1 – Temples, Elephants and Traditions – B. R. Haran

 Indhumathi and Jayanthi
Kanchi Math elephants Sandhya, Indhumathi and Jayanthi
Kanchi Math elephants Sandhya, Indhumathi and Jayanthi

Many temple elephants like Maduravalli have died in Tamil Nadu before, and such deaths have become a regular phenomenon. Abirami of Thirukkadaiyur Temple, Vellaiyammal of Thanjavur Big Temple, Bhavani of Rameshwaram Temple, Kumaran of Thiruchendur Temple and Sulochana of Valasubramania Temple, Virudunagar have all died in the recent past.Many temple elephants like Maduravalli have died in Tamil Nadu and such deaths have become a regular phenomenon. Abirami of Thirukkadaiyur Temple, Vellaiyammal of Thanjavur Big Temple, Bhavani of Rameshwaram Temple, Kumaran of Thiruchendur Temple and Sulochana of Valasubramania Temple, Virudunagar have all died in the recent past. –  B. R. Haran

Two recent incidents involving temple elephants have hurt our sensibilities. One, the sad demise of female elephant Maduravalli after prolonged illness, and the other, the shifting of three elephants from Kanchi Kamakshi Amman Temple to a rehabilitation centre for treatment. On the one side, we have the welfare of temple elephants; on the other, we have centuries old tradition in temples. Since both are important, this study attempts to find a fair and just solution to the confusion arising out of the question—what is important, elephant welfare or temple tradition?

Sad demise of Maduravalli

Maduravalli has been serving at the Koodal Azhagar Temple in Madurai since 1976. She was brought to the temple when she was 12 years old. Around twenty years back, she suffered from ulcers in her feet for which she was given inadequate treatment and since then she has not been doing well.

After a few years, she developed ulcers again in her feet, and in course of time, due to lack of proper treatment and medical assistance, the ulcers worsened and became big wounds. Her foot pads thinned and Maduravalli developed very painful and septic abscesses. This condition is known as ‘foot rot’ in elephants and this is caused because captive elephants are forced to stand on stone, concrete or cement floors. They are forced to walk on tarred roads. Elephants must stand on natural earthen floors. Maduravalli’s foot rot became so bad that eventually she was unable to stand and walk. Even in that recumbent position, the temple authorities kept her chained!

The photos taken during Maduravalli’s last days can be viewed at these two links:

Suffering for months together without responding to any treatment, Maduravalli was just lying down in the worst kind of pain, even losing her appetite. Even at that stage, she was kept chained. Finally on the evening of 26 May by 4.30 pm, Maduravalli passed away at the age of 53.

Had she been treated well and taken care of as per the Captive Elephants Management Rules and Guidelines, Tamil Nadu, issued in 2011, she would not have suffered this fate and she would be serving the temple for many more years to come. The mahout, the District Forest Officer serving under the Chief Wildlife Warden and the temple management must be squarely held responsible for the death of Maduravalli and the Tamil Nadu government would do well to conduct an enquiry into Maduravalli’s death and fix responsibility.

Maduravalli’s death is not an isolated incident. Many temple elephants like Maduravalli have died in Tamil Nadu before, and such deaths have become a regular phenomenon. Abirami of Thirukkadaiyur Temple, Vellaiyammal of Thanjavur Big Temple, Bhavani of Rameshwaram Temple, Kumaran of Thiruchendur Temple and Sulochana of Valasubramania Temple, Virudunagar have all died in the recent past.

Shifting of Kanchi Temple Elephants

Sandhya alias Kamakshi, Indhumathi and Jayanthi were three elephants serving at Kamakshi Amman Temple, under the management of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham. Sandhya alias Kamakshi was brought to the temple from Hunsur Forest Division of Karnataka when she was seven and a half years old. Karnataka Forest Department had sold her for Rs.20,000/- in 1981. She is now 42 years old. Indhumathi was brought from Wayanad Forest Division when she was 6 years old. Kerala Forest Department sold her for Rs. 20,000/- in 1987 and now she is 34 years old. Jayanthi was gifted by Assam Forest Department at the age of 3 in 2001. She was from Kaziranga National Park and she is currently 18 years old.

Gunaseelan, a senior mahout serving the temple for 35 years, was taking care of all three elephants. One P. Thillaikumar has been with the elephants for the past two years; A. Natarajan has been around for a year. Another person, S. Shekar, who was earlier with the elephants for about 10 years assisting Gunaseelan, left the temple for some time and rejoined work in June 2015. Then, suddenly, senior mahout Gunaseelan died and his daughter, Annapoorani, was appointed as fourth handler. However she only acts like a visiting supervisor and reportedly keeps all the records with her at her residence.

Based on complaints received from bhaktas of Kamakshi Temple, AWBI constituted a four member committee comprising Ms. Suparna Ganguly, President of Bengaluru based CUPA (Compassion Unlimited Plus Action), Dr. Sundaramurthy from CPR Environmental Education Centre, Dr. R. Sumathi from AWBI and co-opted member of AWBI Dr. Manilal Valliyate. The committee inspected the elephants and their living conditions at the Kamakshi Amman Temple on 22 July 2015 and unanimously concluded that the three elephants have been greatly affected psychologically as well as physically.

The committee gave suggestions and guidelines for care and medical treatment to the temple management. The Srikaryam (Manager) of the Kanchi Mutt told the committee that they have a 5-acre land which could be converted into a natural habitat for the elephants. Consequently, when the case regarding the proper maintenance of cows and goshalas in temples came up for hearing, the AWBI submitted its report on Kamakshi Temple elephants to the honourable High Court. The Honourable High Court had extended the mandate of the Committee and ordered it to also inspect temple elephants besides cows and goshalas.

A year later, the High Court ordered the committee, constituted for inspecting temple goshalas, to visit temples where elephants are put into service. Even as the HR & CE Department delayed submitting the list of temples with elephants, the committee visited Kamakshi Amman Temple to inspect the elephants to see if the recommendations made by the AWBI committee had been implemented.

During the visit, the committee found out that the temple management had not followed the guidelines given by the AWBI committee, and that the elephants’ physical condition had deteriorated further. It felt that the elephants needed immediate attention and medical assistance. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu government’s HR & CE Department submitted the list of temples with elephants and the committee visited some more temples and inspected the elephants and their living conditions. Meanwhile, the Kanchi Matham agreed to allow the three elephants to be moved to an elephant care facility in Villupuram district.

On 12 May, 2016 the elephants—Sandhya alias Kamakshi, Indhumathi and Jayanthi—were shifted to the Marakkanam elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre belonging to Tree Foundation and WRRC (Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre). While the temple management extended full cooperation for the shifting of elephants, Annapoorani (former mahout’s daughter) and her mother attempted to thwart it by protesting against the shifting.

As the elephants were also habituated, they listened to her. While Indhumathi and Jayanthi were shifted without much difficulty, Kamakshi obeyed the orders of the widow and daughter of the dead mahout and because she is also totally blind in one eye, she slipped and fell as she tried to get down from the truck. Kamakshi had to be kept in Kanchi itself for one more day and the next day she too was shifted to Marakkanam, this time without obstruction from her former mahouts.

Meanwhile, a section of the mainstream media, always on the look-out for sensational news, reported Annapoorani’s version that the elephants were shifted because the management wanted more space inside the temple, and that they were beaten and tortured while being shifted. The media failed to contact either the NGOs or the temple management.

Some persons who were not aware of the details of the issue took the media reports as truth and attempted to spread a canard on social media: “The shifting of elephants is a conspiracy by alien forces through foreign-funded NGOs to remove the elephants from temples, thereby putting an end to the Hindu tradition of Gaja Puja; the motive behind this is to encourage religious conversions and a few activists are paid for facilitating this.”

Meanwhile, Indhumathi and Jayanthi, once in the Marakkanam rehabilitation centre, showed remarkable improvement in just two days. Sandhya alias Kamakshi joined them the third day. The rehabilitation centre, surrounded with coconut groves and other greenery, has decent facilities for elephant care. All three elephants are finally living a chain-free life, moving, walking freely and enjoying the natural habitat. Expert veterinarians are attending to them and they are being fed with nutritious food. The elephants are happy and peaceful in the new environment. As a goodwill gesture, Pujya Sankaracharyas of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham have blessed the initiative and sought the cooperation and support of the bhaktas.

Their present condition can be seen at the following links:

If we can understand why these three elephants were shifted from the temple, why NGOs were used for the purpose, why the High Court was involved, we would understand that Maduravalli could have survived had she been shifted to a rehabilitation centre. Perhaps many other temple elephants would not have died like Maduravalli. It would be in order to understand some basic facts about elephants and their life in natural environs and in captivity.

Basic facts and salient features of elephants

  • The elephant is a mammal. It feeds on sugarcane, bamboo, and other leaved plants. It is the largest among terrestrial animals with an average life span of 70 years, second only to human beings.
  • Elephant is a strong animal. Even lions and tigers do not go near it. Lions can attack only as a group and even then they can attack only a solitary, weak, old or sick elephant.
  • Elephants live as a family in a herd. The male calf will stay with the family until he attains puberty. Thereafter it may leave the group. But female elephants stay together and are closely knit. Very rarely do female calves leave the group after attaining puberty.
  • Male Asian elephants have tusks. Female elephants do not have tusks but some female elephants have small tusks called tushes. The back of the Asian elephant is elevated and it has two elevations on the forehead as well.
  • Elephants spend 16 hours on average to forage for food. They have limited digestive capacity, digesting only 40% of the food they eat, so they have to consume much more than they can digest. An adult elephant can eat food weighing between 140 Kgs to 270 Kgs.
  • Male elephants are generally 3 meters in height and 6000 kgs in weight. Elephant skin is thick (25 to 30 centimeters), but soft and is unable to tolerate the bites of ants and mosquitoes. The skin around its mouth and ears are very soft. Asian elephants have more hair than African elephants.
  • Elephants naturally love to bathe in sand, mud and clay. This helps protect their skin from heat and radiation.
  • Elephants have strong legs. Even though the legs bear such a huge and heavy body, they can climb and descend easily on steep mountain paths. As their feet are large they can stand for hours together without rest. But, Asian elephants take frequent rest as compared to African elephants. They have five nails on the front feet and four nails on the hind feet. Elephants can swim well. Their feet can easily sense even low frequency vibrations or sound waves.
  • The trunk is the elephant’s unique feature. It is made up of 40,000 muscles and can bend on all sides. It has a small lip (African elephants have two lips) and two nostrils in the tip of the trunk. The elephant can lift anything, from small firewood to a huge tree, with the help of its trunk. Generally it uses its trunk to take food to its mouth and to drink water.  The trunk also helps the elephant to defend itself from attacks of other animals. Since the neck is short, the trunk becomes all the more important.
  • The large ear lobes help the elephant to balance body temperature. The outside air gets into the body through numerous blood vessels in the ear lobes, thereby reducing the heat and body temperature. The elephants constantly fan their ears to maintain body temperature.
  • The elephant’s hearing and sniffing capacity is remarkable. The elephant is naturally short-sighted and therefore depends more on its hearing and sniffing capacity than its vision. The trunk, like the ears, can sense vibrations.
  • Elephants are as intelligent and maybe more intelligent than humans. An elephant’s brain is the biggest in size among animals living on land and weighs slightly more than 5 kgs. Elephants are basically gentle and kind in character.
  • The elephants are self conscious. They can identify themselves while standing before a mirror. They have the capacity to understand what is shown or pointed to them.
  • The elephant’s pregnancy period is 22 months. Generally it gives birth only to one calf. Giving birth to two calves is a very rare phenomenon. The calf will weigh between 90 to 115 kilograms at the time of birth. The pregnant elephant is always surrounded, protected and helped by other adult elephants before, during and after childbirth. A calf is always reared by the herd from the time of its birth.
  • Elephants require large forest lands to live and survive. They require a natural habitat full of flora and fauna. They go on a specific path for a long distance eating off the flora on the way and by the time they return by the same path after several months, the flora would be back in full growth. That is how they create the “Elephant path”. Because these elephant paths are destroyed due to deforestation and human expansion into forest reserves, conflicts between elephants and humans occur quite often.

(To be continued)

» B.R. Haran is a senior journalist in Chennai.






8 Responses

  1. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – M. K. Gandhi


  2. Elephants Keep Up Thrissur Pooram Tradition, Black Paint Masking Injuries | By Sneha Mary Koshy | NDTV | Updated: April 18, 2016

    A famous festival in Kerala’s Vadakkunnathan Temple in Thrissur saw lakhs of people participating in the pomp and show on Sunday, prepping for a show of fireworks, days after over 100 people were killed in a fire 200 km away in Kollam.

    The temple authorities have been granted permission to conduct the fireworks display unopposed by locals. But what makes the last day of the Thrissur Pooram more grandiose and even more controversial is a parade by a fleet of 68 elephants, all of them in chains and some of them with visible injury marks.

    One of the injured elephants was shown to NDTV by Animal Welfare Board of India. “These mahouts use a black color coat to cover up injury marks because injured elephants are unfit for the parade according to the guidelines,” said Dr Rakesh C.

    Teams of elephants, led by their mahouts, were seen parading since the morning ceremoniously, in a run up to the grand finale in the evening. The teams compete with colourful umbrellas being exchanged atop elephants.

    “We were not even allowed to inspect the elephants. We were clearly stopped even as some veterinary doctors went ahead and inspected. We have a mandate under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act to inspect animals in such circumstances. Last year we saw several discripancies”, says Mr Vinod Kumar from AWBI.

    A few steps away from the animals, continues the traditional drumming. All of this – more than enough to send the common man in a joyous frenzy – while dangerously close to the elephants at a time when they are subjected to a tough environment of heat and sound.

    “You can’t compare the two (Kollam and Thrissur),” said Varun K, who has come to witness the festival for the third time. “One could think of scaling it down slightly but it’s also about tradition. This is part of every Keralites identity,” he added.

    The elephants walked in chains with their injury marks clearly visible, a reminder of where they originally belong – to the wild, not as captive thrills. The temple authorities have received permissions for fireworks with a reminder from the High Court that the sound must not exceed 125 decibels.


  3. Senthil is very argumentative about everything under the sun.

    No doubt domestication of elephants is very old. But domestication doesn’t lessen the fact of cruelty or abuse of the animal!

    Keeping elephants alone in temples to collect coins from pilgrims, without proper food or medical care, is cruel and against dharma. The practice should be abandoned completely.


  4. This is indeed sad. Thank you Haranji and Admin.

    Let me tell you another story.

    My aunt used to live near the temple. During festival time, Nilakantan the town’s favourite elephant used to pass by her window. He would stop there and she would give him a banana.

    This was a yearly practice. Then one year she was sick and bedridden. So, when he came by and waited for his banana, she cried out : Nilakanta, I am ill !

    Nilakanta understood and slowly walked away.

    But, of course, this is an individual anecdotal story.

    I shall check out the You Tube program about elephant cruelty in Kerala.

    Admin : there is a long convoluted discussion going on in Vijayavaani between Radha Rajan and Senthil. The latter is arguing against doing away with the tradition of elephants in temples. He also claims erroneously (in my opinion) that domestication of elephants for the temples is a thousand year practice.


  5. Yes, not only the government and it’s HR & CE Department, but also the Forest Department. All are corrupt and irresponsible.

    Talking about Kerala, it is even worse…. Just go to “You Tube” and type “Elephant Cruelty in Kerala”…. You will be shocked to see the videos…


  6. Yes, it is directly linked to the HR & CE Department of the Tamil Nadu Government.

    Last year cows that had been donated to the Arunachaleshwar Temple in Tiruvannamalai starved to death because the money allotted for fodder was being appropriated (or held back) by the temple’s state appointed executive officer.

    Elephants in temples should be banned outright. This writer has observed many of them closely, having spent much time in temples, and he can say with conviction that most of them have become mad.

    This is not surprising. Elephants are very gregarious, community-loving animals and keeping them singlely and alone with an often drunken mahoot causes them extreme unhappiness and psychological distress.


  7. Heartbreaking story. I wonder if the treatment of elephants in Tamil Nadu can be linked to the indifference of the state government.

    In Kerala elephants are used in temple rituals. Each large town has an elephant or two for this purpose, and, ofcourse there is the Trissur Puram where many caparisoned elephants are used.

    I have not heard of any abuse there.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: