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.

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