By Akila Kannadasan
“How old is the elephant?” I ask the mahout. His sits at the feet of his elephant, his head buried inside a notebook. He pauses, looks up briefly, and gets back to what he was doing. “What’s her age?” I persist. This time, he regards me with derision and replies: “I don’t know.” I stare, open-mouthed. But he couldn’t have cared less.
Flanked by stone pillars in a temple of architectural splendour, the magnificent elephant stands with her front legs chained. Her mahout seems to be in a bad mood today — this is bound to affect her. After all, a captive elephant’s physical and emotional well-being depends on the mahout. I walk on, sending her a quick prayer.
Elephants live in groups. They travel together, and eat and drink together. There is a bond among every elephant in the herd that is headed by the most experienced and efficient matriarch. They walk several kilometres a day, along routes that are stored in their minds. For an animal that huge who has to eat and drink mammoth quantities to survive, what better home than the wild?
Imagine their life inside a temple. Their job? To stand for hours on end and ‘bless’ people. Elephant expert Ajay Desai feels that it’s like “life-imprisonment” to confine elephants inside temples. “The worst punishment for a prisoner is solitary confinement,” he says. Temple elephants are forced to live in a similar state, he says. “If you look closely, temple elephants display odd behaviour. They keep shaking their heads, waving their trunks, moving their feet…” He says these are indicators that the animal is under stress.
Of course, these elephants are exposed to a lot of food — but this is not enough, says Ajay. Walking for long hours on tar roads “is not good for their feet.” “Unlike humans, they don’t sweat. They cool their bodies by standing in shade and by spraying cool water on themselves. They cover themselves with mud as a shield from the sun.” Temple elephants do not have the opportunity to engage in such activities. “The heat reflected from buildings is much more than what they are exposed to in the forest,” he says. Also, they don’t have their mud-packs.
According to Gods in Chains by Rhea Ghosh, a survey conducted by Project Elephant in late 2000 indicates that there are around 3,400 to 3,500 captive Asian elephants in India, of which 1,270 are in Assam, 620 in Kerala, 570 in Arunachal Pradesh and 130 in Tamil Nadu. These are “used primarily to generate income,” writes Ghosh. More....