The sad plight of donkeys at Sabarimala

The sad plight of donkeys at Sabarimala

 Donkeys carry  rice and jaggery from Pamba.

The animals, mainly donkeys and mules, literally perform the hard and
boring work in mostly hilly terrains, be in the north or southern states. They are most preferred mode of transport in some of the most inhospitable and non-motor­able places. In places like Kedar and Bad­rinath, they are used to transport people to the hilltop and they undertake  treacherous journey like well-tuned machines.

 In  Sabarimala also, they are used extensively. As beasts of burden they silently toil day and night carrying goods from Pamba, the valley of holy hillock of Sabarimala in Kerala, to the famous temple of Lord Ayyappa at the summit during pilgrim season ensuring smooth functioning of the temple.

But in return around 2,000 donkeys used in the hillock for transporting goods get perpetual cruel treatment. Not only they are poorly fed but also tortured to force them to carry heavy loads. Unfit animals are just left in the  forest surro­u­nding the hillock to become food for predators.

These donkeys are brought from Tamil Nadu by contractors who supply jaggery, rice and other items to the temple for making offerings to the deity which will be distributed among devotees. According to estimates, a whopping 45 lakh kg jaggery and 4.5 lakh kg rice are transported every year at Sabarimala using donkeys.

Continuous journey through difficult terrains wears away their hooves and when it becomes impossible for them to work, they are simply dumped in the
forest. Despite intervention from various quarters the contractors refuse to mend their ways.

Fight against cruelty

A S Sandhya, secretary of Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Pathanamthitta district (where the temple is situated) and who has been fighting for the cause, notes that the treatment meted out to the donkeys at Sabarimala is callous. Following her petition before the Kerala High Court five years ago, the court had directed that only healthy animals should be used for transportation. “But it was not implemented by the authorities concerned,” she said.

Heavy loads are tied to the back of those animals using thick ropes, said Sandhya. To force them move they are beaten. “Hot iron boxes are pressed on their thighs by owners to make deep wounds. When beaten on the wound they move fast,” said Sandhya on the tactics employed by donkey owners.

Many other cruel methods are also employed to make donkeys do impossible tasks, Sandhya said.  One can find donkeys with ears cut and wounds on their bodies. But the sad plight of these animals seldom attract public attention, she noted.

Sandhya has been virtually waging a lone-woman battle. She has faced several threats and even harassed by different groups for pursuing the issue. “But I am determined to save these animals from the torturer at any cost,” she declared. She is still fighting cases in the different courts on the issue and final verdicts are yet to come.

Despite opposition from animal lovers, every season hundreds of donkeys and mules are brought from Tamil Nadu to Sabarimala. There are no proper shelters for them. They are allowed to roam about the banks of the Pamba river when not working. There are no veterinarians to treat sick animals. They are moved often in packs of 50 and one person will accompany with every pack to direct it to the destination. But they don’t bother to provide care to these animals.

Relevance of modern methods 

Reacting to the issue, D Vijayakumar, all India vice-president of Akhila Bharata Ayyappa Seva Sangham, the biggest NGO working in Sabarimala, said it is true that donkeys are subjected to extreme cruelty. “It is a shame for the civilised society to employ such barbaric methods to transport goods,” said Vijayakumar. He said the practice needs to be ended and modern methods should be introduced in Sabarimala to transport goods.
Pointing out the adverse effects from the use of donkeys, he said the animals move to Sabarimala temple along with devotees. Many devotees, especially the old and very young, complain of being kicked by donkeys. When they are beaten the animals would run amuck creating trouble.

Donkey faeces raise serious health hazards to devotees who come to the temple, added Vijayakumar. There is no mechanism to remove the droppings and they gets mixed with soil when people walk on it and eventually result in many diseases to devotees, he said.
Those who turn a blind eye towards the practice note that it is difficult to transport goods to the temple using vehicles. Though tractors have been introduced for transporting goods driving them through the terrain is very difficult and donkeys are the only viable option they note.

Commenting on this aspect, Vijayakumar noted that a viable solution is constr­uction of a ropeway to Sabrimala which would make movements of goods easy. Sandhya also agrees with it. It would definitely ease the burden of donkeys and create a healthier environment at Sabarimala hills, she said.

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