Kochi: It’s raining good news for captive elephants this week.
In a first, a robotic elephant took the place of a captive wild elephant to conduct rituals at a temple in Kerala on February 26. On March 1, the Tamil Nadu high court ruled that temples or private entities should not acquire more elephants in the state.
Both moves are an effort to cut down on the use of captive Asian elephants in temples and festivals, so as to eliminate the cruelty that the animals are subjected to during the process.
A god in chains
Elephants are revered as gods in Hinduism and are therefore a common sight in festivals and processions in many states. But nowhere is it possibly as routine a fixture in temples and festivals, including processions, as it is in the state of Kerala. As per a 2019 survey, there were around 2,450 captive elephants in the country. At 905, Assam then had the highest number of captive elephants, followed by Kerala (518).
The elephants are usually captured from the wild and trained to obey commands. Animal rights activists have long pointed out that the animals undergo cruel treatment at multiple stages of capture and ownership, and their health is often ignored to ensure that they are paraded in as many festivals as possible to rake in profits for their owners.
Captive elephant deaths are a concern. One NGO that works on elephant welfare alleged that 23 captive elephants died in Kerala over a span of 10 months in 2021 due to torture and neglect. Owners also often illegally transport the animals without valid travel permits. The treatment of elephants (often more than 100 individuals) that are paraded during the Thrissur pooram, an annual festival in Kerala’s Thrissur district, has also come under scrutiny. As per a letter written by the Centre for Research on Animal Rights – an animal rights group based in Goa – to Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on February 20, for instance, as many as 138 privately-owned pooram elephants died between 2018 and 2023.
Yet, at the same time, elephants are an integral part of Hindu worship, and their presence is considered mandatory in temple rituals in some areas. In an effort to ensure that temple ceremonies can be conducted without causing pain and suffering to the gentle giants, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India came up with a novel idea: they gifted a robotic elephant to conduct rituals and ceremonies that are part of temple worship to the Irinjadappilly Sree Krishna Temple in Kerala’s Thrissur district.
Irinjadappilly Raman was gifted to the temple by PETA India. #ElephantRobotRaman pic.twitter.com/vnkbl0pbwq
— PETA India (@PetaIndia) February 26, 2023
On February 26, temple authorities unveiled ‘Irinjadappilly Raman’, the first robotic elephant, in the temple premises. Award-winning Indian film actor Parvathy Thiruvothu also lent her support to the move by participating in the inaugural ceremony.
The life-sized 11-foot-tall elephant weighs 800 kg, and is crafted out of rubber on an iron frame, as per the Indian Express. The robot, which runs on five motors and cost Rs 5 lakh to create, can spray water from its trunk and thus be part of temple ceremonies.
“Irinjadappilly Raman will help conduct ceremonies at the temple in a safe and cruelty-free manner and thereby support real elephants’ rehabilitation and lives in forests and end the horror of captivity for them,” said PETA’s press release.
“We are extremely happy and grateful to receive this mechanical elephant which will help us to conduct our rituals and festivals in a cruelty-free way, and we hope that other temples will also think about replacing live elephants for rituals,” said Rajkumar Namboothiri, head priest of the temple, in a press release.
The need for change
Some, however, claim that the move is equivalent to “destroying culture”:
This is how you destroy a culture. Give ‘natives’ free stuff, say their customs are barbaric & virtue signal while denigrating their religious practice. Even better when the locals are thankful. Just pathetic. @PMOIndia @CMOKerala @dwimidhaM @KeralaTourism https://t.co/7Jbn5jmapc
— True Conservation Alliance (@TruConserve) March 1, 2023
However, elephant management in Kerala has been deteriorating over the past two decades, primarily due to extensive commercialisation, said elephant biologist Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, who studies elephants in the wild and is a member of the IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group.
“It has come a long way from what it used to be – a cultural phenomenon – and practices of bidding tuskers for six digits a day or head-lifting competitions are a testimony to that,” Vijayakrishnan told The Wire. “Despite untimely deaths at alarming rates being a concern, there is little or no effort towards understanding where key issues lie and addressing them to ensure elephant welfare.”
Some people also still advocate bringing in more elephants through interstate transfers and departmental auctions, Vijayakrishnan added. “To me, that will worsen existing conditions if there are no efforts made to better [the] current scenario. Instead of bringing more elephants into captivity, or into the state, the robotic elephants do seem like a better idea.”
The February 20 letter written by CRAR requested chief minister Vijayan to “phase out and wholly discontinue the use of chained elephants in the poorams, not just as a symbol of compassion, but as part of the larger project of social reform”. The letter urged the chief minister to issue orders to inquire into the deaths of the 138 pooram elephants, retire old and ailing elephants and rehabilitate them in rescue centres, and promote the use of mechanical or robotic elephants in the festival.
No acquiring more elephants: TN high court
Noting the pitiable condition of captive elephants in temples after visiting an ailing 60+ year old elephant in Virudhunagar district, Justice G.R. Swaminathan of the Tamil Nadu high court on March 1 ordered that temples in the state should not acquire more elephants, reported LiveLaw.
“In many a temple, the elephants are housed in absolutely unacceptable conditions. The concrete flooring, the tin roofing, the lack of freedom and poor supply of food make their lives hell. They are chained 24 hours a day. The drunk mahouts inflict terrible pain and cruelty on them. Separated from their natural family and unable to bear the torture, the poor animals do sometimes turn aggressive and violent,” the order noted, as per LiveLaw.
As per the article, the judge directed the secretary of the Environment and Forest Department to coordinate with the secretary of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department to consider shifting the existing captive elephants to government rehabilitation centres.