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Mysore Palace, India
The gate to Mysore Palace in Karnataka, south India. The Palace is one of the sites where elephants perform in traditional rituals.

Temple elephant blessing devotees
One of the main tasks of elephants in temples is to bless devotees by touching them with the trunk.
Temples and festivals

In several south Asian countries, many places of worship ad well as traditional festivals involve living elephants. Many of these roles unfortunately are detrimental to elephant health. Discussion is starting to emerge within some Asian countries on whether these could be modified into more elephant-friendly forms, while still retaining the spiritual and cultural significance.

Temple elephants

Elephants are also kept in religious institutions, such as temples, mutts and ashrams. In south India, this is one of the most common types of elephant ownership.

One of the most common tasks of temple elephants is to touch devotees with their trunk as a blessing, often repeated on hundreds of people a day. Some temples also have daily processions or rarer special occasions, in which elephants are used to carry heavy ceremonial saddles. In others, the main function of the elephant is to be there and thus increase the prestige of the temple or mutt, reflected in the extent of donations it receives from devotees.

Seeing an elephant at a religious institution or receiving the touch of trunk during blessing is an esteemed spiritual experience. Many of the devotees, however, are unaware that close confinement and unnatural diet often cause health problems to the elephants. Among the most common are leg and foot problems due to the combination of obesity ,living on hard surfaces and lack of excercise, as they spend most of their time chained in a standing position. Virtually all temple elephants, as well as other elephants used in various functions in society, also have undergone the physically and mentally traumatic "breaking-of-the-will" process as young calves. Daily handling of grown-up elephants vary: some mahouts are gentle, whereas others have been documented to inflict repeated and unnecessary physical punishment.

Among the public visiting temples, there has recently been some discussion on whether the spiritual significance of the connection between elephants and temples could be achieved even better by arranging more natural living conditions. One possibility would be to establish fenced areas on the temple grounds, with trees and other natural vegetation, inside which elephants could live chain-free. Observing platforms and benches around such enclosures would provide devotees an opportunity to watch and contemplate the elephants.

Elephants in festivals

Elephants also have a central role in specific festivals in a few countries such as Sri Lanka. The largest number of elephants in festivals is found in the south Indian state of Kerala. Of the 700 captive elephants living in Kerala, the majority are frequently rented out for festivals.

While a festival or wedding can be a jubilant experience for the participating people, for the elephants it is one of the most difficult situations to be involved in. The level of noise is often very high, and as elephants have a far better hearing than people, it is very stressful and often also frightening to them. An additional problem is the desire to have large males in festivals, sometimes dozens side by side. Many males are taken to festivals even during musth, the reproductively active period with highly increased testosterone levels. During musth, it is especially difficult for a male to stand in close proximity with unfamiliar males. Many mahouts try to increase their control of the elephant by repeated beatings, but this unfortunately leads to a downward spiral of even more stress and fear.

The combined stress of noise, unfamiliar people and unfamiliar elephants has resulted in incidents when an elephant has panicked, rushing into the crowd, which sometimes has resulted in injuries to bystanders. Other cases have involved elephants that have no longer been able to contain their aggression against an abusive mahout. In Kerala alone, elephants are reported to kill dozens of mahouts each year.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere