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India Must Stop the Exploitation of Elephants in Cultural and Religious Rituals

08/11/2015 02:51 EDT | Updated 08/11/2016 05:59 EDT

The life of Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran -- the tallest elephant in Kerala, a southern state of India, and the second tallest in all of Asia is in danger. His handlers uncovered a plot to murder this majestic animal, after they found pieces of razor blades in his fodder, according to the country's most prestigious daily, The Times of India (clipping at the bottom), and one of Kerala's most reliable news source "Manorama".

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Photo Credit: Tony Azios, Still shot captured from our Gods in Shackles footage

This failed attempt to kill an innocent animal fueled by rivalry, points to a deeply disturbing trend in Kerala, where best looking elephants or "handsome tuskers" are displayed in 'elephant beauty pageants' of sorts, under the guise of culture and religion.

Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran is the most popular celebrity elephant with thousands of fans across the state. This awesome elephant ushers in the annual Trissur Pooram festival in May, and is the star of the door opening ceremony. He has also been featured in our film Gods in Shackles. He is the most coveted elephant in Kerala.

But Ramachandran also has a dark side. He has killed a total of ten people since 1988, and has been banned from festival processions. The reality is, unable to cope with his pain and suffering he lashed out. He is blind in his right eye, and has been battered and brutalized almost his entire life. He has endured unimaginable pain and suffering and bears physical and emotional scars. He is deprived of the basic necessities of life, and his natural instincts have been repressed in captivity.

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Photo Credit: Tony Azios; Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran transported in truck from one festival to another

Possibly the animosity towards this innocent animal was instigated by rival temples that empower youth to promote their temple elephants in order to win competitions, so their demand will increase and the temples and owners can earn more money. Perhaps the youth have become so entrapped in their 'friendly competitions' that they seem to have lost their cultural and spiritual roots.

To my knowledge no Hindu religion or scripture purports use of elephants in temples or festivals. One of the highest ranking judges, Justice K. S. Radhakrishanan of the Supreme Court of India often makes his rulings based on quotes from ancient scriptures. In particular the holy Isha-Upanishads in the 1500 BC declared:

"The universe along with its creatures belongs to the land. No creature is superior to any other. Human beings should not be above nature. Let no one species encroach over the right s and privileges of other species."

In an on camera interview for our film Gods in Shackles, one of the most revered priests who oversees around 500 temples across Kerala, Akkeramon Kalidasan Bhattathirippad bluntly denounced the use of elephants in temple rituals. He said, although people worship Lord Ganesha, a Hindu God with elephant face, elephants have been commercialized.

"Elephant is also a living being and we cannot harm this animal, our God will not tolerate this. God says all are one, everything is part of God and that is Brahma Satyam Jagath mithyam. That is the universal secrecy ... By practice we are not sincere, that's the main thing. The systems are being misused always. Frankly I'm speaking it's meant for monetary aspects they are cheating this system."

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I'm interviewing Kerala's most revered Priest, Akkeramon Kalidasan Bhattathirippad

You would expect the state forest officials to act swiftly and rescue the majestic animal immediately. But apparently that hasn't happened. In a petition submitted to the Prime Minister of India, Secretary of the Heritage Animal Task Force, Venkitachalam, has called for the Prime Minister of India to launch an investigation claiming that the

"Trissur police and divisional forest officials are not interested to inquire in scientific manner to identify the person who were responsible for planting shaving blades insider the fodder bowl of the tallest domesticated elephant in Kerala."

But despite such strong oppositions from religious leaders and local activists, the status-quo and wealthy are defiant, and hell bent on exploiting elephants in cultural and religious rituals. Sadly they tried to sway the Government of India, which came close to lifting a former Supreme Court ruling that banned use of animals in religious festivals and entertainment.

However a 32-member Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) that has been appointed by the central government to review legislations drafted out by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate change (MoEFCC), rejected the report of the so called High Level Committee (HLC). It states, the ministry has failed to follow proper protocols in creating the HLC. Among other concerns, the PSC points out,

"None of the persons who were members of the committee had any expertise in the field of environment and wildlife. Further questions as to whether the Minister of Environment, Forest & Climate Change was empowered under a notification issued by the ministry to constitute a High Level Committee were also raised, because as per convention, an HLC can only be constituted by the Prime Minister and not by individual Ministries."

Even as the committee deliberates on the amendments, the state should immediately move Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran to a safer place. This failed attempt to murder such a magnificent elephant should be a wake up call not only to global citizens but also the Minister of Environment Prakash Javadekar. He strongly believes that the laws should be amended so the age-old traditions of using animals for religious festivals can continue. Perhaps he needs to re-visit the ancient Holy Scriptures of India. He may then become inspired to protect God's creations and make informed decisions in creating the laws of land that will ensure the survival and welfare of the endangered Asian elephants in captivity and in the wild.

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The Times of India report

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