Supreme Court’s Jumbo Judgment to the Rescue of Temple Elephants
Elephant festival in Varkala, Kerala. (Photo:iStock)
Elephant festival in Varkala, Kerala. (Photo:iStock)

Supreme Court’s Jumbo Judgment to the Rescue of Temple Elephants


•Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre complained about no registration of captive elephants owned by individuals.
•Supreme Court directed all elephants in custody of individuals, temples, and other religious institutions to be registered with the state.
•Captive elephants will also be covered by public liability insurance scheme for Rs 3 lakh.
•A log book shall also be maintained for elephants detailing its ailments, daily diet and lifestyle.

It’s not child’s play to maintain an elephant. Keeping a jumbo is a rich man’s hobby in Kerala where at least 12 festivals are dedicated to pachyderms in which the richly caparisoned animals carry the deity during processions and ceremonial circumambulations in Hindu temples.

Mahouts cleaning an elephant in Kerala. (Photo: iStock)
Mahouts cleaning an elephant in Kerala. (Photo: iStock)

But now allegations have surfaced that over 700 captive elephants – 70 owned by the temple body Devasom – in Kerala suffered silently due to gross neglect of various directives that guarantee humane treatment to pachyderms.

Taking strong exception to a complaint by the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRARC), the Supreme Court early this week directed registration of the tuskers in the custody of individuals or temples and other religious institutions.

The court also directed that captive elephants be covered by public liability insurance scheme for an amount of Rs 3 lakh each.

Registering the Pachyderms

While WRARC counsel C A Sundaram complained that “some captive elephants” owned by individuals weren’t registered, Kerala government’s lawyer R Basanth did not agree with this contention, saying that all captive elephants were registered with the state government’s wild life department. Besides, there was no justification for registration of the elephants unless they are covered under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

In other words, though there’s a complete ban on display of elephants in circuses and other entertainment events, in Kerala, pachyderms can be owned by individuals and temples for their display in religious processions.

Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar said that unless an “animal is performing”, it need not be registered under the 1960 Act. The issue of registering elephants with the Animal Welfare Board of India could be taken into account later.

However, the top court stuck to the rules concerning human conduct with the titans.

Elephants’ Fundamental Rights

Last year the court expanded the wings of fundamental rights to cover birds and animals, saying that “every species has a right to life and security, subject to the law of the land, which includes depriving its life, out of human necessity.”

Concerned with the “gruesome torture” and “cruelty” that’s inflicted on peace loving animals for the pleasure of certain human beings, the apex court ruled that “Article 21 of the Constitution, while safeguarding the rights of humans, protects ‘life’ of all living beings.”

Supreme Court of India, Delhi. (Photo: iStock)
Supreme Court of India, Delhi. (Photo: iStock)

Sticking to that stand, a bench of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice R Banumathi have now directed all individuals and religious institutions, including temples to maintain log book for the whopper giving details about it, whether it’s suffering or had suffered any ailment, the daily diet given to it and the conditions under which it is kept.

Every owner shall maintain an Elephant Data Book.
—Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2012

But this rule has been ignored with impunity.

Armed with the rules, judges have passed a slew directions keeping in view the religious sentiments of the community, empowering district committees to take necessary measures to ensure that festival committees which are responsible for the smooth conduct of festivals in which elephants are exposed, shall adhere to its guidelines.

The Guidelines

It has been made mandatory to keep “sufficient space” between elephants used in processions and parades.

A total ban has been imposed on involving a musth elephant in celebrations. A musth elephant is primed to mate, and fights other elephants, attacks other animals, and may destroy inanimate objects in its way. Sick, weak, injured or pregnant elephants can’t be made part of the processions.

Elephants in a procession at Thrissur Pooram Festival, Kerala. (Photo: iStock)
Elephants in a procession at Thrissur Pooram Festival, Kerala. (Photo: iStock)

The court has also made it clear that herbivorous animals can’t be chained and hobbled with spikes or barbs for tethering them. Significantly, elephants “shall not be made to walk on tarred roads during hot sun for a long duration without rest,” the apex court has stressed.

The organizers must ensure that sufficient food and water for the pachyderms are provided during the celebrations and the Thrissur district committee will ensure that flambeaus (theevetry) are held away from them.

In order to maintain decorum, the judges also directed that the mahouts must not be “intoxicated while handling elephants.”

A weaned calf below 1.5 metre height shall not be engaged for festival purposes, the apex court said, adding sufficient rest must be given to the elephants which are engaged for “Para procession” which would be restricted to 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. only.

A chained elephant calf. (Photo: iStock)
A chained elephant calf. (Photo: iStock)

Seventeen elephants are used for the daily ceremonial rounds to the accomplishment of ‘Pancari Melam’ in Kudalmanikyam temple in Thrissur. The headgear of seven of these elephants is made of pure gold and the rest of pure silver, which is unique to the ancient temple.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)

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