Sunday, February 15, 2009

Human touch to Elephants' problems!

Way back in 2003, Ms Jayalalithaa started a scheme to restore the physical and mental well being of elephants by starting an elephant camp in the Mudumalai forests for 45 days in a year for the sake of elephants in captivity. By captivity, it refers generally to the temple elephants! All those times we visit a temple we look at the temple elephant as an object of fun and treat it as a show piece for our kids. Though we respect it for leading a life of service to God in a temple, we generally don't realize how it can cope with a life that is not natural for its nature. While Ms Jayalalithaa's scheme helped in creating some awareness about temple elephants which we usually think are well-cared for and are lucky to serve Gods directly, it is doubtful whether any special attention is given to the temple elephants during other times in a year.

The following account by ISKCON devotee, Hrimati dasi on her thoughtful ways of approach to provide a natural environment to the temple elephant at Mayapur throws light on better care of temple elephants. It is a delight reading her account presented as a paper on Elephant Management Practices in Mayapur at the "National Symposium for Elephant Health care and Management Practices" that was held at the College of Veterinary Science, Assam Agricultural University, Khanapara, Guwahati on 19th-21st January, 2009.

It is reproduced here to spread awareness on how to take better care of the temple elephants or the elephants in captivity.

Sanatana dharma stands for care of all life. We must not forget in our anxiety to make available all that is part of temple, the humane touch to this wonderful creation of Nature, to answer whose call for "Adhi moolam", Bhagawan came swiftly and granted 'Gajendra mOksham'!

My sincere thanks to Sri Manoram Chaitanya das for permitting me to reproduce this in this blog.

- jayasree


Hare Krishna!
Dear Maharaj and Prabhu's,
All glories to Srila Prabhupada!

I am happy to announce that I had been invited to represent ISKCON Mayapur
and MAP (Mayapur Animal protection team) to attend and present a paper on
our Elephant Management Practices in Mayapur at the
"National Symposium for Elephant Health care and Management Practices"
That was held at the College of Veterinary Science, Assam Agricultural
University, Khanapara, Guwahati. on 19th-21st January, 2009. It was
organized and sponsored by the Directorate of Project Elephant, Ministry of
Environment and Forests, Government of India, New Delhi.

Many Delegates were there from different parts of India and abroad. I was
one of the delegates that presented a paper. At the end of the Symposium the
Participants received a Compendium, Souvenir and Certificate.
The paper (see below) that I presented was extremely well received.
Every one was clapping and congratulated me, especially Mr. A. N. Prasad,
IGF and Director of "Project Elephant of India". He said that I have
presented a new approach to Elephant care, by quoting the Bhagavad Gita and
Pointing out that that we are all Spiritual Souls inside different bodies.
and thus Elephants need to be treated with Respect and cared for with Love.
He said that that is their Indian Culture and they have forgotten it and now
a German Lady goes up on the Stage and reminding them about their forgotten

Please bless me that I might continue in this service by assisting me to
better care for our Temple Elephants.

Hare Krishna!

Your humble servant,

Hrimati dasi


While I am caressing her trunk, Laksmipriya makes soft growling sounds. She
makes me reflect back to the time which made me want to care for Elephants
the way they deserve.

On April 1st, 2006 was a day when I promised myself I wanted to make a
difference in the life of an elephant. It was the day when our temple
elephant Gulab Kali died. It was a day that I will never forget. Our
devotees were all standing around her dead body crying, including myself.
Gulab Kali had been with us for 24 years. She joined our temple at the age
of 4 and had been serving the Lord by being His carrier for many years on
procession during the winter months. Gulab Kali was very gentle. Even small
children could get close to her. I never really thought that some day this
beautiful Elephant would not be with us anymore. She had been a part of our
lives. My sons used to visit her often and pet her and give her treats.
Gulab Kali was a member of our community and was loved by everyone.

My inspiration comes from the Bhagavad-Gita where Lord Krishna tells Arjuna:
The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a
Learned and gentle Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater
[Outcaste]. BG 5.18

According to our beliefs, everyone is the same spiritual soul inside of
their outer shell, or material bodies. We do not make any distinction
between species or castes. A dog, a cow, and an elephant may be different
from the point of view of species, but these differences of body are
meaningless from our viewpoint. The different bodies may be of different
natures, however the Soul within the different bodies are of Spiritual
nature. We also believe that the Supreme Lord resides in each and everyone's
body. With this in mind Gulab Kali was cared for.
So, I was asking myself, if we really loved Gulab Kali so much, then why did
she die such an untimely death? I wanted to know, because it was decided
right away that we need to bring another elephant to our temple. Otherwise,
who will carry the Lord during the winter processions? This is where my
research began.

After the death of Gulab Kali, several concerned devotees, including myself
formed a team called the MAP

MAP, Mayapur Animal Protection (Team), operates under the simple
principle that animals are not ours to use for entertainment, while
educating Mayapur Residence about animal abuse and promoting an
understanding of the right of all animals to be treated with respect.

I was not involved in the care of Gulab Kali, but after forming the MAP I
was asked to bring and care for the new elephant. Before bringing another
elephant to our temple, I wanted to make sure not to do the same mistakes
but to learn from them and bring about a change.

Our Temple is located at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Jalangi
Rivers, 130 km north of Kolkata, in the holy city of Mayapur, district
Nadia, West Bengal. Mayapur is basically a small town surrounded by rice
fields and forests. The subtropical climate and lush vegetation make an
ideal environment for elephants; however chances of flooding during the
monsoon month are very high each year.

The previous elephant had been kept on the temple grounds in a shed. She
would remain unchained inside her shed on the cemented floor during the
night and for several hours during the day. A bathing pool was provided
outside, where the mahouts would bathe her. The method of control was with
ankus (iron hook) and full contact. Over the years the elephant developed
severe foot problems, which worsened during floods, because the elephant
often refused to move to higher grounds and as a result had to remain
standing in flood waters for several days. Out of "affection" the devotees
used to give Gulab Kali sweets like laddus (Indian traditional sweet),
sometimes even buckets full of leftovers from lunch, like rice, and
vegetables etc. But are all those things the natural foods for an elephant?
I was asking myself. The many pilgrims that come to Mayapur would beg for
"blessings" from the elephant and put coins in her trunk. In return, she
would put her trunk on the Pilgrims head, however it worried me whether it
is healthy for an elephant to touch coins, that went through, who knows how
many hands?

In its natural environment, will an elephant prefer to sleep on
a cemented floor? In the wild, do female elephants stay alone?

If I was to get another elephant for our temple, I wanted to make a
difference. I wanted to create an environment where she is loved and feels
at home and most of all, where she still gets to be an elephant and gets to
do the things that elephants like to do in the company of other elephants.
When I first found Laksmipriya I was saddened by the condition in which
I found her. It was upsetting for me to see this little elephant in such a
pitiful condition. She was very thin and malnourished, and had three of her
feet chained.

Even her Mahout was skinny with his rib bones showing. The elephant's owner
had no means to feed her. That might have explained why she was not looked
after very well. The keeper had not supplied her with much food, so she
tried to reach for any grass that was near her. The mahout that was with her
handed me some small cut pieces of banana stock sprinkled with some salt,
which the elephant accepted gladly from me. But I was not getting a show
animal. Remembering that I had promised myself to make a difference in the
life of an Elephant, I accepted to bring this little female Elephant to be
engaged in Religious services in Mayapur.

After arriving in Mayapur, Laksmipriya adjusted very quickly to her new

We are keeping Laksmipriya in a natural forest habitat. She gets tethered to
a different tree each night, but during the day she is mostly free roaming
or takes walks with her mahout riding her.
She likes to graze on the nearby grasses in the field. Her favorite foods
are banana leaves and banana tree trunks. She can consume several of them
per day.

We generally supply her with already cut trees; however, the mahouts also
trained her to fell her own banana trees. Early in the morning she enjoys
the leaves of the bamboo and a variety of other forest vegetation. Once a
day she gets a ration of soaked raw chickpeas and either uncooked rice or
whole wheat combined with mineral mixture and natural rock salt. The mahout
makes a small sandwich-type packet by wrapping this mixture in cut banana
leaves or grass. From time to time she also gets some black salt with this.
Black salt keeps away intestinal parasites.

Besides the natural grazing and browsing she does, we also supply
Laksmipriya with freshly cut grass according to the season. Daily at 5 PM
she makes her rounds to the Temple Campus, where people get to see her and
feed her treats like grass, fruits, small pieces of sugarcane and carrots.
We do not allow people to give any coins to the elephant and no more

Every Sunday we walk with the elephant for 6 km to another temple, where she
gets to go to the nearby Lake to play in the water. On the way, villagers
happily feed her with banana leaves, sugar cane and seasonal fruits. As we
walk on the unpaved village road, many little children follow behind us.
Each week they eagerly wait in front of their humble homes for Laksmipriya,
who is slowly becoming everyone's favorite.

In case of flooding during the monsoon months, the elephant will be taken
this same route to higher grounds. Getting her familiar with the route
during the dry season will help us manage her in case of an emergency.
Elephants need to walk every day to keep healthy. In the winter season, we
allow Laksmipriya to walk on the paved main road. This will help her foot
pads and nails to wear off. In the summer we try to keep her of the hot tar
roads. During the hot time of the day, she remains in her forest under the
shade of tall trees which shelter her from the scorching summer sun.
In the beginning it was difficult for us to care for her feet. The Elephant
was not that well trained and did not know to follow the command that makes
her lie down. As our mahouts only use a bamboo stick and not the ankus for
training her, it took a little longer to teach her the command. I prefer to
use the humane way of training rather than using the ankus, which can cause
severe injuries if used excessively. After finally learning the command,
while lying down on her side, the elephant is letting us now do her manicure
without problems. We use a knife and a file to trim the nails and footpad.
To prevent fungal infections, we constructed a small foot bathing pool,
where we let the elephant soak her feet in a solution of warm water mixed
with potassium permanganate. We had some problems with minor cracks in her
nails. Applying mustard oil to her nails along with feeding her a well
balanced diet and walking a lot seams to help the crack problem.

Elephants need to drink lots of water, in the summer more than in the
winter. Laksmipriya has access to a specially constructed water tank;
however she has quickly learned the art of drinking from the tap as well as
from the hand pump. For her daily bath, the elephant has a small bathing
tank. She also likes to swim in natural ponds which she especially enjoys.
Had I known how much this elephant enjoys playing in the water, I would have
certainly made the pool a bit bigger.

During the rainy season, the elephant stays at night under a roof which is
open on all four sides. The raised, tightly packed, natural dirt floor lets
her urine run off, so her sleeping place stays clean. However, we never keep
her tethered at the same place for any long period of time. When weather
allows, she will always stay under the shade of tall trees.

Keeping the elephant on dirt has one setback. We need to keep a close watch
on her behavior and eating habits. I have learned that if our elephant
starts eating the soil, something is wrong. When there is an imbalance in
her mineral intake she tries to replace the minerals by eating soil. This
behavior usually means that the elephant probably has some kind of
intestinal parasites. Her feces will have a darker color than usual and a
stronger odor to it. Regular de-worming is very important. We routinely
examine her stool every 3 to 4 months.

As there are many cattle in Mayapur, we inoculate our elephant for most of
the common cattle diseases. I keep a medical register to keep records of her
health, growth and vaccine schedules. I also note down any unusual behavior
or problems.

Lately I have noticed a different behavior in Laksmipriya, which she has
never shown before. She is showing unusual affection towards me. Although
she has a special liking for me this particular behavior may be something
different. I usually visit her twice or three times in a day. Calling out to
her as I get near her place, she usually responds by turning towards me. I
caress her under her trunk on a special place where I always do. For the
last few days, as soon as I call out to her from a distance, she responds
with a loud roar and trumpeting, as if she is trying to say, "Where have you
been?! I've been waiting for you!" Besides the roaring and trumpeting she
also makes whistling sounds to get my attention. When I finally reach her,
she growls so loud, that it almost worries me that I have not spent more
time with her. If I meet her walking on the road, she will come running
towards me. She just wants to be with me. Nothing else seams to satisfy her.
The mahouts are joking with me that I should just take her home with me to
make her happy. As for me, it just means that it is time for bringing the
second elephant to Mayapur quickly.

The relationship between the mahout and the elephant is very important for
the emotional wellbeing of the Elephant. Anyone who is involved in caring or
managing our Elephant remembers this. It is a personal affair. Elephants are
very intelligent people inside monstrous bodies, who have feelings. They
have their own will too. The love that an elephant feels from her caretaker
will never be forgotten for the rest of her life.

However, Elephants are not pets. They are not ours to keep for
Entertainment. For their Social health they need the company of their own

For Laksmipriya not to be lonely, we have already made arrangements for
another female elephant, whom we have named Vishnupriya, to come and give
company to our young Laksmipriya.

Elephants are not loner animals. They always stay in herds. So in the
meantime, while we are waiting for Vishnupriya's paperwork to clear, I just
have to take her place.

I will always care for my little temple elephants with love and affection.
The love that an elephant feels from her caretaker will never be forgotten
for the rest of her life.

Remember, Elephants never forget!

Hare Krishna

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. K. K. Sarma and Mr.
Dwipen Kalita for their patience and help in training me to better care for
our temple Elephants.


Sampige said...

Thank you for such a heart-warming article. We get so excited to see the temple elephants that we forget they are far from their natural habitats. I wish all the temple elephants could live like Lakshmipriya.

Anonymous said...

Which book says that temples should have elephants?

Jayasree Saranathan Ph.D said...

Elephant is one among 21 Royal symbols. Even an ordinary king used to be surrounded by these 21 symbols. God as the Supreme Ruler is always accompanied with a parivar of 21 symbols such as Crown, septre, Royal umbrella, Royal fan, flag, Lamp, Elephant etc. These symbols will accompany Him when He goes on a procession.