In spite of the divinity and dignity rendered upon, elephants are being treated as condemned prisoners in India. At the onset of the festival season in Kerala, Gayatri Sundaram , talks about the back stage events and the illegal corridors through which the elephants outlive a life of strange ironies.
Five people — an Englishman, Russian, American, Frenchman and Irishman were each asked to write a book on elephants. Some amount of time later they had all completed their respective books. The Englishman’s book was entitled “The Elephant — How to Collect Them.” The Russian’s book titled “The Elephant — Vol. I.” The American’s book called “The Elephant — How to Make Money from Them.” The Frenchman’s book was “The Elephant — Its Mating Habits.”. The Irish man’s book was “Elephants In Irish Political History”
If asked to an Indian, what may be the title? Guess..? Indians are always dogged on English wheels hence without a second thought; he will simply follow the English first and the Americans next, as usual.
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But in India, there was a time when elephant had been accorded a position of dignity and divinity. Indian epics and folklores are replete with legends of the extra ordinary bond with man and elephant. We loved and feared them, revered them, and saw them as “beasts of the moon with crescent tusks”, once.
Indians worshipped, (still said to worship) elephants as the representation of Lord Ganesha. It is believed that several gods inhabit in an elephant’s body. According to Hindu mythology, today’s elephants are the descendants of the celestial jumbo duo, Airavat and Abhramu.
Recently, we see the things are changing upside down, as man started using elephants as commercial commodities, simply money-spinners. The traditional bond of love respect and understanding the two shared, underwent transformation and changed into mere exploitation. Health and welfare of the elephant became insignificant. Ill-fed and much tortured, they are being forced to stand like buffoons with loads of ornaments to lure the agape tourists. Under the individual ownership or under the Devaswam (temple authority), they are being leased from hands to hands like machineries, made to ply from north to south, from dawn to dusk, without enough rest or food, with irrecoverable wounds in the body.
Elephants are basically wild animals, wild in nature and never to be domesticated as we do with dogs or rabbits. Unlike other wild animals they are often found in herd with a father, mother and calves, closely woven with the bond of love and affection. The calves are fed with breast milk up to 7 years..
These wild beasts made to live in the shady forests with the vicinity of enough fresh water, are bought to the cities and tamed to be the slave of man. The calves of one or two years of age are trapped by the man and dragged from the love of their community where they were the centre of a caring family. The stress of the loss of their mother and herd coupled with shouts and beats ‘breaks’ them completely down. This archaic brutality causes direct, sometimes, a late retort in the same degree which hit the head lines,of late.
Kerala state is having the largest captive elephant population In India. Hence elephant has got another name as ‘Sahyante makan’( son of Western Ghats). But at present 80% of the elephants now live in Kerala are from beyond the Western Ghats. Despite the stringent laws against the Inter-State boarder, elephants are being transported into Kerala, through some illegal corridors.
In Kerala, a state known for its endless festivities and cultural celebrations, elephant is always the ultimate form of mascot for everything. From the government emblem to the inaugural ceremony of a barber shop, elephant is an ‘all-pervading’ presence, here. While, adoring the elephant as auspicious and divine inside the temple premises, these animals are being tortured to death outside, at the same time.
No any Hindu scripture advocates the perambulating of the idol of the presiding deity upon an elephant. But now it became a prestige issue of the temple authority and they made others execute this as a custom here.
From the ancient time itself, elephants had been treated here as a symbol of majesty and prestige. Many royal families of ancient Kerala had at least one elephant as their own. They had owners who loved them, adored them and considered them a virtuous omen. They had their mahouts who cared them like their own sons.
Keralites are known for their ‘craze’ for elephants. In fact, this ‘craze’ does never mean ‘love’ but ‘sadism’. They enjoy seeing an elephant living a life based on human wants and whims.
Now, elephants became a symbol of exploitation and commercial success. From the traps of the forest, the agony of the elephant begins. It is being pulled by other elephants into a big cage(mostly inside the forest), where they have to undergo the ‘rigorous’ training with long wooden and iron rods, knives, 3 to 3.5 meters long prods, hooks etc. These tools will always follow them unto their death, even if the mahouts have got changed. The wild animal learns regional dialects.
From Bihar, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and some other states, wild elephants are being trapped and tamed to exhibit in the Sonepur wild animal exhibition ground. The ‘middlemen’(elephant brokers) from Kerala, go there and buy these beasts, with a low price, for most of these animals will be having some physical defects or illness, which cannot be identified by any one, other than an expert. They bring these elephants, to Kerala, crossing the boarder.
Many tricks are played here to cover up the Wild Life Act. One is, they tell the Range officer that, the elephant is having some illness and in Kerala, especially, Trichur, there are a lot of Veterinarians specialized in Elephant treatment. As the second part is a known fact about Trichur, the Range Officer gives permission. The second one is, on reaching the boarder they put the caparisons and other ornaments on the elephant and tells the authority that this one had been sent there for a function and returning now. The third one is the easiest and common method which is known to every citizen under a democratic government hence no need of a narration.
On reaching Kerala soil, the animal has to bear much more brutalities. As it is unaware of the spoken language, (Malayalam) here, though trained well, it behaves as if it is disobedient. Among the strangers, the lonely creature has to undergo the secondary level of training. For this function, they call it ‘initiation ceremony’ or ‘kettiazhikkal’ in Malayalam. This is literally a barbaric cruelty which is usually done distant from the public to avoid seeing this inhuman brutality. After chaining the four legs with short length, from the four sides many people including the mahout begin to shout and command supported by the use of multiple tools. Many of them are being mutilated or died of this severe torture.
Unlike in the ancient times, there won’t be a permanent mahout for an elephant now. Traditional mahout community is seemed to be completely extinct. So, naïve job seekers having no traditional or basic knowledge about elephant or its management coming for the job and they execute the work mechanically. So naturally there is no space for love or compassion there. As soon as they get a new job another one comes and the initiation ceremony continues. Frequent changing of the mahouts makes the life of the poor creature miserable.
Owners treat the animal s simply as an investment and hence won’t give an ear for the cries of this poor thing. Even if died of these abuses, he can have the insurance compensation. Insurance company is also getting ‘an elephantine publicity’ by delivering the sum without delay, making bold lines in the news columns. For the mahout, who does not know anything about this animal, it is always ‘disobedient’. So, to make it obedient, he uses many tricks upon it, which can be seen on its body all through. Does any one know, the painful truth, that more than 50% of the captive elephants in Kerala are either completely or partially blind? By pouring the juice of ‘apathi seed’ into the eyes or simply pulled by the hooked prod, the mahouts thus make the animal a complete dependant, a mere slave to him.
Besides, the principal mahout having some skills and expertise in mahoutery never let his assistants all the tricks of the trade for fearing of losing his job. Most of the mahouts are alcoholic and this makes them torture the elephants without any interceptions.
Elephants are mainly used to exhilarate tourism. Luring the foreigners with the colorful pictures of the caparisoned elephants with ornamental parasols and like things, tourism is not in a bad position here. Trichur Pooram is the best showcase for such an entice. From December to May, festival seasons kick start in Kerala. This is also the hottest season here. While men revel in the mood of festivities, these poor creatures’ are being tortured severely to ‘stand in order’ before them. In every festival avenue, their thick skin (having no sweat gland) which absorbs maximum heat is being exposed under the scorching sun. With ornamental loads, 4 or 5 men with the idol of the deity are sitting upon, not even able move an inch, they stand hours long, without enough food or water. The mahouts sit near the wounded feet, the long prod resting behind the ear, ready to pierce the sensitive flesh. At night a big oil-lit torch (pantham) with unbearable heat, is holding in front of these decorated beings. When the people around enjoy the glittering of the golden caparisons in the yellow light, the poor creature behind was being burnt to sultry.
From this avenue it is being directly transferred to another venue, where the same things repeat. In the festival avenues one can see the naked breaches and violations of the Law. There should be at least 1.5 mtre gaps between two elephants when parading. This is to avoid their ball like bellies no to touch with the adjacent ones’ and tusks not to hit the other. But in Kerala, it cannot be practiced as there is no enough space since the number of parade venues increase day by day along with the enlarging mob. The unhealthy and mean competition among the festival organizers and even among the localites for ‘the more number and more mightier elephants’ push these creatures in to the never ending trauma.
Besides Trichur Pooram, Gajamela , parading of more than 100 elephants in the same compound is also being performed as a Tourism Promotion method. Elephant Polo, in Rajasthan is another archaic brutality carried out with the ‘subsidy’ of the State Government. Circus is another concentration camp for elephants. As the pulmonary organs of an elephant are not like other animals, it cannot sit in ‘dog posture’, for long. If sits, it is very unnatural regarding its anatomy and it will have suffocation.
Earlier, the festivals celebrated with elephants were confined to Hindu religious communities in Trichur, Palakkad, and Ernakulam districts. As elephants render an enchanting amazement to every one, now this phenomenon has spread to other regions and religions also. According to the Kerala High Court order on March 14, 2008, parading of elephants between 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. is barred. If it is implemented, the legendary Trichur Pooram cannot be there to lure the tourists and revel the proud natives. When it came to the brim of a revolt, the HC put forward some demands and there by could carry out the Pooram, as usual with comparatively less suffering to the animals.
Another well organized festival in Kerala is the felicitating an elephant with some honors and credentials like ‘Gajaraja’, ‘Gajaratna’ etc. Such honored elephant will have a good market in the festival seasons, bringing in more income to the owner. In Kerala, you can see more than 3 Gajarajas (King of Elephants), more than 10 ‘Gajaratnas’ (Gem of elephants) and a lot of other Superstar elephants for whom huge flux boards are seen erected along the road sides with Fans Associations and other mess. One such honoured Elephant, famous all over the state, for which the temple authorities compete to have, is Thechikkottu Ramachandran, whose one eye is completely and the other is partially, blind. ‘To get his date’, there is always a long queue, and hence he gets no rest as well. One day, crossing all the limits of endurance, the superstar went berserk and killed 3 at Cochin.
Regarding Elephants, a number of misconceptions are framed, executed and spread by humans for their selfishness. They say that, elephants are music lovers and that is why they fan their ears according to the rhythms of the temple orchestra. My God, they fan the ears to keep the body temperature cool to adjust with the hoots and dust of the venue under the blazing sun and upon the hot ground where they made to stand for long. Musth, a periodic phenomenon seen in bull elephants is nothing but their sexual aggressiveness, which is seasonal (unlike human beings). During this period, elephants are seen as very aggressive and show disobedience. If musth comes in the festive season, that is being equaled with the loss of the ‘appearance fee’ (eakkam), which is the real income of the owner. In order not to lose the money the elephants are either simply or administering some medicines to it without the prescription of a vet, sent to the avenue. It is being denied with enough food or water, despite its irresistible heat, and undergoes an ordeal. Hampering of this natural physical phenomenon makes adverse effects in the elephant. When it breaks the brim of endurance, it goes berserk and gores down the mahout.
Some elephants never cope with humans. Vets say that after the age of 12, training some habits is not possible, as its limbs had grown beyond twists and strains. Still, we, the human beings train them to exhibit in the parade ground as the ‘pride of our country’ and salute the guest as a sign of veneration. How it happens? This question leads us to the unnatural and untimely deaths of some known elephants of the state.
It is mandatory to keep some records regarding the ownership, food, diseases, medicines given, working hours etc with the elephant wherever it goes. To transport an elephant from one district to another it needs the permission of the DFO. Most of the elephants roaming about all the districts in a single week, will have no such documents with them. Nobody has time to carry all these ‘unnecessary things’ when they get incessant calls from the festival venues. When the names of the elephant changes from time to time how can a mandatory certificate be issued? Any ways, when at least some of them have gone hi-tech with micro chipping, the Government could identify around 100 jumbos as registered out of the thousands lot.
Euphemistically referred to as‘training’ or ‘taming’, elephants are being tortured and succumb to untimely death, bringing the species to the brim of extinction in a State that boasts over its cent percent literacy. Amidst the din and bustle of celebrations no one cares the suppressed agony of a ‘divine cult’, in a country where the judiciary and media are at its best. Does this chain of ironies mean, communal net work is mightier than the four pillars of democracy???