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When engineering comes to the rescue of captive elephants

Apr 05, 2024 11:28 PM IST

An increasing trend in South India's temple festivals is to use robotic elephants instead of captive ones. This will help end cruelty towards the pachyderms

Hundreds of onlookers at a temple festival in central Kerala's Thrissur district had a miraculous escape in the third week of March when a tusker turned hostile, and attacked another elephant, chasing it for nearly a kilometre and a half along a narrow road that was filled with people. They gathered to witness the final rituals of the Arattupuzha Pooram festival on March 22.

Shankara Hariharan, the robotic elephant gifted by Sangita Iyer, a Canadian citizen of Indian descent and staunch advocate for Asian elephants, to the new temple in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu.(K A Shaji) PREMIUM
Shankara Hariharan, the robotic elephant gifted by Sangita Iyer, a Canadian citizen of Indian descent and staunch advocate for Asian elephants, to the new temple in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu.(K A Shaji)

According to the police report filed, eight people, including a child, were severely injured.

Guruvayur Ravikrishnan, one of the tuskers paraded at the festival, attacked his mahout, Sreekumar, who had a narrow escape. Subsequently, Ravikrishnan charged at Puthuppally Arjunan, the other elephant, whose mahout, Narayanan, was carrying the thidampu [a decorated replica of the deity] of the Arattupuzha Sastha temple. Narayanan fell when the two elephants started clashing angrily for several tense moments, tusk to tusk. Though Arjunan yielded a little later, Ravikrishnan pursued him. It took a couple of hours for the mahouts of other parading elephants to calm Ravikrishnan down.

The mahouts, Sreekumar and Narayanan, remain in critical condition at the local medical college hospital.

Parading elephants erupting in rage

According to V. K. Venkatachalam, secretary of the Thrissur-based animal welfare organisation Heritage Animal Task Force, this incident was the latest instance of overworked elephants erupting in rage, putting the lives of thousands of devotees at risk.

Official estimates placed the number of people who had gathered in the grounds in Arrattupuzha at approximately 50,000, many of them were asleep at that hour. Providence alone prevented the loss of life, many officials said.

As individuals frantically sought refuge, children wailed for assistance, and many devotees leapt into the adjacent river to flee the rampage.

There were no safety measures at the Aarattupuzha grounds — no barriers to separate the elephants from the visitors, no public announcement system, no alcohol testing for the mahouts, no facility to tranquilise the elephants, and only a small number of volunteers.

Tanneer Komban, the wild elephant that died, was captured in Mananthawady in Kerala’s Wayanad district. (HT Photo)(HT_PRINT)
Tanneer Komban, the wild elephant that died, was captured in Mananthawady in Kerala’s Wayanad district. (HT Photo)(HT_PRINT)

Enter robotic elephant

The same day, on March 22, the Kodakara Shashti parade taking place 65 km away, featured Irinjadapilly Raman.

The elephant weighing 800 kilogrammes had the capacity to transport five passengers simultaneously. The main difference? It was a mechanical elephant made by a collective of artists from Thrissur, who have previously provided elephant statues for the Dubai Shopping Festival.

The elephant was made with financial assistance from People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), modelled after the celebrity tusker Thechikottukavu Ramachandran (the elephant owned by Thechikottukavu Bhagavathy temple in Thrissur, famous as the tallest captive elephant in Asia at over 10 feet 6 inches).

The robotic elephant was built at a cost of 5 lakh using iron frames and rubber coating. A lever permits its trunk to tail to move, making it look almost real as devotees throng the temple.

The Irinjadapilly Sree Krishna Temple in Thrissur paved the way by using Irinjadapilly Raman on February 27, 2022.

Numerous analogous festivals are poised to adopt the mechanical elephant due to its perceived economic feasibility and absence of risk. PETA officials said that the animal rights organisation has signed agreements with eight more temples in Kerala to supply them with robotic elephants.

Three temples in Tamil Nadu and one in Karnataka have also agreed to accept the mechanised elephants.

“The mechanical elephant has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from temples and animal lovers throughout South India. Irinjadapilly Raman has been in continuous motion since its inception, which suggests that the actual captive elephants endure the same torture that occurs during the height of the festival season," said PETA India's director of advocacy, Kushboo Gupta.

A group of four young men from Chalakudy near Thrissur named Four Hearts created Raman and Sivan (in February 2023 and January 2024, respectively), two mechanical elephants that have since garnered international and domestic attention. Their craftsmanship has now crossed state borders to reach Nilgiris, the mountain district of Tamil Nadu.

Devotees who visit the Shiva temple in the secluded hamlet of Devarshola, close to Gudalur in the Nilgiris, behold an enormous, mechanised elephant near the sanctum sanatorium.

The elephant is also programmed to perform rituals such as dedicatory salutations, devotee blessings, and chariot hauling. To facilitate its movement, it has been affixed to a wheeled pedestal.

In February, Sangita Iyer, a Canadian citizen of Indian descent and executive director of the Voices for Asian Elephants (VFAE) Society, donated a robotic elephant named Sri Shankara Hariharan to the same temple (also created by Four Hearts). People throng the temple to touch the elephant's legs, whereas others intently scrutinise the mechanised creature's head movements and fan-like ears.

"We worship Lord Ganesh on the one hand but treat elephants poorly on the other," Iyer said.

On March 18, actress Priyamani donated a life-size mechanical elephant to the Thrikkayil Mahadeva Temple in Kochi on March 18. The mechanical elephant, Mahadevan, is now conducting ceremonies at the temple safely and cruelty-free. Now, it is the third such elephant to be introduced in Kerala.

"The advances in technology mean we can maintain our rich cultural practices and heritage while ensuring that animals are not harmed," Priyamani said.

Thrikkayil Mahadeva Temple owner, T Vallabhan Namboothiri, said they were very pleased to use the mechanical elephant Mahadevan "in reverence to all of the animals created by God who want to live free and safe with their families just as humans do."

Festival season

According to rough estimates, over 10,000 temple festivals with mandated elephant parades occur annually in Kerala between January and June. The festivals begin in certain temples as early as the second half of December.

According to the most recent data from the state's Forest Department, the state now has 412 surviving captive elephants, 22 fewer than the previous year.

While very few are dying due to age-related ailments, elephant lovers are concerned about the survival of the remaining young captive elephants.

They claim that the pachyderms face serious health problems as a result of the high-decibel sounds of percussion music performed at festivals, severe stress, tedious travel (primarily in trucks), and a lack of adequate rest.

According to animal rights campaigner VK Venkitachalam, the jumbos' musth (mating) season also overlaps with the summer temple festival season, which adds to their stress.

"During the rainy season, elephants must stay in slush pools filled with dung, urine, and rainwater. Such filthy environments contribute to the spread of diseases like tuberculosis. Many elephants in the state have died as a result of foot illness, tuberculosis, and impaction," says Venkatachalam.

Animal rights activists are concerned about captive elephants' frustration and abnormal behaviour, often leading to dangerous situations during temple festivities. The Heritage Animal Task Force has compiled data indicating that captive elephants have been associated with the fatalities of 526 individuals in Kerala for fifteen years.

However, a large section of right-wing Hindutva fellow travellers among the devotees argue that such interventions by animal activists disregard the deep-rooted cultural and religious significance of animals in Hindu traditions. They cite examples of various deities associated with specific animals, such as Vahans (vehicles), emphasising the bond between humans and animals in religious practices.

The use of real elephants in temples, including their participation in festivals, fetching water for rituals, and engaging in morning poojas, is viewed as a sacred tradition that embodies the symbiotic relationship between man and animal, said T N Arun Kumar, a former president of the Kerala Elephant Owners Association.

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