Sacred and shackled: Tamil Nadu’s temple elephants

Never in recent times has the famous Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple in Puducherry witnessed a gathering of such magnitude on a non- auspicious/festival day as was seen on November 30, to mourn the loss of temple elephant Lakshmi, who had breathed her last that morning. While the presiding deity of the temple was believed to be powerful, and thus popular, equally liked and revered was Lakshmi, the temple’s elephant. The darling of the masses, she would patiently bless every person offering her money or goodies to eat, as she stood shackled just outside the temple.

The 32-year-old animal collapsed in a dramatic event caught on CCTV, near Calve College Government Higher Secondary School, while she was being taken for her early “morning walk” from her small enclosure in the town. 

Video footage gathered by government agencies from CCTVs installed near Calve show Lakshmi dragging her feet on the road, unusually, and then, after a while, collapsing on to the road. As she fell, the elephant started jerking her legs and then collapsed. Passers-by and nearby residents panicked and tried to revive her by giving her some form of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but the efforts were in vain.

“She collapsed at around 6.20 a.m and in a few minutes the temple veterinarian reached the spot. A preliminary investigation by the doctor and the panel of veterinarians drawn for the post-mortem points towards cardiac arrest as the reason for the death. We are awaiting the findings of the autopsy to further ascertain the cause of death,” said a senior official.

Devotees in tears while paying their last respect to temple elephant Lakshmi in Puducherry

Devotees in tears while paying their last respect to temple elephant Lakshmi in Puducherry
| Photo Credit:

It is learnt that Lakshmi had a long history of foot rot. Before her death, for more than a month, the pachyderm was confined to her enclosure on Eswaran Koil as she was not in good health. She was under the care of Veterinary Assistant Surgeon, Animal Disease Intelligence Unit, Madurai, N. Kalaivanan and temple veterinarian Selvaraj.

According to the official, the elephant had developed fever three days before her death. She was on medication and seemed to have recuperated. “But she looked very tired. We have to find out whether she was in good health when she was taken for a walk on the fateful day,” said the official.

Lakshmi’s stay at Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple, ever since she was brought from Kerala in 1995, had generated its own controversy with animal rights activists and officials in the Forest Department objecting to the way she was taken care of. There were frequent complaints about ill-treatment to the animal by the mahouts as the pachyderm was seen only from the tourism point of view due to its star status, said a veterinary surgeon. 

In fact, for over 50 days, the animal was translocated to a spacious enclosure inside the Krishi Vigyan Kendra campus in 2020 by the Forest Department on the directions of then Lt Governor Kiran Bedi. Ms. Bedi gave the direction to shift the animal following a complaint from Maneka Gandhi alleging repeated abuse and violations of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. After pressure from “devotees,” the animal was again brought back for temple duty. 

Volunteers of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had, in 2014, submitted a report to the Forest Department asking them to cancel the ownership of the elephant by the temple, citing cruelty to the animal and demanding her immediate transfer to a sanctuary. 

Former additional principal Chief Conservator of Forests P. Devaraj said she had developed foot rot because of long standing on wet floors. She also developed diabetes and had become overweight as she was fed with huge quantities of jaggery, banana and other food items by devotees, he said.

The case of elephant Jeymalyatha

A file picture of the Andal Temple elephant, Jayamalyatha, in Srivilliputhur, Virudhunagar district

A file picture of the Andal Temple elephant, Jayamalyatha, in Srivilliputhur, Virudhunagar district
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Special Arrangement

However, the temple authorities have been denying any such torture. “Any day, one can see the same elephant playing like a child with the mahouts at both its shelter and temple,” said Andal Temple Thakkar, K. Ravichandran. 

The 20-year-old female elephant from Assam came to the temple in 2011. The first complaint of assault of the elephant was reported in February 2021 when she was taken to the rejuvenation camp in Thekkampatti. After a video clipping of the elephant being repeatedly beaten with sticks went viral, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments placed under suspension, both her mahouts. They were subsequently arrested by the Forest Department. “Since then, the elephant has been under close care and monitoring,” a temple official claimed. 

The elephant has been provided with a sprawling shed with a shower facility. Besides, a huge tank has been constructed for Jeymalyatha to bathe in. “Both these places are being monitored 24 hours with closed circuit television cameras,” Mr. Ravichandran said. “The elephant is often seen playing with the mahouts. If the mahouts are hurting her badly as claimed by PETA will the animal be so close with them? Let them answer this question,” he said. 

Recently, a team of officials, led by senior forest officials from Assam and Tamil Nadu inspected the facilities. “They have expressed satisfaction with the arrangements here,” Mr. Ravichandran claimed. 

The elephant, which was sheltered at the Andal Temple was moved to nearby Krishnankoil, a sub temple. “This was basically to give the elephant an opportunity to walk some distance. Besides, here there is a better environment,” he added.

Abuse can turn animals dangerous

Abused elephants are dangerous, as many retaliate. According to figures compiled by the Heritage Animal Task Force, captive elephants killed 526 people in Kerala alone in a 15-year span. 

There have also been numerous incidents in Tamil Nadu in which frustrated captive elephants have killed their mahouts. Examples include Deivanai, who was also from Assam and who killed her mahout at the Subramaniya Swami temple in Madurai; Masini, who trampled her mahout and is now at the Samayapuram Mariamman temple in Tiruchi; and Madhumathi, who had killed its mahout and is now used in temple festivals in Madurai. 

A file photograph of Deivanai, who killed her mahout in Madurai

A file photograph of Deivanai, who killed her mahout in Madurai
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

“In elephant Jeymalyatha’s case, repeated and egregious abuse has come to light which cannot be ignored. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department and Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department can still do the right thing by ensuring Jeymalyatha is seized and work with their counterparts in Assam to send her to an elephant rehabilitation centre specialised in handling abused elephants where she can live the rest of her life unchained”, says Khushboo Gupta, Director of Advocacy Projects, PETA India 

PETA India has also requested the Chief Minister of Assam to issue an urgent directive to the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam requesting that permission not be granted under section 40(2) of WPA, 1972 for the transfer and transportation of any privately owned captive elephants into or out of Assam, with the exception of those elephants returning to Assam or being sent to rehabilitation centres/sanctuaries.

The temple tradition

Several decades ago, temples under the purview of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department had at least 100 elephants in all. But over the years, the aging and death of elephants has left temples with just 29.  

Elephants are a necessary part of temple rituals since the presiding deities of specific temples are considered kings, lords and masters. They must be presented with a ratha (chariot), gaja (elephant), thuraga (horse), and pathathigal (foot soldiers) daily, said a former official of the Department. 

“Lord Ranganatha is considereda king, as is Tiruvottiyur Thyagaraja, and Rajagopalaswamy in Kumbakonam. According to the rules, an elephant along with a cow, a camel and a horse are to be present during three pujas — Vishwaroopa seva (early morning), Kaala Sandhi (first kaala Puja) and Saayarakshai (Twilight) — and also during special occasions. However, temples only have elephants and cows,” he explained. 

Poor conditions prevail

File photograph used for representational purposes only

File photograph used for representational purposes only
| Photo Credit:

‘An investigation into the status, management and welfare significance’ — published in collaboration with Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, TN Forest Department and HR&CE Department among others — details the difficulties that temple elephants face.

The team studied 25 temple elephants, 24 of them females. 57% of the enclosures the temple elephants were kept in were made of concrete or reinforced concrete material, while 30% had iron sheets or stones as part of the enclosure. Thatched leaves were recorded at three temples. Only one shelter had an earthen floor. The mean shelter size for the elephants was 943 sq.ft. On an average, each animal spent 15 hours within the enclosure. All the elephants observed had chains on their legs; 46% had two chains.

The elephants were forced to learn a large number of commands for a long periods of time. Of the animals observed for social interaction, only one was allowed to interact with another elephant. Despite the knowledge that elephants need to interact with their own kind, most captive elephants are subjected to a solitary life and most of the elephants (22) were reported to be quiet, the report said, implying the poor welfare conditions for the temple elephants.

The report recommended that keeping elephants in temples should be phased out or all such elephants be brought together in one location with a suitable natural environment. The elephants can then be used for work when needed, it said.

Government response

A temple elephant blessed and welcomed children at the Kundrakudi Sri Deivasigamani Arulneri Primary School near Karaikudi last year

A temple elephant blessed and welcomed children at the Kundrakudi Sri Deivasigamani Arulneri Primary School near Karaikudi last year
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

However, HR & CE Minister P. K. Sekarbabu has indicated that temple elephants are likely to stay in temples. He said that since elephants were very much part of the daily rituals of temples, the department was doing all it could to safeguard those that remain.

“In the last one year, a set of guidelines have been drawn up for the care of the pachyderms. They have been provided with bathing ghats, mud floors in places where they dwell and inside temples, mud walking paths inside groves, veterinarian checkups once every 15 days and a proper diet. The elephants are weighed regularly and provided with food accordingly. They are no longer fed with just rice balls as was the earlier practice,” he explained. 

Asked about activists’ demand that all elephants be sent to the wild or to a common location and be removed from temple service, he said the government was for protecting both the elephants and respecting the sentiments and beliefs of the devotees.

“We are taking care of the animals to the best of our abilities and ensuring that they are not given any trouble while carrying out their duties. At the same time, these traditions and rituals have been part of the culture of temples and cannot be disturbed in any manner,” he said.

Tamil Nadu’s Forest Department has recently introduced an elephant death audit framework to put in place a more detailed and transparent process for recording and monitoring elephant deaths in the State. 

( With inputs from Rajesh B Nair in Puducherry, S Sundar in Srivilliputtur, and Deepa H. Ramakrishnan and Malavika Ramakrishnan  in Chennai).

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