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Caparisoned Elephants: Sad Faces of Temple Festivals in Kerala

Kerala—the tropical strip of a state in India’s south with its alluring palm-fringed beaches, lush rainforests, mountain ridged valleys, tranquil backwaters, exotic Ayurveda, and rolling hillside plantations—is, by all means, God’s own Country. Yet, the most abiding image of the landscape is the sad faces of the caparisoned temple elephants. Their agony has taken the sheen off the festivities so enmeshed in the cultural ethos of the land.

In Kerala, cultural festivals involving elephant pageants commence in November, and span over a six-month period. They culminate into the famous Thrissur Pooram festival in April/ May. During this time, the temples earns millions of rupees during the festivals by exploiting the gentle giants for profit. Behind the razzle-dazzle of it all, elephants are treated as commodities by temple authorities and organizers. They mean huge business for the greedy owners.

The Festival Scene: Elephants in Distress

Hundreds of elephants are draped in rich gold and silk, embellished with heavy ornaments, and paraded around temples and along the streets to the beats of drums, percussions, loud music, and deafening noise of fireworks. The visual is accentuated with orchestrated roars from the millions of devotees thronging the temple premises.

Let’s not forget, elephants are highly sentient beings. As they are trapped in a relentless cacophony of sound, the fandom and the explosive energy has a convulsing effect on them. Animal conservationists feel that this is an assault on their senses, possibly one of the harshest.

Not only that, the blazing sun of the summer months add to their unbearable misery. Ambling into the procession for 36 tortuous hours makes the elephants visibly distressed for want of food, water, and sleep. And all this happens while their legs are heavily shackled and three or four men seated on their backs. The festivals are a nemesis for the elephants struggling with wounds, abscesses, arthritis, etc. On top of that, the elephants carry about 500 pounds on their delicate spine. They are also trucked hastily and dangerously from one temple to another, multiple times during the festival season, to increase the owner’s chances of more profit. This again is a different kind of ordeal for them. Also remember that they are weaned away from their families in the wild. Under such conditions, elephants-turning-violent makes headlines, for good obvious reasons.

Gods in Shackles—Busting Myths

One needs to watch Gods in Shackles, a multiple award-winning epic documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Sangita Iyer—also a celebrated nature and wildlife journalist and the founder of Voice for Asian Elephants Society (VFAES)—to understand the ramifications that spring from the frenzied celebrations accompanying such festivals.

The film exposes the ugly facet of Kerala’s cultural spectacle that exploits captive elephants for profit. It is also a stark reminder that cultural and religious institutions can also be the perpetrators of cruelty and crime, and, if left unchecked, can lead to serious social and psychological damages. Catch the Vancouver, WA premiere of the film on November 11, 2018.

Thrissur Pooram: The Star Attraction

Kerala is the only state in India where bull elephants are a prominent feature in temple festivals. The Thrissur Pooram elephant festival carries the onus of a 200-year-old tradition that was started by Raja Rama Varma, famously known as Sakthan Thampuran, the ruler of Kochi who unified the temples in his territory and organized Thrissur Pooram as a mass festival.

The UNESCO declared the extravaganza as the most spectacular festival event on the planet. Fittingly so, Thrissur Pooram has attained a carnivalesque stature over the last few decades.. This is mostly a reflection of the media frenzy, a buoyant consumerist culture, an all-pervasive social media presence, and a robust international spotlight. The hard life of celebrity elephants is an issue mired in a web of allegations and controversy.

There is as such no legitimate reference to how the ritualistic practice of elephant shows in festivals started, but research suggests that its integration could be a result of the mammal being forced out of the workforce as wars and battles became a thing of the past. With the onslaught of technology, soldiers and loggers no longer needed elephants at work, and so they got pushed into the backyards of the temples. Consequently, festivals turned out to be a lucrative business for owners who pinned their money-making hopes on these high-maintenance animals.

However, a step in the right direction is underway in Kerala. The Forestry Department (FD) is mandating that captive elephants over the age of 39 undergo rigorous health checks before participating in festivals and parades. This is a great step forward, for VFAES as an organization has been lobbying the FD to enforce the existing laws of the land. In fact, VFAES has presented numerous proposals, including a revised set of guidelines, more stringent than the existing Kerala Captive Elephant Management and Maintenance Rules (2012).

Meantime, the organization is also trying to educate and enlighten the youth on issues surrounding elephant welfare and conservation. Connect with us on Facebook and share your elephant stories. Join the movement.

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