Before an audience of several dozen elephant fans, the mahouts dressed their elephants with gold-plated nettipattam on their foreheads, strings of bells around their necks and ankles and garlands of marigolds. Twenty years ago, that amount would have been enough to buy him outright.
The crowd grew steadily as four young men in bright white sarongs climbed each elephant and started making semaphore patterns with yak-fur brushes and peacock-feather fans. The next day, in the nearby city of Thrissur, an anonymous informant who had been at the Maradu festival stopped by the home of V. The animal-welfare laws on which his activism relies are some of the strictest in Asia.
His challenge is persuading the government to enforce them. In , he was walking across a temple parade ground when he was jumped by six thugs; he escaped, he said, only because a bus happened to stop nearby and he used the distraction to drop to the ground and roll away. To protect his secret network of informants, he never enters any contacts into his cellphone. Venkitachalam is a handsome, deeply religious, year-old bachelor with a neat salt-and-pepper beard, which he digs his fingers into as he talks. He invited me to sit on one of several old school desks in his front room, which normally hold the college students and professionals he tutors in math and accountancy 11 hours a day, 6 days a week.
To the right of his bedroom, which he shares with his mother, was his prayer room. To the left was his library, a small room stacked to the ceiling with more than 10, newspapers dating to Then a student invited him to a elephant temple festival, and he was shocked to see how badly an elephant was beaten for disobeying his mahout. The following year, an elephant ran amok near his house, and he watched a crowd make a chaotic attempt to restrain him.
On a tip from one of his students, Venkitachalam found him tethered to a cashew tree several miles away, his condition even worse. When he returned the next day, the elephant was dead. A friend who worked as a human rights lawyer gave Venkitachalam a piece of advice: if no one speaks up, nothing will change. Soon his free time was consumed with filing complaints about elephant abuse. During festival season, he sends on average more than a dozen a day, to the anticorruption office of the Forest Department, to the Kerala High Court or directly to V.
Venkitachalam told me that his organization has seven members, but he refused to let me talk to any of the others. Some are deeply involved in temple activities, and they act as his spies on the ground, eavesdropping on the conversations of temple presidents, taking notes and photographs whenever an elephant is harmed or gets out of control.
His sources include mahouts, temple priests who ride in elephant processions, local commuters and his own students. The day after a festival, Venkitachalam calls his sources to confirm any tips that seem to point to a violation.
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Then he writes up his complaint in longhand and passes it to one of his secret partners, who types it in an e-mail to the relevant authority. Such devices, he says, might sap his creativity — and besides, 10 minutes spent watching television are 10 minutes he could be using writing complaints.
Instead, his critics write him off because of his lack of status. Easa, a local elephant expert, told me. For much of the last decade, the face of elephant ownership in Kerala has been K. Ganesh Kumar, a popular local movie actor, politician and president of a group called the Kerala Elephant Owners Federation. As an actor, Kumar made his name playing villains and rowdies. And as an elephant owner, he led the opposition to an appraisal of Indian elephants put out in by the central government, known as the Gajah report.
Among its recommendations: All captive elephants should become government property; their use at public functions should be discontinued and their commercial employment phased out. To Venkitachalam, the document was like an elephant Magna Carta. For the elephant owners of Kerala, it was an outrage.
Lakshmi the temple elephant - Picture of Virupaksha Temple, Hampi
Venkitachalam, naturally, complained about this apparent conflict of interest. Kumar kept his elephant but was forced to resign from the federation. A bitter rivalry was born. A few temple festivals feature massive effigies of bulls or horses instead of decorated elephants.
The effigies are carried in procession to the temple from surrounding villages. The festivals happen at temples throughout Kerala, in South India.
However, the larger temple festivals predominantly take place in the Thrissur and Palakkad districts, in central to north Kerala, from February to May each year. Each temple festival usually runs for around 10 days, with celebrations concluding with the main procession on the last day. Some festivals are longer or shorter.
On the Tragic Fate of Temple Elephants - The Crowded Planet
Kerala Tourism has a handy event calendar showing the dates of forthcoming temple festivals. Read more about the best time to visit Kerala. Here are details of the top temple festivals to attend in Kerala to witness the biggest spectacles. Those who are concerned about animal welfare may want to skip attending Kerala's temple festivals, or attend one of the few that don't have elephants.
Unfortunately, the temple elephants are frequently mistreated.
The decorated elephants are forced walk and stand for long periods during the heat, and they find the loud environment distressing. When they're not working, the elephants are chained up and often neglected. An award-winning documentary film, Gods in Shackles , aims raise awareness about the issue and bring change to the elephants' living conditions. Encouragingly, concern over the issue is growing. One temple in Kerala, the Nalapathenneeswaram Sree Mahadeva Temple in Alleppey district, has decided to use wooden elephants instead of live ones in its celebrations.
The largest elephant farm in India is Punnathurkotta of the temple of Guruvayur ; it has about 59 captive elephants; it currently houses 58 captive elephants, of which 53 are adult males and 5 are females.
The temple elephant carries the idol of the Lord of Virupaksha. The procession goes around to receive the offerings from the devotees. Location Hampi , Karnataka. Elephants standing during Thrissur pooram festival in Kerala state of south India. Caparisoned elephants during Sree Poornathrayesa temple festival.
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