Can Kerala Get on Board With a New and More Compassionate Pooram?

Captive elephants that are paraded at a pooram have their spirit crushed and their will broken. The response to Irinjadapilly “robot” Raman from pooram lovers and devotees alike on social media shows that the public may be ready to envisage a pooram without live elephants.

The melam artists kicked off the musical performance at the Irinjalakuda Sree Krishna Temple’s pooram. The drumbeats rose in crescendo, to be joined by the ilathalam (cymbals), and finally, the kombu players. Irinjadapilly Raman stood to one side of the performers, his ears gently swaying. The ceremony culminated in the exchange of colourful umbrellas (kodamattam) on top of the caparisoned and 11-foot-tall Raman, cheered by the crowd.

These are the sounds and sights of the pooram, beloved to every seasoned pooram visitor. The only difference here was that Irinjadapilly Raman is a robotic elephant, with a skeleton of steel, an exterior made of rubber, and with five motors that make movement possible. The robotic elephant was gifted by PETA India to the Irinjalakuda Sree Krishna Temple and unveiled to the public on February 26, 2023.

Down the road at the same time, another temple was holding a pooram, with five live elephants. The panchavadyam performance here was larger, as was the crowd. As the music rose in volume and intensity, the swelling crowds cheered louder. Crackers went off; the crowd roared. But the elephants seemed to not have heard. They were unmoving. The only sign that they were alive was the flapping of their ears, which is said to cool them down.

Elephants that are paraded at a pooram have their spirit crushed and their will broken. This was the resignation that I saw in the five live elephants at the other pooram in Irinjalakuda. The process of hardcore ‘training’ that gets them to this zombie-like state is called ketti azhikkal, literally, tying and releasing. The wild animal – for it is incontrovertible that even in captivity, the elephant remains wild – is systematically dominated by man through constant chaining, brutal beating with rods, and deprivation of food and water.

In the pooram season, an elephant that has thus been dominated usually travels long distances in a truck from one pooram district to another and is made to stand in the hot sun for hours. Come night, the cycle begins again. Onward in another truck, to another district and another pooram.

Also read: From Kerala to Tamil Nadu, a Good Week for Elephants

Sometimes the elephant snaps, as did Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, the 65+ year old veteran and show-stopper at the Thrissur pooram. Completely blind in the right eye and partially blind in the other eye, Ramachandran – called Raman by his fans – recently ran amok at a parade in Palakkad district. Ramachandran, now old and blind, has been headlining at the pooram for 18 years. He has killed 13 human beings, including one minor, and three elephants. Most of these attacks take place because Ramachandran gets spooked by loud noises, such as the bursting of firecrackers or, as happened last week in Palakkad, the trumpeting of another elephant. Since he’s totally blind in his right eye, he’s said to be sensitive to unexpected noises to his right.

Ramachandran has been banned from being paraded several times, at Thrissur pooram and in other poorams, but each time, the ban is revoked because of pressure and blackmail from the powerful elephant owners’ association. The blind and ailing elephant needs to be permanently retired to a sanctuary, both for his own sake and for the safety of people and elephants at the Thrissur pooram.

The response to Irinjadapilly “robot” Raman from pooram lovers and devotees alike on social media shows that the public may be ready to envisage a pooram without live elephants. As Raman’s unveiling ceremony showed, the atmosphere was just as electrifying and the pooram rituals just as significant for the audience. Substituting the live elephant with a robotic or other alternative takes nothing away from the cultural aspect of Kerala’s pooram, which attracts people across religions, or from the sanctity of the rituals that define the pooram.

And alternatives are available in plenty, from robotics to hologram technology. In recent times, Circus Roncalli in Germany (which started phasing out the use of animals in the 1990s) introduced holographic projections of animals, including an elephant and a fleet of horses, with 360-degree all-around visibility for spectators. What if such alternatives become the norm?

On March 1, neighbouring state Tamil Nadu showed the way to the whole country on how it should treat elephants in captivity. A historic judgment by Justice G.R. Swaminathan of the Madurai bench of the Madras high court declared that temples in the state should not acquire further elephants, and added, “Time has now come to take a call if all such elephants now in captivity (both temples and privately owned) should be shifted to Government Rehabilitation Camps.”

What if, across India, we could embrace this judgment? The lives of those elephants already in captivity would see a dramatic change. We cannot alter the fact of their captivity nor erase the cruelties they have suffered. But we can ensure that they live out the rest of their lives in the forests, surrounded by the wilderness that I’m sure they have memories of, from childhood.

With the help of technology, we could envisage a new pooram, true to form in its essence, and one that’s hailed across the world for its compassion and innovation. As the visionary head priest of the Irinjalakuda Sree Krishna Temple, Rajkumar Namboodiri, says, “Worship, to me, is compassion for animals.”

Bharati Ramachandran is CEO of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations.