to their reputations and also to their routine interactions with their peers and others in these geographies.

NB: The intent of this post is not to condone torture and/or any other cruel practices in vogue. The only thing this post — and its author — condemns is fabrications in non-fiction reportage.