There has been much grief and fury over the death of the “beloved” 51-year-old elephant, Ambalappuzha Vijayakrishnan. If he had been truly beloved, though, there should have been grief and fury over his life. He did not belong with the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB). He belonged with his mother and his herd. Elephants do not belong in temples. They do not belong in captivity.
And not just the TDB, but every single temple board and every single individual who owns or trains an elephant is ill-treating the animal—if by nothing else, by keeping him or her out of his or her natural habitat. But there is far more damage than that. Elephants are wild animals, and cannot be domesticated except by a brutal process, which involves premature separation from their mothers—traumatising both the mothers and the babies—and beating of the calves into submission. Which is why a 10-foot tall animal weighing between 4000 and 6000 kilograms doesn’t trample and kill a creature about an tenth its size. That is why mahouts can tie them up and beat them. That is why mahouts can blind them. That is why devotees can worship them. That is why temples can hire or buy them.
The problem is not with the fitness certificate issued to Vijayakrishnan. No animal should be paraded at a temple festival. There should be no “captive elephant management committee” because there should be no captive elephant. It is an unnatural state of being. It is alleged that Vijayakrishnan had been poked with a “sharp metal object” by his mahout, leading to the swelling in his leg which could have caused his death.
In February this year, a mahout and his assistant were caught on camera beating up an elephant that screams and trumpets, after tying her to a tree at—of all places—the annual rejuvenation camp for temple and mutt elephants near Mettupalayam. The men were arrested by the Coimbatore Forest Department, but will be replaced by two other brutes. Jayamalyatha, who must have been separated in her infancy from her mother and herd, will continue to live in captivity and run the risk of being beaten every time she fails to obey the commands of those brutes. She is all of 18 and has decades to go before she is brutalised to death.
Another “beloved” elephant, Ramachandran was brought from Bihar to the premises of the Thechikottukavu Peramangalthu Devaswom in Thrissur in 1983. He had been in captivity in Bihar too. He was 18 when he had to switch captors and languages and names. Ramachandran was paraded at temple festivals, and called a “superstar”. He lost his left eye to a mahout. The Forest Department has booked several of his mahouts for cruelty after noticing his swollen legs at various times. His killing ten people between 1988 and 2018 was not seen as a symptom of misery in captivity, and he continued to be paraded.
Domesticated elephants exist entirely to serve human needs and pander to human vanity. They are used for hard labour, even by the forest department—which has its “kumkis”, elephants trained to subdue other elephants. Privately-owned elephants are hired out at festivals for between Rs. 35,000 and Rs. 1,00,000 a day. When they are not the subjects of transactions, they are chained—a fine fate for the “divine”—and walked along hot tar roads unsuited to their feet in order to earn their keep by “blessing” people who call themselves “devotees”. They are given palm leaves for fodder, which could block their intestines. Free elephants roam forests for most of the day, covering between 25 and 195 kilometres a day, choosing which leaves and which grass they consume.
Punathur Kota, near Guruvayur, was pulled up in 2018 for holding more than 60 elephants in a space of 18.5 acres. Typically, a wild elephant has for its home range about 75,000 acres.
Although riding atop elephants is technically forbidden according to the law, this is rarely enforced.
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests set up an Elephant Task Force in 2010, which recommended the phasing out of captivity and sale of elephants. But the largest elephant fair, Sonepur Mela, continues to find a special mention on the Incredible India website. It is referred to as “cattle fair” on the website.
Elephants are used for safaris in “national parks”, a euphemism for zoos, across the world. In China, Germany and Thailand, captive elephants have tried to kill—and sometimes succeeded in killing—their new-born calves, perhaps from a maternal instinct to protect them from this terrible life; perhaps from post-partum or perennial depression; perhaps from insanity caused by the conditions in which they live.
Most Indian epics feature gods having some connection to animals. None of them remove these animals from their natural habitats. And yet, our interpretation is that these animals should be pulled out of where they belong so we can see our gods in them. We destroy their homes and then accuse them of “encroaching” into our cities.
Animals don’t belong in chains any more than gods—or humans—do. It is absurd that the law doesn’t forbid their captivity, in temples as much as in zoos.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com