Temple elephants have been an intrinsic part of the cultural fabric of India since time immemorial, especially in Kerala, where the practice of employing the pachyderms as a mount for idols during religious processions continues to this date.
For a gigantic beast that ideally belongs in the wild, most of these elephants have been raised in captivity and tamed to meet human demands.
Typically chained in the temple premises with limited moving space, not only are they subjected to years of abuse but also isolation that inevitably leads them to a state of physical and psychological distress.
And one wonders why there are so many fatal incidents where mahouts and even common people were mercilessly stomped to death by the otherwise ‘docile’ temple elephants.
Going against the tide is the temple administration of Nalpathenneeswaram Sree Mahadeva Temple in Cherthala, a town located in the district of Alappuzha, in Kerala, which has finally decided to phase out the use of caparisoned elephants in its festival procession and would be using the wooden structure of Jeevatha to mount idols of deities.
In fact, this is the second temple in the region that has taken the step of not using elephants in their rituals, keeping the safety of the public and more importantly, the animals in mind.
The famous Kanichukulangara Temple near Cherthala had been the first temple in the state that had discontinued the practice a few years ago and set a precedent for organising festivals responsibly.
Interestingly, the idea of suspending the use of elephants in processions at the Mahadeva temple had emerged out of the unlikeliest situations. During the undertaking of an ‘ashtamangala prashnam,’ which is a highly revered astrological practice in Kerala, the astrologers drew that Kirathamoorthy, the presiding deity of the temple, had supported the replacement of the ancient practice with Jeevatha.
The proposal was originally put forth by Devaswom, the temple board, during a cultural meet, and faced mass disapproval from the residents before the prashnam was held.
At one point, as many as 15 elephants used to be part of the grand temple procession.
So, this year’s upcoming seven-day festival in Cherthala commencing on February 18, would witness the procession sans the elephant parade for the first time.
A notice was issued by the authorities for the public that said, “As Devaswom proclaimed last year in a cultural meet, it was decided to remove the risky elephant parade this year. The jeevathas will be introduced instead. The fund set aside for elephant parade will be used for the welfare of the temple and local people.”
“I personally like to watch the elephant parade. However, I respect the Devaswom’s decision as the parade poses a huge risk. We have seen many incidents of elephant fury in Cherthala. I think this will be replicated in other temples,” KS Sreekumari, a resident, told Deccan Chronicle.