The tragedy of the temple elephant

Over the last few years, one sees systematic attempts to selectively target  Hindu Dharma traditions, customs and practices in the guise of animal rights and humanising the way animals are treated.  The move to ban Jallikattu and temple elements are a few such instances.  While instances of cruelty to animals must be dealt with a zero-tolerance policy, is it right to demonise and ban entire traditions because of a few instances?

The use of incompatible frames of reference and the cultural orphaning, orchestrated by vested interests are a clarion wake up call. Reductionist attempts to whitewash and trivialise Hindu Dharma smack of arrogance, entitlement, dissociation and disregard for Hindu Dharma ethos.

Elephas Maximus – Literally, the word means an animal with huge ivory tusks. The Asiatic elephant. Popularly known as the Indian elephant. Revered as a cultural icon, worshiped as a sacred being, loved and adored as a heritage animal of the country. This majestic pachyderm looms over the Indic landscape through folklore, art, music, mythology, warfare, Itihasa-Purana tradition and subsequent literary traditions. Significantly,  Sri Ganesha, the elephant-God,  in his role as a scribe,  broke one of his tusks and used it to write the Mahabharata, dictated by Maharishi Veda Vyasa.

The elephant is an integral part of every major Shaivite and Vaishnavite temple in south Bharat. My octogenarian father recalls  the Vishwaroopa seva darshan (early morning darshan, often the first one of the day) of Sri Ranganatha at the Sri Rangam temple. Andal, the temple elephant would be the first to greet Sri  Ranganatha, her trunk raised skywards in sheer piety and devotion as she trumpeted sonorously.

Growing up as I did in a family that was rooted in the values of Hindu Dharma, domesticated elephants were a part of our religious and cultural landscape. It never occurred to me, then and now, to view Hindu religious and cultural symbols such as the elephant from a so-called “animal rights” perspective and cruelty to animals. Like many of us, when we made an offering of cash or fruit  to the elephant either at the temple or if saw them on the road, we never perceived that they were used for “begging.” Because that simply was not part of our mindscape.

Many decades later, as a wildlife enthusiast,  I was “blessed” to sight an elephant and her calf in the wild in the sylvan forests of the Periyar National Park nestled in the Western Ghats in Kerala. Since then, my frequent sightings of elephants in the wild—in their million moods and protean behavioral manifestations—have never ceased to amaze me. However, my respect and adoration for elephant straddles their  domestic and wild  habitations.

It was now easy for me to appreciate why this tallest land mammal has fascinated Indic imagination over  millennia.  In Bharat, captive elephants were used extensively  from worship to war. The army of every major king in  Bharat was known as chaturanga or a four-pronged division that consisted  of elephants, chariots, cavalry and infantry.

Kautilya in the Artha shastra writes, “ A king relies mainly on elephants for achieving victory in battles. With their large bodies, they are able to do things in war, which are dangerous to the other arms of the forces. They can be  used to crush foot soldiers, battle arrays, forts and encampments.”

Recognising the importance of domestication of elephants and its important role in the human ecosystem, several ancient texts on elephantology in Sanskrit describe in detail various aspects of domestication of elephants, including health and maintenance. These include Hasti Ayurveda (life science of elephant) by Rishi Palaykappya, Brihat Samhita by  Varahamihira  Mathangaleela (elephant sport) by Neelakantha, Manasollasa by Someswara and Gaja shastra.   

Stephen Alter in his well-researched book Elephas maximus: A portrait of the Indian elephant writes about  how the etymology of words for the elephant in Bharatiya and foreign languages  can  reveal a lot, if one knows to read between the lines. For instance, the Sanskrit word for elephant is gaja. The root ‘garj’ or thunder highlights the symbolic and metaphorical association  of elephants with storm clouds and rain. Similarly, the modern Hindi word for elephant haathi is derived from ‘hathin’ which means hand, an obvious reference to the animal’s all-purpose trunk. In stark contrast,  the English word elephant is derived from the Greek word ‘elephas’ which means ivory.

“The emphasis placed on the trunk in Indian (Bharatiya) vocabulary implies an appreciation and understanding of the animal’s dexterity as well as its usefulness to man. On the other hand, defining an elephant by its ivory would suggest differing priorities,” writes Alter.

This differing priority is obviously, utilitarian. Alter’s observation sounds ominous especially in the light of the recent high profile campaigns to ‘Save the temple elephant,” by the dubious animal rights NGO PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) India,  and their associated cabal of so-called wildlife NGOs in the country,  who arrogate the right to rescue elephants from the temples on the grounds of cruelty and ill-treatment and  impose blanket bans on temple elephants. Differing priorities or different paradigms? Most likely the latter—Western Vs. Indic.

If you’ve visited Puducherry, the coastal city in Tamil Nadu on the East Coast,  a visit to the Manakula Vinayagar Temple, whose presiding deity is the powerful Sri Ganesha, is mandatory on the list of ‘to see’ places in the city. The most famous tourist attraction is of course, Lakshmi, the gentle and friendly temple elephant who has been with the temple since 1997.

Lakshmi, the temple elephant (Credit: Flickr @arnisd)

However, last week, following sustained lobbying by PETA and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), Lakshmi was shifted from the temple on complaints of repeated abuse and cruelty to the elephant, violation of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act 1972 and non-compliance  with the Tamil Nadu Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2011.

However, this is not the first time that temple elephants are being targeted by PETA and its allies. In 2016,  three elephants belonging to the Kanchi Mutt, Sandhya, Indu and  Jayanthi were forcibly removed from the Kanchi Mutt following a complaint filed by PETA for non-compliance with  rules for captive elephants. Following a Madras High Court Order,  the three pachyderms were moved to Wild Life Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, Marakanam. However,  animal welfare activists and devotees were shocked at the obvious torture and cruelty the animals were subject to while being translocated.

This then spurred S. Muralidharan, animal welfare activist of the Indian Centre for Animal Rights and Education (INCARE), Chennai, to file a case against PETA and its allies at the Madras High Court. Despite the heavyweights involved, the Madras High Court passed a judgement that called for the elephants, which were once again ill-treated at the centre, to be transferred to the elephant camp being run by the Tamil Nadu Forest department in Trichy.

Muralidharan has been relentlessly spearheading the cause of temple elephants. A  robust pro-Jallikattu campaigner, he was also among those who spearheaded the pro-Jallikattu Movement and  is a walking encyclopaedia on the Asiatic elephant. According to him,  elephants in Bharat can be classified into the following categories:  wild, domestic,  temple-owned, privately-owned, and zoo and circus-owned.

Muralidharan explains that elephants migrate for food and water during summer and their migratory routes are known as elephant corridors. However, encroachments have destroyed many elephant corridors,  thus making human-elephant conflicts inevitable when elephants go wandering for food across buffer zones in forests. The average age of a Bharatiya wild elephant today stands at a pathetic 40 years,  while  it used to be close to 100 years many years ago. However, the average age of domestic elephants is 60 years, which is 20 years more than their counterparts in the wild. This is because they are generally well looked after.

“Temple elephants and those owned by individuals and in  circuses support an entire ecosystem, generate employment and livelihoods for  the several people such as the mahouts and those involved in their maintenance and upkeep. However, contrary to popular misconception, cruelty to such elephants is either minimal or doesn’t exist. For instance, ankush is the tool used to control  an elephant; to restrain it.  Elephants need to be restrained or chained so as to prevent them harming others. It’s just like a leash or collar on a dog.

However, the extremely influential and powerful animal rights lobby headed by a well-known politician controls the discourse and dictates policy. The ill-advised animal rights clan has even banned breeding of elephants in captivity and has  also banned private ownership of elephants since 1995,” fumes the animal welfare activist.

There is certainly more than meets the eye. I must confess that the state-wide pro-Jallikattu movement, a people’s movement, rekindled in me a pride for indigenous  practices, traditions and customs. It was  rite of passage in my decolonisation and reclaiming my Indic identity —an ongoing journey that is part of my quest to live authentically and celebrating the Bharatiya-ness that is my essence.

Based on a petition by PETA India, and AWBI, the Supreme Court banned Jallikattu because  of alleged cruelty to animals and violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960. Currently as a fall out of the protests,  the Governor of Tamil Nadu has issued an ordinance that has authorized Jallikattu to continue, albeit with a State Amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960.

Demonising and banning entire traditions is hegemonic and therefore a  cause for concern.

“Sabarimala has been desecrated, Jallikattu and Diwali crackers banned, the height of the pyramidal Dahi Handi sport has been cut down, Holi colours are branded ‘harmful’, the mules used by pilgrims (especially those from low-income groups) to  travel across the rocky terrain  to Vaishno Devi temple has been banned,  the famed elephant rides in Jim Corbett National Park and Jaipur banned, Rekla bullock cart race banned and the  Kambhala bullock cart race in Karnataka is all set to go too,” explains Muralidharan.

Certainly, when one connects the dots what emerges is the systematic denigration and destruction of  traditions and practices of Hindu Dharma. Often, the line between so-called humanising interventions are  blurred. On the contrary, they are artfully disguised attempts at offending and insulting local traditions and selective targeting of Hindu Dharma. Perhaps a colonial hangover of the White Man’s Burden of having to civilize the ‘savages’. However,  in their 21st century manifestation, the perpetrators are elite Western educated citizens of Bharat  funded by vested interests and completely ignorant of Hindu Dharma traditions.

“Despite a thousand years of foreign invasions and rule, Hindu Dharma has stood like a rock. Today, 75 percent of the population of our country are Hindus. So, obviously there have to be other ways to shake, weaken and break the foundation of a religion. The blanket ban on such traditional practices that target  one particular community, is the next best option. Ironically, horse racing and rodeo bull riding is not banned anywhere in the world. Such forms of “cultural orphaning make us vulnerable to evangelical forces,”  says Muralidharan.

Arjun Sampath, President, Indu Makkal Katchi (IMK), and Satya, Hindu Dharma activist and member, IMK, aver that such cultural orphaning led and orchestrated  by Western NGOs also destroys  associated livelihoods  and makes people even more vulnerable to the “conversion mafia of neo Communism and evangelical forces  because their ecosystem has been lost forever.”

However, in the temple  elephant issue,  the mainstream narrative is heavily skewed towards a popular perception of  elephants being ill-treated in temples. Their tall claims are often supported by what the articulate Satya describes as “atrocity videos” that  deliberately present  torture and cruelty meted out to elephants; often with an additional information  that “this has been captured by hidden cameras.”

For instance, well-known documentary film-maker Sangeetha Iyer’s documentary Gods in shackles perpetuates the negative stereotype of ill-treatment and cruelty towards temple elephants in Bharat and the need to rescue and rehabilitate them. This sets the stage for the takeover by  entitled wildlife NGOs that are well connected with powerful and influential lobbyists, lawyers and politicians.

For instance,  having  been born in Kerala, Ms.  Iyer says she has a natural affinity for elephants and  describes them as her “soul animals.” She then flourishes the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, and goes on to  declaim, “Not a single Hindu scripture has mentioned that elephants were used in temples. This is a misinterpretation in the guise of culture and religion. Captured elephants in India are subject to abhorrent torture and barbaric treatment… tarnishing my beautiful Hindu philosophy.”

The PETA India webpage for instance highlights the temple elephant  Lakshmi’s plight with a tear-jerker narrative “Lonely elephant Lakshmy deserves a sanctuary.” In a piece clearly written on the AIDA (Attention Interest Desire Action) principle, it catalogues a litany of Lakshmi’s ill treatment at the temple and finally concludes with a triumphant plea to relocate Lakshmi to a sanctuary where it could possibly live happily ever after!

“Cruelty is present in every aspect of society. Eradicating cruelty is a long-term effort. But PETA is not genuinely interested in eradicating cruelty, they are merely interested in banning. They went after the Jallikattu festival a few years ago. They make videos and publicise Bharat as a barbaric land to the rest of the world, like we still live in the Stone Age. How can travelling on elephants and horses be cruel? Their bodies are designed precisely for that purpose. Livestock is meant for eating, similarly, elephants are meant to be ridden. Similarly, if you ban Jallikattu, those bulls will go to the slaughterhouse, which is what has already happened,” explains Muralidharan.

There are several forces that collude and orchestrate the various ban movements that one sees operational in the Hindu Dharma landscape. However,  what is clearly problematic is the use of alien frames of  reference:  The Western paradigm to view an Indic (or any other) tradition and the resulting universalism that it implies. In other words, the absence of a dharmic perspective results in conflicts that arise from superimposing an alien perspective to try to understand and “fit”  the dominant frame of reference.  For instance,  a frequent charge against the use of  elephants in temples is that they are used for “begging.” However,  elephant activists allege that isn’t it possible if one extrapolates this argument that vested interests also “beg for dollars”  using the same elephants?

“Animal rights and animal welfare are clearly distinct and different. Animal rights wants all performing animals banned, irrespective of cruelty. All performing animals should be dumped in shelters, and after  that animal rights activists never check their real status, which is crueller. That’s exactly what happened to the circus animals and Jallikatu bulls. Animal welfare, on the other hand, believes that all animals are to be cared for, wherever they are. It educates people to eradicate animal cruelty, if any. And most important, domesticated animals should never be separated from their human family, unless the cruelty is intentional or they are abandoned,” explains Muralidharan.

Muralidharan is firm that cruelty to animals is non-negotiable and must be dealt with a zero-tolerance policy. He urges people, individually and collectively to take up the cause of temple elephants. He believes creating awareness about the maintenance and upkeep of domesticated elephants is necessary. Then, when people visit temples and they spot instances of neglect or ill treatment, they can act as whistleblowers and inform the authorities concerned, which also includes NGOs and individuals with genuine expertise in this area.

“It is unfair to ban an entire tradition or practice on the base of isolated instances of animal abuse. Wildlife NGOs and other organisations like PETA have every right to address issues of cruelty and take appropriate measures. But it ends there. Who gives them the right to interfere, meddle and impose a blanket ban? If you come across instances of abusive marriages, will you  ban the entire institution of marriage?” Murali asks in anguish.

A famous elephant parable  describes a  group of visually challenged people trying to describe the elephant each from his perspective. Reductionist attempts to whitewash  and trivialise Hindu Dharma  with incompatible frames of reference smack of arrogance, entitlement and  complete dissociation and disregard for Hindu Dharma ethos. Its time to reclaim Dharma from the adharmic stranglehold.

The Bharatiya elephant is both a metaphor and symbol of this adharmic stagnation. However, the tradition and glory of this ancient civilization has proved that it is resilient to reinvent itself and emerge triumphant with every adharmic assault.


Did you find this article useful? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.

HinduPost is now on Telegram. For the best reports & opinion on issues concerning Hindu society, subscribe to HinduPost on Telegram.

About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.