The temple elephants of India

Two wild Asian elephants, with a baby

At the entrance to the temple of Brihadeswara, a large elephant walks along with her mahout (trainer), greeting devotees.  She walks on the cobblestones of the entranceway.  People entering the temple see the temple elephant, and conclude that, clearly, she must enjoy being a sacred elephant, being able to greet devotees and to nibble on bananas, having no cares or worries.  They notice nothing that could cause any alarm.  This elephant is one of hundreds, kept in temples throughout India.

Unfortunately, there is another untold and unseen story.  How did this elephant get from the forests where she was born – to the temple where she walks today on the hard cobblestones?  It is rare for elephants to breed in captivity.  They do not normally do so; the female elephants seem to sense that bringing babies into a world where they cannot lead natural lives cannot be a good thing to do.  So, while we do not know the specific story of this individual, it is likely that this elephant, like most Indian temple elephants, was born in the wild – perhaps in the northern forests of Bihar.

When she was captured by poachers, she may have been a few weeks old; her mother was killed so that she could be captured easily without her mother coming to her defense.  Then alone, orphaned, she was taken to a market, where she was sold, perhaps first spending a few months’ time with a dealer whose job was to feed her and “train” her, getting her accustomed to life in the human world. While a domestic animal like a dog can be trained, a wild animal cannot be trained, so this “training” is not really training at all, but is instead very abusive treatment. She would never again see the forest that had been her first home – never enjoy roaming among the trees with her family and relatives – or having a bath in the river.

Female elephants in the wild live their entire lives surrounded by their relatives – their mother and grandmother, their aunts and sisters, and the young males too stay with the herd until they are old enough to leave. As herd animals, highly sensitive and intelligent, they are never alone; their social structure is the most important aspect of their existence.  For an elephant to be alone is like a human being who has been placed in solitary confinement.  So the temple elephants who are kept as single elephants, as they most often are, are deprived of having the companionship of their own kind.

Elephants do not have hooves, like horses or goats.  Their feet are not protected efficiently – and they are designed for walking on the leaves or grass on the forest floor.  Walking on cobblestones is not the same thing.

It’s not really easy to catch an elephant and persuade her to go in the direction you want her to go in.  An elephant is a very big creature who may just decide to go in a different direction, and this means that, in order to control the captive animal – heavy chains are placed around her legs – sometimes all four legs, sometimes just one or two legs.  An ankus is used to force the elephant to go this way and not that. An ankus is a metal hook, with a very sharp end, and it is used by the mahout to direct the movements of the elephant by inflicting physical pain.

The male elephants have even more serious problems.  They are feared and can be genuinely dangerous.  So, in an attempt to control them, they may be beaten and confined in very restrictive ways.

There are hundreds of temple elephants in India, and the sad thing is that very few people understand their plight.  Because they are considered sacred temple elephants, there is an assumption that they are well and happy.  That they have been deprived of the life that they could have known in the forests has been forgotten. That they might be lonely or in pain is simply not part of people’s understanding.

There is a need for us to look clearly at the animals themselves, with the recognition that an animal who was created to roam with friends and family through tall trees, in the peace of the forest, in the early morning or the setting sun, to walk among the sounds of the forest, whose life can only be fully lived within the forest – this is an animal who is meant to live life in freedom in the wild, not in captivity.

Since they can never be returned now to the wild, temple elephants can only be happy when a place of sanctuary can be created for them where they are able to live in natural conditions, in the companionship of other elephants. What they need now is a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives in peace and freedom.

Photo: Colette 6 / 

2 thoughts on “The temple elephants of India

  1. And some elephants may like an elephant-tailored human setting “almost as much as” a natural-wild environment

  2. The expectation is that the man (mahout/anakkaran) wiil do anything for the well-being of the elephant. – particularly in a sacred space. And everything flows from that.

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