The elephant-headed god, Ganesha, is revered and celebrated by Hindus across the world. He is the remover of obstacles, the lord of beginnings and journeys. Yet in the birthplace of Hinduism, the Asian elephant faces rampant, and often disguised, cruelty at the hands of those who profess to value all forms of life as equal to our own.
The entire world has heard about the cruelties within the Tiger Temples of Thailand, but fewer people know about the secret lives of captive elephants. The elephant in India is both wild and domesticated; as a wild species, it is alternately feared and worshiped, but as a domestic slave, it is valued for its repressed spirit. Wild elephants are at the root of human-wildlife conflict. Their ancestral migration routes, which remain unchanged generation after generation, now cut through agricultural fields and villages, causing pandemonium when the elephant herds move through. Where dense forests once provided food and shelter now stand homes and fenced fields. Elephants must turn elsewhere for food sources, and wreak havoc on seasonal crops – not out of revenge but out of need. Many elephants are caught between the grasp of habitat loss and fragmentation, and retaliation from discontented farmers (Lenin and Sukumar 2011). It is a dire position for both pachyderms and man, each trying and failing to lay claim to common resources.
Domesticated Asian elephants face no better a fate, though the conflict is better-masked. Wildlife tourism, while useful in increasing our awareness of the other species that co-inhabit our land, has helped increase the popularity of elephant rides, which subject elephants to cruel training tactics and domestication techniques. Calves are taken from their mothers at a young age, restrained, and beaten into submission. At least 77 percent of captive elephants in India and Southeast Asia are chained night and day, and experience no social interaction with other elephants (The Guardian 2017). For a social species, this is perhaps the cruelest torture. Entertainment provided by captive elephants is crude: bathing the animals, elephant rides, and circus performances. Additionally, temples often keep captive elephants for rituals and processions. Temple elephants are starved and dehydrated in order to force them into a state of exhaustion – later labelled as compliance. Temples prefer to use bull elephants, as the tuskers appear more impressive than do females, and subject the animals to high stress-situations such as parades and dances in the name of religion (The Guardian 2016). Yet, no matter the religious reasoning behind such actions, elephants are forced time and time again to pay the price for our hubris and our fascination with controlling that which is wild.
Is it fair to this gentle giant that we continue to take advantage of its power and vibrant intelligence by making it a slave? As a child, I saw captive elephants roaming the streets of India. The temple by my family home in Chennai housed multiple captive elephants, and I have even played with a baby elephant in the temple grounds. I have ridden an elephant in Kerala and interacted with them in the streets of Mumbai and Chennai. So many people are ignorant to the plight of these beautiful, regal creatures, just as I was for so many years.
As long as the practices of elephant captivity continue, India’s Hindus cannot truly say that they are worshipers of Ganesha. Tomorrow is Ganesh Chaturthi – the day all Hindus celebrate the elephant-headed god and pray for him to show us the solution to obstacles we face. Perhaps we should include a prayer for the elephant as well – for its freedom, for its dignity, and for a solution to the multiple obstacles we continue to place in its path.