“Victims of violence are rarely violent”  Albert Camus

“If they have wings they have the right to fly, if they have legs they have the right to walk and wander, if they have fins they have the right to swim…they have the right to choose whatever life they want, the right to be with their families in relationships and in nature which is not degraded, the right to self—determination and not be exploited by humans.” — Dr Steven Best

 In the deep south—west of India, on the Arabian seacoast, lies a verdant patch of luscious land and backwaters, a jewel land pompously promoted for tourists as “God”s Own Country”. The original and more humble name is Kerala. It is famous for its multi—civilisational history, breathtaking scenic beauty, well developed cuisine, cultural and linguistic magnificence and architecture of forts, palaces and cool stone temples with tiled roofs.

Guruvayur, near Thrissur in central Kerala is one of those “special” temples which attract millions of pilgrims the year round. The central deity here is Lord Krishna.  An idol feted, adored and worshipped by devotes all over the world.  

But unfortunately, idols don”t talk. If it could, it would tell the throngs a tragic tale. A tale so sad that it would make you shed as many tears as its protagonists and strengthen your resolve never to darken its doors. Or, at the very least, not to put a penny into its coffers.  

But if stone doesn”t talk, humans do and live to tell the tale. I am one such human, along with scores of others, carrying the message of the pain and misery of fifty nine elephants incarcerated in eleven acres of land called Punnathur Kotta under the Guruvayur Devaswom Board (GDB) right under Lord Krishna”s watch.  Here, our officially declared Schedule One, Heritage Animals are chained, gored, beaten, poked, wounded, starving, thirsty, blinded, maimed, imprisoned for life, their spirits broken by a sinister collective of temple authorities, powerful politicians, corrupt officials, film stars, landed gentry, drunk mahouts and gawking tourists. These animals are the temple devadasis to be used as it pleases anyone. All for some not—very—few pieces of silver which fall into the already bursting temple coffers.  

Kerala holds the unique distinction of being one of India”s most abysmal violators of animal protection in India. Recently, all of a sudden, one fine day, amazingly, most of Kerala”s stray dogs turned “rabid” biting humans left right and centre, prompting the administration “to sit up and do something.” That “something,” aided and abetted by the media, a cruel insensitive leadership and an ignorant society, turned out to be a vicious pogrom of the mass killing of stray dogs by contract killers who are paid Rs. 500 per dog. Pictures of these snarling, smirking, blood thirsty killers on their bikes on which are slung hundreds of innocent dead dogs are a plenty on social media for all to see. Now it is a death game (yes, the killings are taking place daily even now) between contractor and dog with state administrative bodies applauding and claiming that this is the only way to cure stray dog numbers. Really? In a few years, the numbers will be the same, if not more, and the contract killers can go on a blood hunt again. Public pressure falls on deaf ears inured to science. 

But this is another fight and another subject.  Let”s get back to Guruvayur where the temple authorities have developed hides thicker than the pachyderms they have imprisoned and tortured for decades. 

Let”s take a cursory look. Adithyan, donated by cine star, Ganesh Babu, has his forelimbs broken by mahouts and is permanently handicapped. Peethambaran spends his life chained under the open skies, Padmanabhan, whose hind leg has been deliberately broken wobbles on three legs, all chained, Damodar Das spends most of his time trying to free himself from his shackles, Keerthy, donated by celebrity actor, Suresh Gopi, has a mental condition brought about by intensive confinement, Nandan, his hind feet bound to a stump and his front legs chained to a tree has not been released for even an hour, for 20 years, Devi has been chained to one spot at the temple entrance for 35 years and has never moved, not one inch, Mukundan whose hind legs have been fractured, standing on three legs, tied for 24 hours. And so on. Each of the 59 elephants has been “broken” in some way or other. 

Do the elephants of Guruvayur know that World Elephant Day came and went on August 12th or that Ganesh Chaturthi in the name of the elephant god was celebrated on September 17th?  No, definitely not. Most of them simply want to stand upright, have a drink of water, stretch their bruised and pus—filled legs or simply walk. Many have not budged from their cramped positions for years.  Many have probably given up trying to wonder what it is they have done to deserve a life like this. Except be born an elephant at the wrong place and time.   

Recently, The Daily Mail, UK carried a stomach—churning article and pictures by journalist Liz Jones that shocked even the most apathetic reader. But even before she put this out, three official committees have investigated and submitted reports on the elephant abuse in Guruvayur. However, the third committee, headed by the well—known and respected poet—activist of Kerala, Sugatha Kumari, in May 2013, which published disturbing close—up pictures of these traumatised elephants, ended in the present report which I hold in my hands. This is a detailed report on the welfare and veterinary status of the Guruvayur elephants authorized by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and conducted by Dr. Arun Sha of Wildlife SOS and Suparna Bakshi Ganguly of CUPA. This report is field—based, scientific and empirical and as authentic a study as you will ever get and quite clearly not a result of some “sentimental outburst.”  

The investigation was carried out over a period of three days in August 2014, using field observations and detailed examination of veterinary records. Ownership certificates, work register, diet charts, interviews with staff and mahouts, records of offences, details of elephant donations and donors and collection of dung samples to evaluate the living conditions, physiological, psychological, behavioral and health profile of the elephants.

These conditions violate a multitude of laws and guidelines, including the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, Project Elephant Guidelines for Care and Management of Captive Elephants 2008.

These are the facts that the investigation has exposed. I quote from it, “Fifty—nine elephants are restricted to approximately eleven acres of land which is shared by 700—1000 visitors, 200 staff members, 3—4 water bodies and office buildings. The shelter consists of 8 sheds for 8 e lephants. The rest are chained with full exposure to the vagaries of the weather. Since there is no concept of free movement or grazing, they are tied to the same spot for 23—24 hours a day. There is complete lack of bathing facilities for 59 elephants. They are bathed with hose pipes in one stagnant algae—filled water body. There are three such water ponds which seem to be contaminated by sewage. They are fed a monotonous diet of 2 items, green grass and caryota palm leaves. Though elephants as a wild species have a recorded diet of more than 72 items, the Guruvayur temple elephants are maintained on this 2—fodder diet for 11 months of the year. Ownership certificates have many irregularities and documents incomplete and ambiguous. The environment is unhygienic in terms of dung waste and food waste disposal which is generated by 59 elephants housed in a factory farm situation. Health records validate diseases and infirmities caused by unnatural housing, continuous chaining, and chronic conditions of stress. The mahouts work an eight hour schedule and are addicted to substance abuse. Only one full—time veterinarian was observed at the time of inspection with no specific knowledge of elephant—specific treatment.”

These conditions violate a multitude of laws and guidelines, namely, The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, Project Elephant Guidelines for Care and Management of Captive Elephants 2008 and Central Zoo Authority Guidelines of Zoos in India – Legislation, Policy, Guidelines and Strategy 2014, The Wildlife Protection Act, 2002, Performing Animals Rules 1973, Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) 2012, etc. India has got to be the only country in the world that has drafted so many acts and laws for animals and also enforces the least number of them. 

The AWBI report provides further details. Without exception, all the elephants at Punnathur Kotta are chained and heavily shackled day and night with no adherence to any form of exercise. Immobility is the dominating disfunction here. Often these chains cut into the skin and embed themselves into their flesh which can only be surgically removed. They are tied in complete solitude for 22—23 hours, chained by one hind and one fore leg. Some are tied by both hind and one fore leg.  They stand for hours in slush, mud and piled dung like parked cars in contravention of the scientific fact that elephants are free—roaming mammals that walk over large stretches of land with their close—bonded families. Fifty—one elephants are exposed to the rain and blistering heat throughout the year with only eight sheds available. They are tethered to the same spot where they eat, urinate and defecate causing infections from which they are never healed. Septicemia and foot rot cause many deaths, apart from TB, lung infections and cardiac arrests. Many of them spend a lifetime trying to break free from their shackles exhibiting stereotypical behavior. There are no enrichments like water bodies, dust or mud bath. 

Temple elephants have little to do with religion and everything to do with trade, commerce and tourism.  Clearly there”s more to the use of elephants in temples and festivals than people in Kerala would like to believe or want the world to know. “Perhaps it may be easier to comprehend (although not condone) why these gentle giants are exploited in the name of culture and religion when you consider the significant revenue these elephants generate for Guruvayur Temple. It”s also easier to understand, why the GDB encourages the hiring and use of their elephants, and disregards stern warnings against such practices by the Central Government of India,” says Mr VK Venkitachalam, Secretary of the Heritage Animal Task Force. 

The AWBI report says that between January 2014 and April 2014, a total of 120 festival days, 38 out of the 59 elephants were leased out. In the four month span, a 52—year—old elephant Gopikrishnan worked for 77 days, i.e. more than 64 per cent of the festival days. Celebrity elephants, like Padmanabhan who is 74 years old, was made to toil continuously for 18—20 hours, earning for the temple up to seven lakhs for a day”s work though his retirement age is 65. A daily wage of seven lakh rupees is just a fraction of the profits that the GDB generates to run a religious business that willfully ignores the pain and suffering of a senior elephant. The amount of revenue generated annually by the festival elephants alone totalled up to 3.7 crores. And the overall 2014—2015 revenue including donations by devotees, sponsorship and the elephant camp is estimated to reach seven crores. Many elephants are in illegal custody to make quick money for the temple. 

“Work” means being loaded and unloaded from trucks, chained in alien environments and exhibited to the public for up to ten hours a day, subject to stress and noise of musical instruments, surge and pressure from chaotic crowds, tolerating and submitting to the dreaded bull—hook or ankush, being adorned with heavy coverings and cloth in the oppressive heat and humidity, no proper food, water, bath or shelter. Welfare is secondary to the elephant”s commitment to a festival schedule, often with no intervals for rest, and therefore whopping revenues. “Cultural practices cannot be considered greater than the laws of the land, whereby the exploitation of India”s Heritage animal is condoned,” says the AWBI report. 

The commonest excuse for temple elephants in captivity is “tradition”. Any expose on these elephants is considered as attacking Hindusim. But “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,” Venkitachalam says. “With the Gulf oil boom in the 1970s, when lots of Indians became rich, donating a “sacred” elephant became a status symbol. Using elephants in festivals only started in the mid—1970s. This is not ancient, this is new. All they care about is stuffing their pockets, as the mesmerized masses of Kerala follow the so called “cultural festivals” blindly.” 

So—called tradition and honouring the Gods is nothing but a malefic socio—cultural practice that yields much revenue. And, if indeed, one must hark back to anicient “Hindu” scriptural texts for validation, then let me quote from the Mahaprasthanika Parva, Verse 34,  “Ahimsa, Paramo Dharma – non—violence is the highest virtue. Ahimsa is the highest self—control, ahimsa is the greatest gift, ahimsa is the best suffering, ahimsa is the highest sacrifice, ahimsa is the finest strength, ahimsa is the greatest friend, ahimsa is the greatest happiness, ahimsa is the highest truth and ahimsa is the greatest teaching.” Krishna, the presiding deity in Guruvayur and in whose presence the elephants suffer, extolls non—injury in Chapter 10 Verse 5 of the Bhagavad Gita and harmlessness, gentleness and compassion to beings in Chapter 16, Verse 2. So technically, what the GDB is doing is against the exhortations of Hinduism and not those who speak up for the elephants.

The AWBI report is damning and places the responsibility squarely on the Guruvayur Dewaswom Board. “No institution, however prestigious and powerful, can hope to insulate itself when it is on the wrong side of public opinion on a long—standing humane concern. In just a few short years, the Guruvayur Devaswom”s elephant keeping model has lost its shine, seen its value downgraded, mishandled tragic incidents involving the brutal assault on the captive elephants and its reputation is being affected by swelling public skepticism of its elephant facility.” 

The report also details recommendations for the rehabilitation and welfare of Guruvayur”s elephants. What is required is to outlaw India”s temple elephants forever. 

But is anyone listening? Heritage animals, really?

Rukmini Sekhar, a writer and activist, joins her voice to those committed to fighting for justice for animals.

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