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Elephantine irony

Why is the elephant the most revered yet brutalised animal in India?

Ganesh Chaturthi is back, and with it the most lovable deity of contemporary Hinduism, larger and more beautiful year after year. The public celebration of the festival has spread to the whole country. Huge Ganesha images are installed on street corners, highways and in remote villages. "All obstacles, whatever they may be, are rooted out by worshipping Ganesha," is the blessing necessary to any society.

Lost Freedom - Capturing a wild elephant

Ganesha derives all his qualities from the elephant. The elephant is huge and strong yet gentle, qualities of Ganesha. The elephant is perceived to be wise: Ganesha symbolizes wisdom and knowledge. The elephant's sharp hearing translates into Ganesha's ability to listen and acquire knowledge. The elephant has a long trunk (nose) and a keen sense of smell: Ganesha's trunk can sniff out good and evil. The trunk can hold objects, making Ganesha a great scribe. His mouse vehicle represents the speed with which the elephant can move. The elephant clears every obstacle, making him Vighneswara, dispeller of obstacles. The elephant is attached to his mother till he is a teenager: Ganesha is always a young boy (Tamil: pillai), attached to his mother Parvati.

Ganesha is not the only revered elephant. The eight directions are guarded by eight elephants: Airavata, Anjana, Sarvabhauma and Vamana in the east, west, north and south respectively, and Supatrika, Pushpadanta, Pundarika and Kumuda in the northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest respectively. The Gajashastra has an elaborate story of how elephants could once fly, but lost the ability when they disturbed the penance of Varana rishi and were cursed by the sage to be grounded. Airavata is also the vehicle of Indra, king of the heavens.

Admiration for the animal's size and strength led to its association with royalty. There is a story that a wild elephant bowed low before Chandragupta Maurya, confirming his destiny as emperor. Chandragupta mounted it and won several battles, guided by its wisdom. The elephant's love of water led to the custom of elephants pouring coronation water over the king. Elephants pouring water also flank Gaja Lakshmi. To invoke rain, the elephant was anointed with sandal paste and taken in procession. The elephant symbolized the birth of the Buddha, representing both Maya's dream of an elephant entering her womb and the royal prince who renounced the world. Elephants appear frequently in art and were the symbols of several dynasties, including of Ashoka. The elephant was probably domesticated by the Indus Valley period, where it appears on the seals. In Mamallapuram, the elephant appears as a monolith and in Arjuna's Penance; it adorns Konarak. In the elephant-lion battles depicted in painting and sculpture, the lion represented victorious sovereignty, the elephant the defeated yet powerful and dignified enemy. Scenes of war and hunting in sculpture and painting invariably show the ruler on a huge elephant. Elephants were regularly used in war, although they often ran amuck and killed their owners. Akbar owned 32,000 elephants, his son Jehangir 1,30,000.

Indian admiration for the elephant led to its deification as Ganesha. Yet this is not matched by our treatment of the animal. Few animals are as brutalized and mistreated as the elephant. Today they are used by the logging industry, in temples and by government departments of forests and tourism. The cruelty starts with the capture and training. Wild elephants are separated from their herds by nooses thrown from the back of a trained elephant or concealed on the ground, by pits into which they fall (a favourite of poachers) or by frightening them with fire into stockades, a public jamboree called khedda. Beautiful wild elephants, which once roamed free, are imprisoned in kraals (cages), tortured, brutally beaten, poked with sharp metal rods and harassed with starvation and loneliness till they finally submit. This is how elephants are "trained" into submission. Is this the treatment for Ganesha?

The mahouts control their charges by poking the goad into sensitive spots behind the ears, causing great pain. Mahouts, according to a document of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, "ill-treat their elephants…deprive them of proper bath, water and food in time, and neglect to take the desired precautionary measures which at times lead to serious troubles including killing of human beings". There are several private individuals who own elephants and use them for begging, advertising, and rent them out. In recent years there have been several instances of elephants running amuck on the roads or during festivals and killing their mahouts, a well-deserved end. In zoos they are chained and live all alone. They have to give joyrides in forests and elsewhere. The worst off are circus elephants, who are burnt and tortured till they ride a cycle or stand on their heads for the enjoyment of human imbeciles.

Gifting an elephant to a temple is the greatest cruelty and should be banned. They are chained, with festering sores on their legs. They are made to stand in the hot sun and beg for hours, or walked on hot tar streets, begging. People give fruits and money, imagining they are feeding Ganesha. The fruits are sold by the mahout, who uses the money on himself. An elephant needs at least 250 kilos of food a day. Temple and privately-owned elephants get a few balls of cooked rice. Even cash-rich temples like those of Madurai Meenakshi and Vaitheesvarankovil have sick and wounded elephants, with calloused ankles where the chains bind them. The state of elephants in other temples is equally bad. The government owns most temples, so nobody bothers about the elephants. There are no veterinary check-ups or supervision of feeding. From time to time, Forest Departments of the southern or northeastern states are asked to part with an elephant to be gifted to a foreign zoo or to a temple. Have you seen the heart-rending sight of a calf separated from its mother in elephant camps? The calf is roped and bundled into a lorry, irrespective of its age, and the mother and child wail and starve for days. Elephants are social animals and live in herds headed by a matriarch. The baby is protected by its mother and aunts for nearly fifteen years. Male calves disperse thereafter, establishing their own home range to avoid inbreeding. Females never leave. Calves never stray far from the mother, who becomes extremely agitated if she loses sight of her baby.

In recent years the elephant population in the wild has come down drastically. 50% of the Asian elephants are found in India. Of them, 50% live in South India. Before Independence, their population was over 1,00,000. Today it is about 28,300. The decreasing numbers are due to habitat loss, as forests are cleared for agriculture, plantations of tea, coffee, teak and rubber and human habitations; dams and canals and mining in forest areas; and poaching for ivory, which has made Indian tuskers a rarity. 59% of elephant deaths are caused by poaching, 13% by food poisoning by farmers, and 8% by electrocution from electric fencing. Between 1980 and 1986, about 100 male elephants were killed annually.

Project Elephant, initiated in 1991-92, aims to manage the species, creating eleven reserves. But the elephant corridors are encroached: elephants need to migrate over large areas in search of food, something that is disappearing fast. So, as we pray to Ganesha, spare a thought for the elephant. Are we being kind to them? The elephant goad and noose in Ganesha's hands must remind us of human cruelty to this noble creature who once roamed most of the earth. Man created the elephant-headed God. Let us treat the elephant with the love we shower on Ganesha.

Nanditha Krishna
C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation

Creations, Sunday Express, August 31, 2003

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