Caparisoned elephants are an integral part of temple festivals in Kerala. But the practice has increasingly come in for criticism from animal rights groups. Now, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has come up with an alternative. It has gifted an 11 foot robotic elephant, weighing 800kg for festival processions and conducting temple rituals to the Sree Krishna Temple at Irinujadappillu near Kalletumkara in Thrissur district

The elephant model has an iron frame and is fitted with five powerful electric motors which will facilitate the temple administration to carry out rituals safely. The robotic model, which costs ₹5 lakh, can carry five persons at a time and there is an operator (mahout) to control its trunk movement using a switch. The mechanised elephant was the creation of a group of artistes in Thrissur, who have supplied elephant statues for the Dubai Shopping Festival.

Khushboo Gupta, Director of Advocacy Project at PETA, India told businessline that temple elephants in forced captivity often exhibit psychological distress. There are instances of elephants running amok during festivals and causing casualty of human lives.

She said PETA India would like temples across the country to retire their live elephants and allow them to live in sanctuaries and switch to mechanised alternatives for shrine rituals.  “We are talking to temple administrations across Kerala about the possibilities of using mechanized elephants, chariots or palanquins during festivals”, she added. 

Asked on the funding received for the robotic elephant offered to the Sree Krishna temple, she said several individuals who are against captivity of elephants came forward to support with required financial assistance.

Rajkumar Namboothiri, the head priest of the temple said, “We are extremely happy and grateful to receive this mechanical elephant which will help us to conduct our rituals in a cruelty-free way and we hope that other temples will also think about replacing live elephants for rituals.”

Prakash Iyer, member of State Executive Committee of Kerala Elephant Owners Federation did not agree with PETA’s view of introducing robotic elephants, saying that the famous Thrissur Pooram received the global attention only because of parading 30 elephants.

Renting of elephants is also a big business in Kerala, especially during festival season from November to April. The average rent is around ₹25,000 per day per elephant. The maintenance cost of elephants is around ₹1.5 lakh per month. There are 350 elephants in Kerala and of this, only 250 are rented out. The remaining are old and with various Devaswom Boards.