Temple/Devaswam Elephants

India has about 27,000 wild and 2675 (as per a RTI filed in 2019) captive elephants. The wild elephants live in 32 elephant reserves covering 69,582 sq kms that are unfortunately identified by the government as a programme only which means they get insufficient legal protection. In 2017 their population continued to remain stable at 27,000 as in 2012.

Reference the above figure of 2454 elephants in captivity 560 were in possession of Forest Departments, 1687 with private individuals, 85 in zoos, 26 in circuses and 96 in temples. However, 664 from among these were without ownership certificates. Furthermore, as many as 915 captive elephants were in Assam and 518 in Kerala.

It is unfortunate that the Indian temple elephant is certainly not happy in what it is made to do, much as its role is glorified. Temples cite tradition for keeping elephants, but where was this tradition even a century back? Maharajas kept elephants, yes, but… for example the Guruvayoor temple, near Thrissur in Kerala, had no elephants before 1969. Hindus undergoing hard times due to land reforms had no choice but to donate the elephants they were unable to take care of to the temple. That’s how Kerala’s temple elephants came into being, as did the Devaswam Boards. Elephants are not kept for religious reasons. They are there for commercial gain.

The season for temple-festivals/vela/pooram covers March, April and May (summer – the hottest months of the year) and processions with at least 3 and up to 15 temple elephants participating is a vital part of
these celebrations. A growing trend is for churches and mosques to also organise elephant processions. A huge strain for temple elephants – they lose nearly 300 kgs in a single festive season.

In December 2014, Kerala’s Forest Minister stated in the Assembly that the state had 691 captive elephants. A state government report stated that 310 died since 2007. The list of micro-chipped elephants released by the department in 2010 was 702. However, the number stated in the Elephant Data Book released by the department in 2012 was only 506. Some thing wrong some where… extra elephants can only mean capture from the wild and illegal trafficking into the state.


One would imagine it is the job of the Kerala Forest Department to maintain records, but authentic information has been compiled by the Heritage Animal Task Force (Thrissur): between 2007 and 2013 as many as 2,896 times elephants displayed rogue behaviour, 425 elephants died due to ill-treatment by mahouts and 183 mahouts were killed by elephants that turned violent during temple festivals.


Under the Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, kicking, riding atop an elephant, causing it unnecessary strain, chaining the animal for an unreasonable length of time and failing to provide it food, water or shelter are acts of cruelty. No one in Kerala adheres to rules, and particularly to the rule that an elephant can not be made to feature in a ceremony for more than three hours at a stretch. They are not only made to walk long distances (over 20 kms a day) on hot, concrete roads, again in violation of rules, but they aren’t even given sufficient water to drink – an elephant needs at least 230 litres of water every day and its trunk can hold up to 7.5 litres. This happens despite the directive that every elephant should be given 250 litres of water and 500 kgs of green leaves daily. The forest officials have also banned the elephant parades between 11 am and 3.30 pm (the hottest time of the day) and no more than 3 elephants at a time are permitted within a temple’s walls. But, none of these rules get implemented because just before each festival, the government intervenes to make it an exception... again, and yet again and again...

No wonder then, moved by the plight of elephants in Kerala, in 2015 a group led by a litigation lawyer of London got the British Parliament to pass a resolution that called on the “Indian and South-East Asian governments to take immediate measures to bring the ill-treatment to an end and calls on tourists from UK not to support any attractions that involve captive elephants.” The group initiated a signature campaign in the UK and petitioned the Prime Minister of India to end the domestication of captured elephants, poaching and cruel practices including beating, wounding with sharp implements, and keeping them chained.


Temple/devaswam elephants, synonymous to Kerala (the state’s animal) have been subjected to cruelty in captivity for centuries. For example, elephant melas organised supposedly to attract tourism, are nothing but torment for the animals. 101 richly decorated temple elephants carrying ceremonial umbrellas participate in The Great Elephant March called Gajamela at Thrissur festival in Kerala every January. Elephants are known to be made to walk continuously for over 12 hours. And, upon their return have to bear the loud sounds of firecrackers exploding.

However, in 2016 following a fire during a show at the Puttingal Devi temple, the Kerala High Court banned the display of noise-producing firecrackers between sunset and sunrise across the state.

In 2023 Thrissur Pooram saw a sample fireworks display two days before the actual event. It included elephants.

In March 2024 news from Thrissur stated that during the Upacharam Chollal temple festival concluding ceremony with about 50,000 spectators present, an elephant first attacked his mahout and some persons, he then attacked the other participating elephant and chased it over a kilometre down narrow roads.

Once in Kerala 100 men joined in a tug of war against a single elephant who released the rope he held in his trunk when he could bear it no more, thereby sending all the men hurtling down. At Ponneth Kavu
Bhagavathi temple in Kadavanthra, Kerala, temple elephants have been made to play cricket. And, elephants are intoxicated with alcohol and made to dance on the beach for as long as seven hours to attract foreign tourists. Many have strongly protested, giving India a bad image among animal lovers abroad.


In March 2014, as many as 62 elephants participated in the annual aanayottam or elephant race that marks the beginning of the 10 day-long temple festival at the Guruvayoor temple – every year the number of elephants and spectators has been increasing. It is cruel because the elephants are forced to run fast for half a kilometre, enter the temple, circumambulate the sanctum sanctorum and touch the kodimaram (flag staff). And, the first one to do so is given the honour (sic!) of carrying the thidambu (replica of temple deity) during special occasions for the coming year.

The Krishna temple of Guruvayur is one of the five most famous Lord Krishna and Vishnu temples in India. And among the elephants that live in the 7 acre temple yard or annakotta, Padmanabhan is hailed as the superstar because he is the elephant who has been carrying the thidambu. He was given to the temple in 1954 – over 60 long and sad years in captivity. In 2015, 66 elephants, aged 14 to 70, owned by the temple were being looked after by some 200 mahouts. Renting them for festivals brings in money for the temple, e.g. Rs 3 lakh was paid for an elephant to participate for one day at a festival in Palakkad district.

An elephant without tusks is called mozha and is not accepted by temples. In a way they are the lucky ones, like Indrajith who was not donated to a temple or made to stand to attention close to flames at festivals when deafening drums were beaten and loud firecrackers burst, or even made to lug timber. At a camp in Konni (20 kms from Pathanamthitta) Indrajith and others are kept in semi-captivity and gradually taught how to adjust in the wild. Good intentions no doubt, but it is difficult to predict if attempts to rehabilitate elephants in the wild will be successful. Each elephant is an individual case, and if it is not accepted as a part of a wild elephant herd, it will remain a loner for life. Not having lived as part of a herd, captive elephants do not know elephant hierarchy or how to bond with other elephants. They have never had a chance of instinctively expressing themselves because of being forced into submission to act exactly as per the instructions given by their mahouts. Also, having never walked free for miles in the forest every day, the vastness and other wildlife could suddenly become overwhelming.

An elephant called Gajraj from the Pandharkawa camp escaped and killed in woman in October 2018. In November 2019 the same animal killed the helper of his mahout at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. In-between in March 2019 he inured two persons. This goes to prove how stressed the animal was due to cruelty being inflicted upon him in order to tame him.

Flouting Laws

Temple/devaswam elephants are found in hundreds, although individuals in Kerala also own some elephants – considered a status symbol and called naat-anna or village elephant. They are usually purchased for up to Rs 40 lakhs each from North East India where logging is now banned and from where they are illegally captured (elephants rarely breed in captivity). They are then transported to Kerala in claustrophobic trucks, the journey lasting around fortnight. They come along with fictitious certificates stating that the calves were born in captivity. The Directorate of Forests, West Bengal also sells calves born to captive female elephants mated with wild tuskers – the females are set free into the jungle at night and brought back to camp in the morning.

May be this is what happened in 2017 when a wild elephant who was in musth came out of the Madukkarai range forest near Coimbatore, and trampled 4 people to death. This was not the first time that a rouge elephant had come out of the Madukkarai range.


Captive elephants are status symbols not only in Kerala and West Bengal, but in many other states too, like Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Incidentally, in Bihar to control elephants, mahouts use a sharp axe-like device which cuts deep. Once domesticated, where ever they are, they used for labour and rented out to generate money. Temple elephants have vociferous fans based on their height (the taller the better), clean white tusks, tails like brushes, and long trunks that reach the ground. It is common to see both praise and nasty remarks about them on Facebook.


The former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister had donated an elephant to the Guruvayoor temple which had been strongly criticised in 2003. Although in March 2005 the Prime Minister asked all politicians not to buy animals for gifting to places of worship, in 2008 the Karnataka Chief Minister fulfilled his vow by giving a tusker to the Rajarajeshwara temple at Taliparambu in Kerala. It enraged the Elephant Lovers Association and others because of outright violation of Forest Department laws and guidelines; moreover some people suspected that the elephant was smuggled from the North East.

In 2012 West Bengal, subsequent to the Centre eventually giving permission, decided to capture a few elephants from the herds that enter the state from Jharkhand and destroy crops. This gave a false message that some thing is being done in the right direction to stop the man-animal conflict. Despite 650 trained elephants doing forestry work in the state, these animals will be trained. WB has also been given permission to capture so-called “rogues” thus upsetting elephant herds’ hierarchies and causing further problems.


A man who takes care of and trains a captive elephant is called a mahout and his helper is a kavadi in Karnataka. Following a collective study it was reported in February 2013 that most mahouts and kavadis were alcoholics (resulting in elephants having to endure brutal behaviour) and suffered from ailments like TB. Their unhygienic habits resulted in passing on their ailments to the elephants. As there was a 29% shortage, temporary workers who did not know how to handle elephants (at the time Karnataka had 161 captive elephants) were employed.

Before reading further, please click here to see utterly cruel recommendations for controlling elephants from the FAO’s Elephant care manual for mahouts and camp managers.

The method of training temple/devaswam elephants in Kerala is called kumkies – submission by the carrot and stick method involving beating as punishment for disobedience and a piece of sugarcane for obedience. For example, Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran (who earns Rs 1.25 lakh per procession and annually rupees one crore) is the most celebrated elephant of Kerala, even though he is blind in one eye because of a mahout’s beatings. (It is said that many mahouts destroy the right eye to avoid elephants getting alarmed of moving vehicles when participating in parades.) He was brought from Bihar to Kerala at age 18 in 1983, made to forget the Bhojpuri language and forced to take instructions in Malayalam. That he has killed 5 mahouts and 5 others since 1988 is a story in itself, as is the fact that his mahout Shibu committed suicide in August 2015 after being accused of feeding the elephant rice from which he had removed razor blades. On seeing elephants being beaten black and blue at the training centre at Guruvayur, people have literally fled. It is here that one of the temple elephants has a foot-long deep groove on his remaining tusk (having lost one already – wonder what happened to the ivory) due to his constant but unsuccessful efforts to file his chains open and set himself free. An iron rod with hook called ankush is used on the sensitive points of their bodies to prod them: elephants have as many as 107 sensitive points, mainly on their head, back, feet and anal region. A tiny spear is also jabbed behind their ears to make them learn to obey human foot commands given by their mahout, who in the presence of visitors deftly replaces the pain-causing spears with small canes. And then there is the mazhu, a tiny axe that is used to make elephants docile and obedient. The injuries inflicted upon the poor creatures are many and extremely severe, always resulting in chronic pain and swelling, and some times temporary insanity. No different to, rather worse than, their plight in circuses – they are docile because they are subjected fear, hunger and torture.

This is not where the torture ends. Diagonally opposite legs of calves are chained: one leg with a 20 foot long chain, the other with a 2 foot chain, and the chains are inter-changed periodically until the bruises on the elephant’s legs become hard and calloused. Between April 2008 and February 2010, the Madras Veterinary College examined captive elephants (temples, camps and zoos) in Tamil Nadu and at the Guruvayur Devaswam, Kerala, and came to the conclusion that foot problems constitute the single most important ailment that the pachyderms suffer from during their life time. Out of 53 elephants in temples of TN, 48 had minor foot ailments, while 23 had major foot ailments such as cracked and split nails, excess cuticular growth above and in between nails, hardened footpad growth, abrasion of foot sole, foot rot, abscesses in the nail, cuticle and footpad, arthritis, analysis of joints and degenerative joint disease which require regular filing, polishing and application of medicated oils. If these ailments are not attended to in time they can eventually result in painful death.

There is no “loving bond” between mahout and elephant. Temple elephants have an unwritten right to kill one, two, or even three mahouts during their lifetime. The majestic elephant named Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan who is the star of two feature films and annually participates in 200 festivals @ Rs 65,000/- a day has a secret background of having crept up on his two mahouts as they slept on the road side, picking them up with his trunk, and trampling them to death. This was in 1999 after the festival in Puthunaaram, Kerala.

The elephant is frightened of the mahout and when this fear turns into anger and vengeance (directed at the mahout, the animal’s torturer) a tusker displays aggressive behaviour and becomes musth (a physiological phenomenon when there is increase in sexual hormones with a discharge from the gland between the eye and ear, resulting in aggression) during which humans have been trampled. For example in 2009, 1 of the 7 caparisoned elephants lined up on the temple grounds, killed a woman by picking her up by its trunk and flinging her in the air; this triggered a stampede leaving 3 serious of the 19 others injured. In April 2011 a temple elephant in Kollam gored its mahout to death; and in December 2011 four mahouts were killed and several injured by overworked elephants who turned violent in different places of Kerala. In two of these four incidents the temple elephants had been so angry that they had also gored and repeatedly stomped the mahouts to death.

Overworking involves parading elephants in 3 to 4 places 12 hours at a stretch, or during the night. Elephants are unable to continue bearing such torture and it is in sheer desperation that they attack. There is therefore an increase in the number of such violent incidents in which not only mahouts but devotees have also been killed when elephants have run amok. About a dozen people have been killed between 2013 and 2015.

By end-February 2013 it was openly said that Kerala’s elephants were turning rouge. The Heritage Animal Task Force came out with numbers of people killed. 26 in 2007-08, 29 in 2008-09, 33 in 2009-10, 75 in 2010-11, 49 in 2011-12 and already 3 in 2012-13 + 240 incidents of elephants running amok. According to veterinarians their herd hierarchy is missing in captivity because young ones are brought from all over the country. Moreover, it is impossible to truly domesticate them; and the situation goes from bad to worse when the elephants are overworked or when in musth. In short, the elephants are being abused and exploited for religious commercial gain, so why should they not retaliate? A more recent example, in November 2014, an 18-year-old male elephant (that was brought 15 years back from Kerala) claimed to be “calm and friendly” went berserk during the morning puja at Sri Ahobila Math in Selaiyur, Chennai, and crushed his mahout to death. Two months later, in January 2015 during a parade at Idukki an elephant whose hind leg had a chain cutting through a wound, and was in musth ran amuck at the Arakulam Sri Dharma-Sastha Temple which is run by the Travancore Devaswam Board of the Government of Kerala. It is mandatory for festival organisers to inform and obtain permission from the Forest Range/Police Officers 72 hours prior to an elephant’s participation, but not only was this not done, but the elephant in question had no ownership certificate.

Between January and August 2013 as many as 36 elephants died in Kerala. 29 were owned by individuals and 7 by the state. The majority were not even 40 years old (the normal life span of an elephant is 80 years). Surprisingly, the majority of veterinarians in Kerala are unqualified to treat elephants. And shockingly, to avoid the musth (reduce testosterone) the male elephants are fed papaya and given less water to drink which deteriorates their health and shortens their lives. This obviously is the reason why there are only about 60 elephants over 40 years, and 10 over 60 years in Kerala. When there is an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, elephants in the area are liable to contact it.

Permanently tethering elephants with short chains (lack of much needed movement) and in unhygienic surroundings at the elephant yards of devaswams is common. This makes them susceptible to impaction of the colon, a disease only found in captive elephants. Bathing elephants properly is a must, but not all get a clean flowing water bath, nor are they scrubbed with coconut husk as required.

In 2012 the newspapers reported that an elephant named Sunder at the famous Jyotiba Devsthan in Kolhapur District had been chained for two months because the new mahout was finding it difficult to control the animal. The animal had injuries including one on his eye, from sharp instruments. No relief was forthcoming till British former Beatles Paul McCartney wrote to the Maharashtra Forest Minister – that too temporary relief because the poor elephant was back in chains a month later! Animal activists then requested that the uncontrollable elephant be moved to a sanctuary as people were at risk of being harmed or killed by him. However towards the end of 2013, the elephant was still seen shackled in a shed whilst the MLA of the area claimed to be in the process of setting up the best rehabilitation centre for it! Eventually, the Supreme Court ordered the Kolhapur Forest Division to transfer Sunder to a rehabilitation centre in Bengaluru by 15 June 2014. That’s when his life story was widely publicised: born in Punisi village of Assam in 2000 the elephant was known as Santu during his 7-year stay there. In 2007 he was “gifted” (read sold) to some one in Bihar “for engaging in religious functions and processions” who changed his name from Santu to Sunder. Two months later Sunder was “donated” (read re-sold) to the Kolhapur temple via an MLA. He suffered the 1,763 km long truck ride from Patna to Sangli, and then continued to suffer for another 7-8 years at the hands of cruel mahouts living in a tin shed near the Jyotiba temple.

In 2012 BWC received a complaint about the Uppipiappam temple elephant (Thirunageswaram, near Kumbakonam) being ill-treated by a mahout who was poking the elephant with a stick under its stomach and fixing the stick perpendicularly on the ground making the elephant cry out in pain. Two of our members visited the temple and met the elephant’s mahout from whom it was learnt that he was on leave when the ill-treatment was meted out by another mahout. An excuse…? Nevertheless, a watch will be kept.

In June 2014 an animal activist saw the training or taming of a baby elephant at the Shimoga camp which she also filmed. Men were mercilessly hitting a baby elephant which had a rope tied tight around its neck. It fell down on its side and was crying out in pain. The men said this was the way a wild animal is tamed. Several representations and public petitions have been given to the Government of India and Karnataka state government, but the cruelty continues. BWC feels elephants should remain in the wild and not be domesticated.

Earlier, in September 2013 one of our BWC members who visited BR Hills near Mysore was also shocked to see a chained baby elephant moving abnormally at Kgudi. On inquiring, she was informed that they were training him to be a temple elephant. She sent us a video clip which we forwarded to the Minister of Environment and Forests (Government of India) pointing out the stereotypical behaviour, etc. the animal was being subjected to. We added that in 1998 BWC had complained to the Ministry about the illegality of an Elephant Show in Mudumalai Sanctuary (no different to a circus) following which it was ordered to be immediately stopped. We asked for the elephant training to be investigated and stopped there and elsewhere too, if occurring.

That’s when BWC got to know that when ever Government camps get orphaned calves or capture elephants from conflict areas, they are put through such harsh regimes involving separation, beating, tethering with short chains resulting in hobbling and much more such cruelty, all in order to domesticate them so that they can be converted into working animals. It happens in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Furthermore, the Karnataka High Court passed an order allowing 25 wild elephants in 4 family groups to be captured beginning 1st January 2014 from the Hassan-Sakleshpur region because villagers were killed. Such captured elephants always undergo cruel training (kraal) to tame and make them docile.

Karnataka is not allowed to give elephants to private temples, but nevertheless, it does occur. For example, the baby elephant trained for this very purpose mentioned in the previous para.

Since October 2013 the state government has begun hiring captive elephants from the forest camps in Konni, Arienkavu, Kottur and Mutthanga for commercial purposes for Rs 12,000 a day. The hiring was justified on the grounds that it would lessen the work-load on working elephants made to undertake several ezhunellippu or temple parades.

The hidden torture for these devaswam elephants is when they are rented for functions. They are left standing in the hot sun on tarred roads for hours on end, without food and water. At such times elephants are seen to “dance” not because they appreciate the rhythm of the Panchavadyam as often claimed, but simply because they find the asphalt too hot and they flap of their ears to lower their body temperature. When water is poured on the road, supposedly to cool it down, it boils upon contact, and gets worse for the elephants.


Elephants are decked up with gold plated decorations covering their foreheads and eyes – and wounds. Turmeric and ash, even charcoal paste is smeared on their hind legs to cover skin lacerations – a result of being chained continuously. This is literally a cover-up strategy that looks good to boot.

The annual Thrissur Pooram elephant festival, organised by Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu devaswams with participation of other temples, draws around 100 elephants, but typically the authorities do not bother about abiding even by two basic rules laid down by the Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2003, under which a fitness certificate needs to be obtained from a veterinarian prior to parading the pachyderm, and another certificate from the Wildlife Warden permitting the animal to be transported over a distance of 50 kilometres.

Forged certificates are not uncommon because the desire-cum-demand to rent elephants is growing and has given rise to this racket. For example, in November 2013 the NOC/permit carried by the mahout who brought an elephant to Bengaluru from Trichy was a fake.

In November 2011 the then Home Minister ordered an elephant from Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP) to be transported to the R V College of Engineering’s Rajyotsava Day celebrations. It is a pity that even the BBP is to blame: in 2013 they gave two elephant calves in exchange for two adult elephants of the Suttur Mutt, Mysore.

In May 2012, as many as 62 people were gravely hurt (including elderly, children and a woman who was critically injured) when an elephant went ran amok through the Thekkinkadu Maidan, the main venue of the Thrissur Pooram during the Upacharam Chollal or the farewell ceremony. Mahouts were unable to pacify the animal as the elephant had been in musth till a few days back. However, when in January 2014 an elephant ran amok at Thottakkatukara, near Aluva, no one was injured because the elephant squad from Thrissur was summoned in time to bring it under control. Nevertheless, a mini lorry was overturned and for a couple of hours traffic was stopped on the National Highway. A month later, en route a temple festival near Kollam, an elephant collapsed and died on the roadside due to exhaustion.

The devaswams say they follow two and a half century old festival rituals and their schedule can not be changed to winter to suit the elephants because they find it difficult to cope in the summer heat. The authorities claim to give them wet gunny bags to stand on, keep them in the shade, feed them watermelons and cucumbers to beat the heat, and sukha chikilsa (rejuvenation therapy) follows the festival, thus justifying the use of elephants for their parades.

That’s not all, earlier in 2011 November Mumbai Pooram was organised in Dombivli to replicate Thrissur Pooram and for which five trained tuskers (instead of the thirty elephants for which permission was asked) were transported from Kerala. On the first day, the elephants were made to walk to the tune of Panchavadyam towards the 40 feet tall light tower. On the second day, the elephants were taken in a procession to Manpada and made to garland Chhatrapati Shivaji’s statue. This was followed by Kudamattam, meaning a brisk exchange of adorned umbrellas by riders atop elephants. However just like in Kerala, the procession of ornately decked elephants paraded out of temple precincts and was considered the highlight of the festival.

In view of the elephant having been declared the Heritage Animal of India and restrictions on it, one can’t help but wonder how permission continues to be given for them to participate in Trichur, and now in Dombivli, moreover with political patronage.

Celebrations, particularly in Mysore and West Bengal involve participation of decked-up temple elephants. In Mysore, an elephant is made to carry a 450 kilogram gold howdah for four hours as a part of the Dassera celebrations.

In April 2013 animal activists objected to the Vadundhra Jain Temple Ghaziabad (Delhi) using horses, bulls and elephants for Mahavir Jayanti celebrations. The highest bidder was to ride on the elephant during the procession. Their previous year’s procession saw one of the two elephants being killed after being hit by a truck on the NOIDA expressway, whilst the other was severely injured and had to be shifted to a sanctuary at Agra. Despite this, in 2015 elephants, camels and horses were scheduled to give joy-rides during an inauguration organised by a builder where the chief guest was a Jain muni and the community were invited. Luckily due to the efforts of animal activists, political pressure was used to stop the use of animals on the day itself and the animals were sent back in the afternoon.

Unfortunately people do not acknowledge that elephants are very sensitive animals and feel pain, both physical and mental, like we humans do. So, let us ask ourselves if temples should keep elephants – elephants which can never be domesticated – elephants that are subjected to life-long suffering in captivity – for God or for man?

Incidentally, in 2011 the Supreme Court ordered the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation to compensate God (Thrippallavur Devaswom, Palakkad district, Kerala) to the tune of Rs 13,48,250/- with 6% interest, for causing the death of one of his elephants in 1998. It had been claimed that each elephant earned Rs 2 lacs per annum as they were hired by other temples during festivals. This did not prove to be a deterrent to vehicles colliding with elephants. For example, in 2013 a SUV hit an elephant and injured its hind legs, thus putting it out of commission for the entire season.

Annual Relief Gimmick

For the first time in July 2012 Sukhachikitsa or rejuvenation therapy was administered to Kerala’s Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple’s elephants – the largest sock of captive elephants in the world. During the month long therapy (to be repeated every year at a cost of Rs 8.40 lakh) elephants were tended to daily by being given Ayurvedic and Allopathic medicines, three hour duration massages and baths, sumptuous feasts, and rest! One of the main aims is to make every elephant gain up to 500 kgs. (However, Tamil Nadu has asked the state’s overweight temple elephants to shed up to 700 kgs!)

Making elephants drink unadulterated fresh toddy “to aid digestion” is bad enough, but feeding them ajamamsa rasayanam is positively wrong. The ingredients of this non-veg preparation are cow milk, ghee, mutton or some times chicken. Making an inherent vegan animal eat meat is asking for unimaginable problems – for both animal and man. BWC wrote to the Government reminding them of the dreadful consequences of feeding meat to cattle that resulted in mad cow disease (BSE) and requested that in the interest of the elephants – and humans – all animal ingredients in their diet should be withdrawn.

Incidentally, Thiruvambadi Shivasundar, Kerala’s elephant of “The Lord of Beauty” pop song fame, is some times secretly given brandy in a bucket, supposedly to make him happy.

In July 2012 an elephant that was being transported to its owner’s estate for restorative treatment was not taken proper care of and died due to being injured in a speeding truck that was carrying it to its destination within Kerala. The accompanying two mahouts and driver were completely unaware that the elephant had got injured en route and it was the public who on seeing the ghastly “moving tragedy” forced the vehicle to stop. Although veterinary aid was given, it was not possible to save the elephant and it died on the roadside after much suffering.

Elephants are transported from one venue to another in trucks. This came about because animal activists objected to making them walk long distances in adverse conditions. The result was unfortunate because now a days elephants participate in many more events – exploited more than ever before.

In 2020 the lockdown due to COVID-19 proved good for Kerala’s elephants because it fell during the festival months. They were therefore not transported to over 100 different locations or made to stand for hours in the hot summer sun amid loud festivities as in previous years. In 2019 as many as 16 elephants had died and 24 had run amok during the season.

The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (a Tamil Nadu state government department) also organised a 48-day rejuvenation camp at Tekkumpatti, near Mettupalayam, on the banks of the river Bhavani. On 26 November 2012, the first day an elephant (from among the 34 that attended the camp meant to regain their vitality) from the Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram collapsed and died, presumably following a strenuous 12-hour journey.

The Kozhi Kamudhi Elephant Camp is another place where elephants live and vacation. In December 2014, the annual 48-day rejuvenation programme (the seventh of its kind) for 53 Tamil Nadu Forest Department’s elephants was hosted there. The elephants were given rest – no kumki duty or safaris. It probably turns out to be more of a holiday for the contingent of personnel that accompany the elephants. Any way, to boost-up the pachyderms they are fed non-vegetarian supplements and unnatural products such as ashta choornam and chyavanaprasam that elephants would never voluntarily eat or find in nature.

Such camps cost lakhs of rupees… BWC feels the same amount could be very well be utilised by the state to rehabilitate these temple elephants in comfort within sanctuaries.

Rescue Centres

In 2007 an Elephant Rescue Centre was established in Bansantour forest, Haryana which is a natural habitat for elephants and has plenty of fodder. The centre has put up sheds and water tanks so that aged, sick and injured elephants can be taken care of well.

Similarly in South India an Elephant Rescue Centre covering 106 hectares is expected to come up at the Periyapatna range of Hunsur taluka in Mysore district. The centre will be equipped to give medical aid and rehabilitate elephants.


Since 2011 Wildlife SOS rescued 11 elephants subjected to torture. Raju is the most famous because his tears of joy (which went viral with over a million views on YouTube in July 2014) when he was freed of his shackles, spikes and chains after five decades of abuse under 27 owners at temples, and used for begging as well as renting for processions, etc.

Heritage Animal

Wild elephants often die due to railway accidents and electrocution. But a much larger number are poached. Calves are stolen, forcefully tamed and kept captive for the rest of their lives. Government camps get orphaned calves or capture elephants from conflict areas, they are put through such harsh regimes involving separation, beating, tethering with short chains resulting in hobbling and much more such cruelty, all in order to domesticate them so that they can be converted into captive/working/temple animals. It happens in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

Man needs to hang his head in shame for misusing elephants down the ages. They have been trapped, broken and tamed into submission. Sacrificed during war and exploited at other times. Made work at camps to shift logs, made to carry people and howdahs on their backs, go in processions, live at temples, and do tricks such as saluting, balancing on balls and so on in circus performances. It was high time that some relief was given to the king of the jungle.

The Elephant Task Force’s report entitled Gajah submitted in 2010 to the Environment Ministry laid out a comprehensive action agenda for protecting elephants in the wild and in captivity, and for addressing human-elephant conflict. In October 2010 the elephant was officially declared as India’s national heritage animal. (Soon after BWC convinced the main sponsor of an elephant-polo match, proposed to be held at Jaipur, to withdraw, after which the state government was approached to cancel the illegal event. Thus elephant polo in India was effectively brought to an end.)


Unfortunately, the government has not been able to satisfactorily uphold this majestic status conferred upon our elephants. It would help if a National Elephant Conservation Authority (on the lines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority) were to be established.

Earlier, in November 2009, based on the Elephant Task Force report and recommendations, the Government of India directed that all captive elephants should be transferred immediately to Forest Departments. Surprise was followed by favourable reactions from animal welfare/rights activists, whereas wildlife persons (conservationists and supporters of zoos) expressed apprehension.

This among other things meant that no captive elephants would be allowed at temples or in processions. As expected, implementation has been difficult and has not happened. Except may be to some extent in 2014, thanks to the efforts of animal activists and support of the Animal Welfare Board of India, the BRS Nagar Dassehra Committee, Ludhiana, abided by directions and cancelled elephant and camel rides at their forthcoming fair.

India’s 32 elephant reserves cover over 65,000 sq kms. Unfortunately less than 30% fall within the declared protected areas. Thus, it is said to be difficult to implement the Elephant Task Force’s recommendation to set up 10 elephant landscapes covering 1,10,000 sq kms around the reserves. Conflict, encroachment and mining are responsible for blocking elephant corridors in states such as Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha.

Karnataka’s Elephant Task Force set up by the High Court declared that the state had 159 captive elephants in forest camps, zoos, temples, circuses and privately owned. Whereas about 5,300 to 6,200 wild elephants were in the Mysore elephant reserve.

In India, Kartik Purnima is the time when the world’s largest Cattle Fair takes place in Sonepur, near Patna. During this fortnight-long festival called the Harihar Kshetra Mela, different species of animals and birds sold include cows, oxen, buffaloes, horses, camels, dogs, and several endangered species of birds, monkeys and others. However, heavily decorated elephants are the main attraction, but they can not be traded openly – they are therefore “gifted” for the official record, but actually sold. Years ago when they were allowed to be sold, about 100 attended the fair, but in 2012 only 37 elephants were displayed by people who claimed to keep them as pets saying they spent at least Rs 15,000 a month on their upkeep. Noting that the price of elephants “sold” at Sonepur was steeply rising because they were mainly captured wild elephants being passed off as captive bred, the Kerala state government issued a Notification in 2014 that no domestic elephant would be permitted to enter the state even if it had a valid certificate. This was followed in 2015 by the Bihar government strictly banning elephant trade during the Sonepur cattle fair. The Bihar Wildlife Board also wrote to all wildlife wardens in this regard so illegal trafficking is stopped. It was unofficially estimated that about 80 Malayalis were set to buy elephants costing around Rs 50 crore.

In Arunachal Pradesh during February 2013, 6 people were trampled to death by such a domesticated elephant that had been hired from Assam – the rouge elephant which had gone into musth and became uncontrollable, was shot dead.

Meanwhile, BWC fears that the elephants handed over the Forest departments for their use, may become working elephants.

BWC feels that, just as elephants are not meant to be held captive or domesticated and used for begging, renting, performing (in temples or elsewhere) or display (in zoos, circuses, etc) they should not be converted into working animals either. It was therefore suggested to the Ministry of Environment & Forests to take steps to ensure that the elephants do not go out of the frying pan into the fire. Separate elephant sanctuaries for rehabilitation of the elephants should be set up. During the transition period, the erstwhile captive elephants will need to be individually taken care of till they live out their natural life spans. And since no more captive elephants will be allowed, the poaching, breaking in, transporting, training, performing and display of these animals will in the long run end.

The Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill 2021 which was introduced in the Lok Sabha in December 2021 was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee. One of the amendments pertained to elephants and has been objected to by BWC: elephants should not be allowed to be freely traded, owned and transported from one state to another because it will give rise to additional cruelty and exploitation of these animals.

Concerns from Abroad

In 2015, five international conservation organisations – Elephant Family, International Fund for Animal Welfare, IUCN Netherlands, World Land Trust and Wildlife Trust of India –formed the Asian Elephant Alliance. They will raise GBP 20 million and secure India’s 100 elephant corridors (migratory routes taken by elephant herds) in 10 years. Villages and encroachments will be relocated from inside and from the peripheries of the corridors to other sites. Elephant friendly measures giving easy passage through corridors will be initiated. Safeguarding elephants in the wild ensures they are not poached, smuggled and sold as if born in captivity. The Heritage Animal Task Force (Thrissur, Kerala) has authentic knowledge that for 180 years not a single elephant in Kerala has been allowed to make because calves are illegally captured and brought to Kerala from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Orissa.

Save The Asian Elephants (STAE) is also bringing about wider awareness and not just about temple elephants of Kerala. A motion placed before the House of Commons in the Westminster Parliament attracted the support of 81 members across all political parties. STAE has pointed out to the Government of India the natural role of elephants as mega-gardeners of the forest: they prune the trees as they feed, disperse billions of seeds in their droppings, and each produces on an average a tonne of manure weekly which fertilises the forest and increases its productivity.

At Last… Temple Festival WITHOUT Elephants

In January 2015, a veterinarian who used to attend the 21-day temple festival at the Kanichukulanghara Devi temple in Alappuzha (Kerala) was trampled to death by an elephant. The temple authorities were so shocked that they immediately decided they would never use elephants. They also substituted visually appealing Chinese crackers without sound in place of explosive ones. In 2009 this temple had stopped using elephants for the parayeduppu procession, but had continued using five elephants for kazcha sreebali and sreebali twice a day during the festival.

BWC is pleased that this temple has proved that elephants are non-essential for religious festivities. A break-through has been achieved, and it is hoped that all other temples will soon take similar progressive steps to save elephants from exploitation and mahouts from being killed. BWC’s widely circulated poster Freedom, NOT Captivity in English-cum-Malayalam, depicting a chained temple elephant along with a mahout continues to create an awareness.

In June 2020 following international media coverage about the death of a wild pregnant elephant which was fed pineapple stuffed with a cracker in Kerala, cruelty to elephants elsewhere was being acknowledged. One such elephant by the name of Lakshmi was at the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple in Puducherry, which was shifted from its enclosure to the sprawling Krishi Vigyang Kendra campus. BWC had also received an email complaint from a member who had visited the temple in March 2020 and discovered that the elephant had been trained (like a circus animal) to bless only those who offered her money. Unfortunately 4 months later in July 2020, Lakshmi was brought back to the temple “after rejuvenation, much to devotees’ glee” in the presence of the UT CM. However, on 31 August 2020 an agreement was signed between the managements of the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple and Chetty Temple for leasing one acre of land for the benefit of Lakshmi so she could live in a natural habitat. She was then shifted out of the temple premises and not seen there any more.

Another elephant named Rakesh that was captured and chained, has been suffering for months at the Kapilash Zoo in Odisha. Petitions were started by activists as a result he was shifted to a better enclosure but has unfortunately not been released permanently to his natural habitat yet.

Incidentally about 18 to 20 adult elephants are killed in Odisha each year either due to train accidents or poaching. In addition in view of over 100 human kills during the last year, wild elephants are also captured in conflict areas.

In view of the growing media attention against India’s estimated 2,700 captive elephants (about 1000 in Assam, 500 in Kerala and 300 in TN) in September 2020 Project Elephant announced that they will be giving each elephant an identity number based on its DNA so that it can be tracked for exploitation.

In February 2023, the Irinjadappilly Sree Krishna Temple in Kerala was the first to use a robot elephant for its rituals. BWC hopes many more such elephants will be used and the use of live elephants will be phased out soon.

Legal Recourse

After 10 years and 46 published reports by Bengaluru based Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA) and Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC) on the unfortunate fate and suffering of captive elephants in India, in desperation the WRRC approached the Supreme Court (SC).

In August 2015, in response to their Public Interest Litigation petition to ban the use of elephants in religious functions, processions, etc WRRC obtained an Interim Order from the SC under which the Chief Wildlife Warden (Kerala) was directed to issue registration certificates stating declaration of ownership for all captive elephants.

Impressed with their efforts to help captive elephants and the resultant interim order BWC extended financial support. (The order came soon after printing BWC’s Monsoon 2015 issue of Compassionate Friend magazine which focused on elephants.)

The SC directed that cruelties meted against captive elephants in Kerala should be curbed and District Committees, with nominees of the Animal Welfare Board of India, be reconstituted. A circular was immediately issued by the Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala, to count the captive elephants in the state.

But there was obviously an attempt to sabotage the head count because the Department of Forest failed to adhere to the September 2015 deadline. It seems the majority of owners were reluctant to register their elephants and imposing a penalty was being considered, as was obtaining an extension from the apex court.

In November 2015 a presumably deliberate and serious lapse on the part of the Kerala state government was informed to the press by the Heritage Animal Task Force (Thrissur): the much touted Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2012, framed for preventing abuse of elephants, had not been tabled in the Assembly before being notified as a ‘rule’. By amending the 2003 rule, the government actually weakened it in favour of owners and festival organisers.

Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2022

The Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021 was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on 17 December 2021 and was referred to a Standing Committee on 25 December 2021. The Bill amends the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.

This Act has so far been amended 8 times. This time, except for 3 amendments, they are consistent with the objectives of wildlife conservation and are welcome steps.

BWC sent our 3 objections to the Chairman and members of the Standing Committee, one of which concerned elephants: Adding a new sub-section 4 for exempting live elephants from the operation of sub-section 2 was totally uncalled for.

The modified Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha on 2 August 2022 passed “... the transfer and transport of a captive elephant for religious or any other purpose by a person having a valid certificate of ownership shall be subject to such terms and conditions as may be prescribed by the Central Government”. Since the word “religious” has been used it covers temple elephants and they will be allowed to be sold; and “any other purpose” could cover elephant rides and even polo, thus giving ample scope for elephant exploitation. Despite strong objections to including “any other purpose” the Bill was also passed in the Rajya Sabha on 8 December 2022. Since the amendment passed through both houses of Parliament, it received Presidential assent and was published in the Official Gazette dated 20th December 2022.

Item No 27 in the Gazette states:
In section 43 of the principal Act, in sub-section (2), the following proviso shall be inserted, namely:
“Provided that the transfer or transport of a captive elephant for a religious or any other purpose by a person having a valid certificate of ownership shall be subject to such terms and conditions as may be prescribed by the Central Government.”

The cruelties that temple elephants were subjected to were bad enough. Adding “any other purpose” has provided loopholes for unimaginable exploitation as stated above.

All – yes, each and every – wild elephant made captive elephant is subjected to hunger, torture and fear. Without such abuse no elephant would participate in religious rituals, permit a human to ride on it, give it a bath, take selfiies with it, and so on... in short it is capturing, training and taming wild elephants. And wild they certainly are. For around 2 centuries not a single elephant in Kerala has been allowed to mate because elephant calves are illegally captured and brought to Kerala from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Odisha.

Behind the Scenes – Literally

"A performing Circus within a Sanctuary" was published in the spring 1998 issue of Compassionate Friend. A persistent follow-up by BWC eventually resulted in The Government of India ordering the illegal Elephant Show at Mudumalai Sanctuary to be stopped. This is the same elephant camp where the recently Oscar winning film Elephant Whisperers was made. The Hindu article "Theppakadu camp: the last refuge for elephants destined to captivity" (March 2023) clearly states "since the camp was started 51 calves have been born with 32 having been raised and given to temples". Interestingly, not only elephants have been exploited here, but humans too: as things turned out the two elephant caretakers Bellie and Bomman of the documentary legally claimed to have be exploited and not paid as per promises given by the film makers.

Page last updated on 27/03/24