Elephants in Kerala culture

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Wild elephants in Munnar

This article covers the role of elephants (Indian Elephant, Elephas maximus indicus) in the culture of Kerala state, southern India.

Elephants found in Kerala, the Indian Elephants, are one of three recognized subspecies of the Asian elephant. Since 1986, Asian Elephant has been listed as endangered by IUCN as the population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations, estimated to be 25,600 to 32,750 in the wild. The species is pre-eminently threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation.[1] Along with a large population of wild elephants, Kerala has more than seven hundred elephants in captivity. Most of them are owned by temples and individuals.[citation needed] They are used for religious ceremonies in and around the temples,and some churches and mosques also, and a few elephants work at timber yards. Elephants in Kerala are often referred to as the "sons of the sahya"(cf. poem Sahyante Makan by Vyloppalli Sreedhara Menon). As the State Animal, the elephant is featured on the emblem of the Government of Kerala state, taken from the Royal Arms of both Travancore and Cochin.[2][3]

Elephants in festivals[edit]

Elephants standing during Thrissur pooram festival in Kerala state of south India.

Most of the Hindu temples in Kerala own elephants, the majority of which are donated by devotees. The famous Guruvayur temple has more than 60 captive elephants. The world's only Elephant Palace is constructed in Punnattur Kotta, 3 km from the Guruvayur temple, to house the temple's elephants. A famous elephant, named Guruvayur Kesavan, belonged to this temple.

Almost all of the local festivals in Kerala include at least one richly caparisoned elephant. Elephants carry the deity during annual festival processions and ceremonial circumnambulations in the Hindu temples. The temple elephants are decorated with gold plated caparisons ("nettipattam"), bells, and necklaces. People mounted on the elephants hold tinselled silk parasols ("muttukuda") up high, swaying white tufts ("vencamaram") and peacock feather fans ("alavattam") to the rhythm of the orchestra.[4] Seventeen elephants are engaged for the daily ceremonial rounds to the accomplishment of Pancari Melam in Kudalmanikyam temple. The headgear of seven of these elephants is made of pure gold and rest of pure silver, which is unique to this temple.

Mahout and his elephant Guruvayoor, Thrissur, Kerala

Elephants in history and legends of Kerala[edit]

Caparisoned elephants during Sree Poornathrayesa temple festival. Mahout with his thotti (hook).

Many elephants are featured in the local legends of Kerala. Aitihyamala ("A Garland of Historical Anecdotes") by Kottarattil Sankunni was written in eight volumes; each volume ending with a story or legend about a famous elephant. [1].

Caring for elephants[edit]

Each elephant has three mahouts, called paappan (പാപ്പാൻ) in the Malayalam language. The most important duty of the mahouts is to bathe and massage the elephant with small rocks, and the husk of coconuts. In the monsoon season, the elephants undergo Ayurvedic rejuvenation treatments which include decoctions with herbs, etc. It is called Sukha Chikitsa in the Malayalam language. Mahouts may be classified into three types, called in the Sanskrit language:

  • Reghawan: Those who use love to control their elephants.
  • Yukthiman: Those who use ingenuity to outsmart them.
  • Balwan: Those who control elephants with cruelty.

In November 2014, Mathrubhumi reported the incident of a tamed elephant, Indrajit, being released to the wild because of the care and affection (and not because of financial constraints) the elephant's owner, Mr T R Raghulal (managing director of Elite Group of Companies), has towards the elephant. To avoid troubles a tamed elephant may face in the wild, special arrangements were made by the forest-wildlife departments of the Government of Kerala, to ensure a smooth transition.[5] The elephant is 15 years old and is expected to live for another 50 years. Elephants have huge market value in a state like Kerala.[6]

Cruelty against elephants[edit]

Ownership of elephant is considered as a feudal status symbol and around 700 elephants are owned by people and temples. These elephants are rented out for more than 10,000 festivals and processions in which a single elephant may generate revenue up to $5000 a day according to their status.[7] These animals have to endure long and noisy parades, loud firecrackers, may need to stand near flames, travel long distances in open shabby vehicles and walk on tarred roads in the scorching sun for hours, denying even food, water and sleep, in the name of religion and tourism promotion.[7][8] They are often abused by drunk and brutal mahouts. Around half of the mahouts are found to have drinking problems.[7] January to April are the cruelest months for the captive elephants in Kerala when the places of worship celebrates various annual festivals.[8]

Elephant Biologist V Sridhar accuses, the temple boards of being greedy and co-ercing aggressive elephants not suited to such tasks by going to the extent of hobbling them even with spike chains on their forelegs. He further claims that due to the increasing work load, elephants in their prime (20–40 years of age) seem to be dying prematurely.[9] He suspects that increase in death toll - due to intestinal obstruction and other digestive problems - is indicative of potential increase in physiological and psychological stress.[10] He also expresses his concerns on the lack of trained mahouts - to handle the huge increase of total elephants in captivity - which is a leading reason for the cruel mis-treatment of the animals[11] Further in his opinion, the process of taming an elephant was, historically, based on principles of dominance establishment, which needs revision by creating better awareness and training of Mahouts, but this process cannot happen overnight and it can only happen gradually.[12]

Further reports by Prem Panicker :

"Temple elephants… and what lies beneath". Peepli.org. Prem Panicker. August 18, 2015. Retrieved August 18, 2015. Guruvayur’s elephants are housed in the grounds surrounding Punnathur Kotta - an approximately 11 acres ground – too small a space to adequately house the population of between 50-60 elephants Guruvayur owns at any given point in time. Since the acreage is limited, the elephants not participating in any of the temple rituals at a given point in time are leg-shackled to keep them from intruding into each other’s domain and equally, to ensure the safety of visitors ... Whatever the reason, the captivity is real, it is restrictive, and it is a problem for animals programmed to roam free, far and wide. The constant presence of the shackles creates festering sores — and while vets regularly attend to it, treatment can only be palliative; the shackles remain, and sores fester again. [13]

On 15 August 2015, Daily Mail released a report[14] by journalist Liz Jones that detailed the torture and cruelty of elephants at 'training camps' to break their spirit. However, her account is disputed by other eye-witness reports - who claim that, Liz Jones did not see any elephant being beaten and starved, as she had written.[15]

Elephant attacks[edit]

There is an alarming rise of man-animal conflict in crowded towns and cities, mostly believed to be happened because of maltreatment. During festivals elephants trampled and killed devotees in recent years. Kerala's Elephant Lovers' Association reports that in the period of 1998 - 2010 captive elephants have killed 212 people in Kerala - the majority of them mahouts. Wildlife authorities have warned that "fatal mishaps in public places at an alarming [rate have] become a threat to public life".[7]

Famous captive elephants[edit]

Some famous captive elephants in Kerala are,

mangalamkunnu karanan

Ornaments used for elephants[edit]

One of the famous families in Thrissur District of Kerala, the Venkitadri family, has made ornaments for three generations, especially for the famous Thrissur pooram, the most famous of the Hindu temple-centred festivals. They make gold plated caparisons, umbrellas, 'alavattam, venchamaram, and necklaces. They decorate one hundred and fifty elephants with ornaments for temple festivals. Thrissur Pooram, Nenmara Vallangi Vela are some of the famous festivals in kerala in which more decorated elephants are used for procession.

Controlling elephants in Kerala[edit]

In India, and especially in Kerala, mahout uses three types of rods to control elephants. Stick with a hook (Thotti - തോട്ടി ) which is 3.5 ft in length and 3 inch thick, Long rod (Valiya kol - വലിയ കോൽ) which is 10.5 ft in length and 5.5 inch thick and short rod (cheru kol - ചെറു കോൽ).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Choudhury, A., Lahiri Choudhury, D.K., Desai, A., Duckworth, J.W., Easa, P.S., Johnsingh, A.J.T., Fernando, P., Hedges, S., Gunawardena, M., Kurt, F., Karanth, U., Lister, A., Menon, V., Riddle, H., Rübel, A., Wikramanayake, E. (2008). "Elephas maximus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. International Union for Conservation of Nature. 
  2. ^ For details cf. George Menachery, "The Elephant and the Christians",SARAS, Ollur, 2014 where the emblems of early Cheras, Kochi, Travancore, Tirukkochi(Travancore-Cochin), and Kerala States with the elephant emblems are given.
  3. ^ "'Aanayum NazraniyumThe Elephant in Kerala Churches" (PDF). 
  4. ^ South India. Rough Guides, 2003. ISBN 1-84353-103-8. P 305
  5. ^ http://digitalpaper.mathrubhumi.com/380282/Weekend/23-NOVEMBER-2014#page/1/1
  6. ^ http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/states/elephant-renting-is-now-jumbo-business/article4949312.ece
  7. ^ a b c d "BBC South Asia: India's overworked elephants". BBC. Retrieved 2012-08-11. 
  8. ^ a b "Cruelty against elephants". The Hindu. Retrieved 2012-08-11. 
  9. ^ "The sinking ark, where the survivors are trying to loot as much revenue from the ark, before it is completely sunk". 
  10. ^ "Before the last trumpet". 
  11. ^ "An open letter to all self-proclaimed (social network) elephant lovers". 
  12. ^ "I don’t think anybody is needlessly cruel to these animals". 
  13. ^ "Animal Welfare Board of India - Report on the Welfare & Veterinary Status of Captive Elephants at Punnathur Kotta Guruvayur Devaswom Board, Thrissur, Kerala" (PDF). 
  14. ^ "Liz Jones Elephant Exploitation story". 
  15. ^ "An open letter to Daily Mail". 

External links[edit]