KOCHI:If one visited the Thrissur Pooram or the Aarattupuzha Pooram festivals in Kerala, he or she will not be able to forget the sight of the mighty elephants, numbering around 80, as they stood in a procession.
All of them have accoutrements like a golden armour on their forehead. Three men, perched atop the elephant, will fan it with the aalavattom (a kind of fan made of peacock feathers) and venchamaram (a white flowing tuft made from the fine hair of the yak’s tail). At the same time, one of the men will be holding up a brightly coloured parasol (kuda), as the elephants are accompanied by an orchestra led by nationally acclaimed maestros.
Many of the temple festivals across Kerala are not mere festivals, but cultural plumes in God’s Own Country. These include the Chinakkathur Pooram, Nemmara Vallangi Vela, Uthralikkavu Pooram and Kavassery Pooram. Over the years these festivals have become mega cultural events, involving all sections of the people in the cities and villages alike, cutting across the barriers of caste, religion and class.
So the recent observation by the Supreme Court that the parading of elephants during festivals in Kerala, without following the guidelines set by the Wildlife Board, will amount to contempt of court, has come as a shock. In fact, this has thrown hundreds of elephant owners and thousands of temple administrators across the state into a tizzy. According to them, the guidelines, if strictly enforced, will impact 90 per cent of the temple festivals. Incidentally, the bench, headed by Justice Dipak Misra, made its observations while considering a petition filed by the Bengaluru-based Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre.
So what are the rules? They include the point that not more than three elephants should not be allowed inside the temple and the animals should not be paraded during the humid hours of 11 am and 3 pm. But this will affect the centuries-old rituals and customs associated with the religion, the elephant organisers and temple administrators said. “It does not mean that the organisers and elephant owners have been inflicting untold miseries on elephants in the name of faith,” said M Madhavankutty, president of the Thiruvambadi Devaswom, one of the organisers of the Thrissur Pooram, adding, “We do not believe in any form of cruelty towards anyone, whether it is a human being or an animal. The court has been misguided by some animal welfare organisations. I suspect this is a national-level conspiracy to spoil the traditions and festival-based cultural tourism of Kerala, under the pretext of animal love.”
Agreeing with him, general secretary of Elephant Owners’ Federation V Sasikumar, added : “There are 2,000 small and big temple festivals in the state. It is not possible to parade the elephants adhering to the existing guidelines.” These include the Wildlife Protection Act and Kerala Captive Elephants Rules of 2003, amended in 2012, and Performing Animal Registration Rule. “Since it is part of a long-running tradition, we have to bypass some of the rules for the conduct of temple rituals and ceremonies,” said Sasikumar, adding, “But it doesn’t mean that elephants are being subjected to cruelties.”
According to the secretary of Heritage Animal Task Force V K Venkitachalam, “As per the guidelines, no injured elephant can be paraded. But 90 perc ent of the captive elephants have some kind of injury. If the rules are enforced strictly, almost all ritualistic processions will be hit.” Meanwhile, the court has set July 14 as the date for the final hearing. “We will apprise the court about the ground realities,” said Sasikumar.