As domesticated elephant numbers dwindle, temple festivals in crisis in Kerala

Elephant owners in the southern state warn that this cherished tradition could fade into memory within the next 5-10 years due to the declining population of domesticated jumbos.
Last Updated 03 March 2024, 04:47 IST

Thiruvananthapuram: The vibrant and iconic temple festivals in Kerala including Thrissur Pooram, renowned for their grand procession of ornately caparisoned elephants, may soon witness a significant transformation.

Elephant owners in the southern state warn that this cherished tradition could fade into memory within the next 5-10 years due to the declining population of domesticated jumbos.

N P Shyamkumar, manager of the Kidangoor Sree Subramanya Swamy Temple, one of the famous temples in Kerala, said that the lack of elephants was creating a crisis during festivals and the performance of rituals.

"There are 22 elephant processions during the ten-day festival (at the temple). The lack of adequate elephants creates a crisis for this ritual. Three elephants, which were regularly used in the temple festivals for two decades, died in the last two years," he told PTI.

Shyamkumar further said that the cost of hiring elephants has increased more than three times in the last five years.

"An elephant, which used to cost Rs 30,000 a day, today costs more than Rs 1 lakh. Even if you pay this amount, you may not get an elephant on some days," he said.

He also said that the Sree Subramanya Swamy Temple, which at one time used around nine elephants for the procession, now has only three to five elephants available at the most for the ritual.

"This year, for several days, there was only one elephant available," he said.

In a state where at one time there were more than a thousand domesticated elephants, there are only around 400 now, and not all of them can be part of temple festivals, according to elephant owners in Kerala.

P S Ravindranathan, the general secretary of the Kerala Elephant Owners Federation, said the main cause of the problem was the lack of rules for bringing jumbos from other states to the southern state.

He said that in 2003 an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act restricted transport of elephants from one state to another. Then, in 2022, the Central government amended the Act by which the transfer or transport of a captive elephant for religious or any purpose by anybody having a valid certificate of ownership was allowed.

"Following that, states had to frame rules for taking elephants from one state to another or for change in ownership of the jumbos."

"But, no such step has been taken yet by the Kerala government," he told PTI.

Rajesh Pallatt, a lawyer, an elephant owner and the state working president of the Kerala Festival Coordination Committee, said all that was required to solve the problem was a policy decision by the state government.

"If they take a policy decision that elephants are required for the festivals and poorams in the state, everything else will work out after that," he said.

On contacting the Culture Department of the government, officials refused to comment on whether any such policy decision was in the offing.

Meanwhile, as the numbers of domesticated elephants dwindle, especially those trained specifically for festivals, often the jumbos are overworked, and this leads to some of them getting agitated or acting out, Ravindranathan said.

Another reason for such acts by the elephants is the use of jumbos that are not trained to stand for long periods amidst the loud sounds of festivals, Pallatt said.

Both of them also suggested another solution to this problem of dwindling numbers of domesticated elephants -- capture and train the wild jumbos which foray into populated areas.

Animal rights activists, on the other hand, say that subjecting elephants to the 'rigours' of such festivals amounts to cruelty and temples should stop this practice.

"There is no need for elephants in temple festivals. We do not see this practice in Hindu temples outside Kerala," Angels Nair, an animal rights activist, said.

He said that it is the Centre which has to lay down the guidelines for allowing the transfer or transport of live elephants by persons having ownership certificates and not the state government.

Nair further alleged that elephants are given on lease to people for a few years at exorbitant rates and in order to make a profit, the lessees subject the pachyderms to intense working hours without proper rest or food and even beat them cruelly.

"All this results in elephants acting out in some instances," he claimed.

However, many still believe that the presence of an elephant adds to the grandeur of the temple festivals and that it is a part of the state's cultural heritage.

Kollam resident Subhaga Pillai, a member of the Thevalakkara Major Devi Temple advisory committee, firmly believes that use of elephants in poorams and festivals are part of Kerala's culture.

"A temple festival is not complete without an elephant," she said.

Similar was the view of Ashokan, a building contractor, and Raju, a milk vendor, both of whom hail from Pathanamthitta district of the state.

They both said that 'elephants are a must at temple festivals. They add to the grandeur and pride of these celebrations'.

All of them expressed hope that the government would take steps to address this problem.

But Nair said that just like various customary practices have been stopped over the years, use of elephants can also be ended.

"There is the option of using mechanical elephants," he said.

In a first in Kerala, a life-like mechanical elephant was dedicated to the deity in a temple in the central Kerala district of Thrissur in February last year for performing daily rituals, instead of a real pachyderm.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India joined hands with award-winning actor Parvathy Thiruvothu, and held the 'Nadayiruthal' ceremony of 'Irinjadappilly Raman', a robotic elephant, at Irinjadappilly Sree Krishna Temple in the district.

(Published 03 March 2024, 04:47 IST)

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