Kerala is known for its puzzles and dramatic paradoxes. Both positive and negative types. Among them is the famous development model of Kerala itself, which helped the state achieve social progress even when it remained economically backward. Among the negative paradoxes are the coexistence of women’s empowerment and extreme patriarchy; progressive politics and regressive social norms; public secularism and sectarianism practiced in private, etc.
A state that embraced modernity in the 19th century through the revival movement that led struggles for women’s rights has witnessed in the 21st century a mass movement to block their entry into a temple because they have their rules! It was led not only by the obscurantist BJP, but also by the most secular party in the country, the Congress. The communist-led government, which initially proclaimed to open the doors of the temple to women, subsequently did an about-face, stung by mounting opposition. Inter-religious marriages are condemned as Love Jihad or thwarted by the murder of the lower caste man who dared to marry an upper caste woman belonging even to “no caste” religions. Progressive and secular political parties either kept silent or approved.
Watch the ongoing election campaign in the Thrikkakara by-election. While the left-wing candidate is chosen for her religious identity, the congressional candidate, who is the wife of a deceased leader who openly defied religious leaders, pays tribute to all religious and caste lords in the region. The BJP, which screams at the top of its lungs about the appeasement of minorities by the left and Congress, is happy to lead one minority community to abuse the other.
Another abominable paradox of Kerala is now noted in consternation and shock. Kerala Elephant Paradox. Kerala has long been associated with elephants. It is one of the largest habitats for Asian elephants and India’s largest captive elephant home (18%). The elephant was the official symbol in Kochi and Tiruvithamkoor during royal times and the state animal after independence. No festival in Kerala is complete without jumbos; Malayalam literature abounds with tales of elephants; legends abound of the famous tuskers which are household names; many families have specialized for generations in the treatment and taming of elephants (aanappavu); the men proudly wear their “aanakkambam” on their sleeve; upper-caste families boast of their ancestors who raised defenses to claim past glory. They trumpet, “Ntuppuppakk oraanendarnnu”, according to the inimitable Vaikom Muhammed Basheer!
Kerala claims to worship and revere elephants. Yet it is also known worldwide as the worst hell for the sensitive and intelligent animal. The increasing frequency of incidents of captive elephants being brutally exploited and tortured in the name of religion, entertainment and commerce has stunned animal lovers and conservationists around the world. Known for its progressive and humanist traditions, Kerala is also portrayed today as a society practicing primitive barbarity on elephants. This story of Kerala’s inhumanity was told most fully by a woman who dedicated herself to saving the state’s unfortunate elephants. She is Sangita Iyer, a Kerala-born and Canadian-based conservationist, animal rights activist and filmmaker.
Iyer’s universally acclaimed documentary -Gods In Shackles- (2018) about the plight of captive elephants in Kerala was the first major work to bring the sordid saga to the world’s attention. Today his book of the same name (Hay House Publishers, 2022) has documented the story in more detail and is becoming a universal bestseller. Like his film, this book recounts in gruesome detail how the elephants of Kerala are “brutalised” (when humans become more cruel than bullies, is the word more appropriate?) in the name of religion, entertainment, business and even love! Africa and Asia are the habitats of the two main species of the animal. Yet their population has grown from a few million at the turn of the 20th century to 3.5 lakh in Africa and from less than one lakh to 40,000 in India. While they are tortured and killed for ivory in Africa, they are captured, domesticated and tortured for religion, entertainment and profit in Asia, especially India. Strangely, the India of Lord Ganesha is the country where elephants are traditionally revered! Iyer parallels this with India’s mistreatment of its women even though they are worshiped as goddesses.
Kerala is home to around 400 of India’s 2,500 captive elephants, which make up around 18%, and have the most sordid stories of elephant torture that directly violate existing laws and ethics. Yet the barbarism was kept secret through an organized conspiracy of silence caused by religious considerations, profit motives, and sheer fear of political and social backlash. As Iyer passionately writes, elephants are “stolen from the wild, torn from their close-knit families, brutalized into submission, and forced to perform unnatural tasks.” Between 2015 and 2017, as many as 70 captive elephants died in four Indian states due to “unnatural causes”. In Kerala, the toll was 35 in 2018 alone – three per month! The reasons were torture, neglect, overwork, and mismanagement. This is despite the fact that elephants were included from 2010 in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Act 1972 as an endangered species and heritage animal which requires stringent protection and protection from to death, poaching and trade.
It’s no secret that Kerala’s most captive elephants, celebrated as ‘icons of Malayali tradition and culture’, including rockstars like ‘India’s Greatest’ -Thechikottukav Ramachandran- were actually purchased and brought from Assam or Bihar. Iyer documents in horrific detail the suffering and agony perpetrated even as we pretended to worship them on many of our famous tuskers like Ramachandran, Triprayar Ramabhadran, Guruji Padmanabhan, etc. She also recounts their abominable ordeal during festivals which are the scene of agonies with teeming crowds, blinding lights and deafening noises to which the elephants are too sensitive. The primitive ways in which they are chained, herded and herded into trucks, forced to walk for miles on hot asphalt roads, tied without enough water and food under heavy iron chains for many days causing deep wounds , castrated to kill their primal instincts, brutalized during their musth, barbarously tamed through the Katti Adikkal, Kerala special, etc. so on in Kerala for the cause of elephants like late Sugathakumari, Akkeeraman Kalidasa Bhattathiripad, VK Venkitachalam, Raman Sukumar, Surendra Varma, Suparna Ganguly, Jacob Cheeran and so on.
Iyer boldly names the leaders and officials who go blind from torture, the veterinarians who issue false certificates, the appalling conditions at the notorious Guruvayur captive elephant center or the state-run rehabilitation centers. She explains that no religious scripture calls for or endorses the use of elephants for festivals. The book is also Iyer’s personal journey and discovery. She draws a stark parallel to the plight of elephants with her own personal trauma as a child, sexually abused and socially silenced by Kerala’s patriarchal traditions.
The sad saga of elephant torture in Kerala has crossed all boundaries with the state’s recent economic prosperity fueled by Gulf money. This has caused an increase in the number of festivals (of all religions) and their extravagance. There are up to 3000 Hindu temple festivals every year now. The “Jumbo Parade” has become a prestigious rule and temples compete for the largest number with many worthy animals made to stand with the names of sponsors hanging from their necks. This spawned a ruthless and grossly profitable elephant industry. Owning, contracting and renting elephants is a source of income, with owners of famous tuskers earning up to Rs 7 lakhs per day. Elephant owners’ associations thrive on political and religious patronage and drown out any voice of protest.
This writer recalls the hostile reaction to a TV series about the torture of captive elephants made a few years ago inspired by long conversations with Iyer and watching her “Gods In Shackles.” We were showered with abuse of choice, we were called anti-Hindus and the elephant owner-entrepreneur lobby staged a protest march outside our office and even presented us with a death pledge. (I wonder how a lonely, relentless activist like Venkitachalam survives in the killing fields of Thrissur!)
Iyer’s book was published as Kerala celebrated Thrissur Pooram, the state’s most extravagant elephant show, this year after a two-year break caused by Covid-19. It contains a particular chapter on Pooram – “The abomination that is Thrissur Pooram”. The cruelty and primitivism perpetrated on hundreds of elephants during the Pooram is told in shocking detail. I wonder how posterity would rate this barbaric spectacle staged as Malayali’s greatest festival at the expense of extreme elephant agony and suffering. It’s the most traumatic experience of an elephant’s life because of the restless crowds, long hours standing on his sensitive foot carrying a heavy weight on his tender spine, suffering from what he hates the most – the heat of summer, deafened and blinded by the horrible sound of the drums, the fireworks and the lights while the gentle animal abhorred.
A two-year break in Pooram’s detention has Malayali throwing to the winds every word of caution and restraint from courts, officials, health experts, environmentalists or animal lovers about his conduct. The media too, spurred on by the commercial potential, have forgotten the dangers they were pointing out just a few years ago. The time when a media organization boldly ran a campaign citing Sree Narayana Guru’s call, “Kariyum Venda Karimarunnum Venda” following the fireworks accident at Puttingal Temple in Kollam which killed 111 people in 2016, is over. together in the passion of Pooram, lived for hours hiding all the important news and their loquacious commentators skimmed over the childish and tacky Kudamattam. Even the growing fundamentalism lurking in the shadows was evident this time with the picture of Savarkar adorning a Varnakkuda even when Narayana Guru or Ayyankali was conspicuously absent.