Posted on: 29 Nov 2012
The elephant has a much deeper connection with the Indian subcontinent than any other animal. In fact milky white Airavata, was the first elephant and he came out of the ocean when it was churned. That the Hindus took their animals seriously and gave each one a divine status shows in the churning of the ocean where the snake Anantha was the churning stick and the tortoise Kurma his support. What came out from the churning in the Puranas were the 14 ratnas: first Kamadhenu the wish fulfilling cow, then Ucchasrava the horse, Airavata the elephant then the apsara Rambha, the jewel Bhadramani and then Lakshmi the goddess. The order of importance is so typical of India's soul, rooted in the earth and all her beings. After Lakshmi comes the tree Paraijata or Kalpadruma, the shankha Panchajanya , the Chakra or wheel, the goddess of wine Varuni, poison or Visha, Dhanvantari . Amrita, the reason for the churning , the elixir of immortality came last.Airavata, born out of water, became one of the symbols of life and later royalty. Airavata sprinkles water, brought out of the depths of the earth and sprinkles it on the goddess Lakshmi, becoming the symbol of wealth and fertility.
The elephant remained a folk divinity for centuries, not just in Hinduism but in Buddhism and in Jainism. Gautama the Buddha descended in the form of a white elephant. Mothers of Jain Thirathankas saw elephants in their dreams. Then the elephant merged with the human and became Ganesha, the most worshipped God. The elephant, considered a friend of man, a symbol of friendliness, help, sacrifice, dignity and majesty, merged into man and became the giver of prosperity and luck. The elephant is in the puja rooms of all three religions. But we ignore the plight of the elephant in our temples. The elephant in the Pondicherry temple has an infected foot which has never been treated or allowed to heal. He is walked 10 kilometres a day, in absolute agony, to beg for alms for the temple. I asked the DFO to take him away and he did. It took major administrative muscle to get him away and the temple fought it tooth and nail because they would lose a fundraiser. When Menaka had to be taken from a temple in Bangalore where she had been beaten almost to death, we had the same problem.The temples of Kerala employ mahouts that are alcoholic and cruel. Recently one elephant had to be taken away by the state government because he had been beaten and starved by the temple mahout. Put on a truck with his head facing the driver's cabin, he hit his head so many times while the truck raced, that he died. The elephant in Kolhapur, a little baby of 13 years, was beaten so much that his legs show whip scars and he could not walk.
An international outrage arose. The Minister and the secretary of Maharashtra have ordered him to be taken away but the temple is still resisting and has managed to persuade the local administrator to keep stalling.600 elephants are killed in captivity every year, a large number dying of bad treatment in the temples. They are taken out to festivals several times a year, in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Mysore, Jaipur, walking dozens of miles on the hot tarred roads in the most terrible heat , without food or water with a man on top who constantly pokes them with a severe iron prod on the most sensitive parts of their head. Their bodies are covered with heavy accoutrements and they have to stand for hours in the most frightful noise of people and percussion instruments. Many are decorated with coloured powders which get into their skin and eyes and make them itch. Some temples in Kerala even race their elephants in the heat – the winner is rewarded by having to carry even more weight. Some go crazy and run about – and are killed later by being punished for months with beating and starvation by the temple authorities.In the temples they are tied in chains all the time. They swing between no exercise or too much exercise, prolonged periods of sedentary confinement when they are not 'on the job' and overexertion under unnatural and unhealthful conditions when they are. These poor prisoners suffer from health problems like arthritis, foot rot, and veer between obesity to unnatural thinness depending on the whims of the temple feeding authorities. They live like condemned convicts till they die, performing degrading and unnatural actions such as kneeling and blessing devotees, lifting their trunks at least 300 times per day and marching in processions. Airavata, the elephant of Indra, is subjected by the keepers of the Hindu religion to stress, overwork, exhaustion, physical pain and injury, prolonged hunger and thirst, panic. He has to eat sweets, cooked rice or any other rubbish given by devotees. The elephants stand in unventilated temple areas on cement and sleep on hard floors. They have no access to wallowing in water which is an essential activity for their healthy skin and temperature.
They are trained by starvation, beating with sticks and hooks that dig into the animals' hides, and tying their legs till their magnificent minds capitulate from pain.The magnificent elephant has simply become another cow for the temples. Used to attract worshippers and more money – which seems to be the main reason for any religious shrine now – and treated badly till it dies prematurely or is sold. The government seems to have separated the temple elephant, the forcibly tamed elephant from the wild one. But the law is the same: the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA 1972) reats domesticated elephants on par with the wild ones. The Asian elephant is included in Schedule I of the WPA 1972 since October 1977, which implies that it has the highest degree of legal protection. No person can keep, possess or acquire an elephant after 1972. But the government's forest officers readily give ownership certificates to temples, circuses, single owners – even when the animal is clearly less than 40 years old. Instead of being prosecuted as poachers and jailed , the temples are allowed to take elephants, as long as they are ' gifts' – its like saying I can keep heroin as long as I was gifted it – and how did the gifter get it, is irrelevant. Zoos recognised by the Central Zoo Authority are exempted from possessing ownership certificates – but where did they get the elephant from is an unasked question. The government must get the elephants banned from the temples. This will save the elephant that is now being poached from the wild. Kerala's temples are taking elephants from Bihar, the Northeast and wherever they can. Each one who dies is replaced immediately.The government has 'Project Elephant', conceived by me in 1990. Till today they have not made one rescue centre, confiscated one elephant. Jairam Ramesh banned elephants from zoos two years ago. Where should they go? Not one has been moved. WSOS has made one excellent rescue centre in Mathura and has kept 10 accident hit elephants. The government refuses to pay for it. The rescue centre in Haryana, for which money was given over 10 years ago, still has not been finished.Airavata is disappearing in India. Soon we will lose the elephant and keep only the half-elephant-half man god. A large portion of the blame must go to the unholy government-temple nexus that is killing the species.