When will an evolved society’s empathy solve an elephantine problem?
The temple festival season in Kerala has started. It makes one nostalgic. I grew up in Thrippunithura, on the outskirts of Kochi.
Published: 09th December 2017 10:00 PM | Last Updated: 09th December 2017 04:42 PM | A+A A-
The temple festival season in Kerala has started. It makes one nostalgic. I grew up in Thrippunithura, on the outskirts of Kochi. The town has many temples, and each holds a special memory. There might not be any temple festival that is more dignified and classical than that of Poornathrayeesha Temple. For eight days and nights, the temple becomes the venue of many classical temple arts of Kerala with reputed artistes playing to an erudite audience. The who’s who of classical drum orchestra have played in front of Lord Poornathreyeesha. The period of November-December brings evocative memories of the 15 caparisoned elephants swaying their giant ears to the rhythmic beat.
I love elephants. I have always been fascinated by these gentle giants. My home town is a place where many self-proclaimed elephant-lovers congregate. There are fan clubs for each elephant and sometimes such fan associations erect flex posters to welcome the superstars among elephants.
When my daughter was of six years, I had travelled all the way from Bengaluru with my family to my hometown. I wanted my daughter to relish my childhood. My boy was only two at that time and was fast asleep on his mother’s shoulders, unconcerned about the cacophony of the festival crowd. My daughter was fascinated as any city-born girl would be.
The elephants looked royal and the Tayambaka orchestra was mesmerising. Everything went perfect, until I took my daughter to see the elephants up close. She started crying inconsolably. I thought she was afraid and I tried to soothe her by saying that these elephants are tame. They love children. She did not reply, instead she pointed to the eyes of the elephant. She asked why it was crying.
I stared at the stream of water flowing from the ridiculously small eyes of the giant. It was the first time I was looking into the eyes of an elephant. I have never seen so much melancholy. I do not know whether it was due to pain or misery or it was natural for it to shed water from its eyes. I did not want to google it and find out. At that moment, all I could feel was its pain. My legs could experience the weight of the chains that bound its huge legs. I could feel its crushing loneliness amid the sea of the milling crowd.
I felt ashamed to belong to a species that revels in such cruelty. My daughter wanted the elephant to be freed. I did not know how I would tell her that we are cowards and we are scared of freedom, in us and in those who we enslave. We left the temple with a heavy heart. It took a six-year-old’s compassion to make me see what was staring at my face all my life—the abject misery of a fellow living being. I used to be a proud elephant lover, but I have became scared to face them anymore.
My love for them never faded. The frequent trips I make to my writing retreat in Wayanad have made me understand these beasts better. Seeing an elephant in its natural environment is an elevating feeling. They do not look squeaky clean like how they do in the temples. The mud they pour over their body after a luxurious bath in a gurgling mountain stream is their mark of freedom. Watching a cow elephant fuss over its calf makes you feel everything is alright with this world.
Elephants continue to be used in temple festivals. These giants are chained, made to walk in scorching heat on asphalted roads, denied water and food, and are forced to stand for many hours in the middle of dusty grounds while drums of many decibels boom around them. They stand uneasily as firecrackers burst, afraid of the stinging pain that the drunk mahout would deliver with his metal clawed prod. If elephants could write, they would write much more heart-wrenching stories than Alex Haley’s Roots.
We have a name for this torture. We call it culture. We name it tradition and we flaunt it before horrified foreign tourists. There are clever arguments for continuing this tradition. The supporters would point to the chickens, calves, swine and many other animals being slaughtered and eaten, and say what is special about elephants. They will invoke their right to get offended which has become our national pastime. We do not lack cleverness when it comes to argument. What we lack is empathy.
The use of elephants for temple festivals is a vestige of feudal past. There is no scriptural sanctity for such traditions. We have got rid of many such symbols, including the royalty. Many traditions have evolved over years. We use electric lights for decoration and LPG for cooking prasada inside the temples. We use loud speakers to invoke gods. And we spoil aesthetics of our beautiful temples with tress work and tin sheet, and paint sculptors with the latest emulsion paint. Wherever it suits us, we have embraced modernity. But when it comes to these beasts, we become staunch conservatives.
It is only in central Kerala that we have the tradition of using elephants for temple festivals. In Malabar, the Theyyams serve the purpose and in southern Kerala, elaborately made wooden or cloth horses and elephants serve the same function. In Kalpathy festival of Palakkad, the deity is taken in procession in carved chariots pulled by entire communities. It is high time the elephants were replaced with wooden or metal elephants. That is how a society evolves. The mark of a civilised society is the compassion it shows towards the powerless. And the poor elephants can be left to where they belong—the forests.
Author, columnist, speaker