Heart-thumping firecrackers and grand dressed-up elephants are a childhood memory of temple festivals in Kerala.

The ostentatious display is meant to delight and dazzle those gathered there, but often times it has left many disturbed as well because of the agony to man and animal. Sometimes the elephant runs amuck, chasing people or killing the mahout. And at other times young and old cower from the deafening sound that seems no more than a show of the money that’s been pumped into the local event.

Kerala’s temple tragedy at Kollam that has taken the lives of over 100 people is a grim reminder that it is high time to rethink such festivities. As news reports come in from Kerala, commentators also point to the long standing plea from a compassionate society to free elephants from these rituals. The agony these grand but gentle animals go through are well documented, including in sister publication Frontline, “The pain of being a temple elephant.”

The unnecessary use of animals in what is a celebration of people is just one part the festivities that needs reform. Let’s not forget the accidents at firework factories in Tamil Nadu, specially Sivakasi, that bring to the fore heart-breaking stories of people (children too) and the abysmal conditions they work in to make those dazzling fireworks.

But the universally ugly truth that the Kollam tragedy reflects is the callous approach to safety, and not just in Kerala. Change the name of the city and State and you are not too far from a festival or celebration that culminates in noisy and showy pyrotechnics. A cricket match, an entertainment event, a day to mark respect for a historic figure in the country, or a religious festival - the sound and light show is a must.

Mumbaikars will recall the embarrassing incident months ago where a key State programme at the “Make in India” event ended in flames. Yes, it was followed by reports that the organisers were advised not to hold the event on the windy beach in scenic South Mumbai. But they did. The situation is not too different as reports emerge that the Kerala temple too may not have had permission to stockpile such massive amounts of crackers. But they did.

While many are increasingly questioning the very need for such aggressive firework displays, the sheer proximity of such inflammable material to habited areas is, as many are now saying, an accident waiting to happen. And somehow, they always have a knack of happening.

Years ago, the firework display at a temple in North Kerala resulted in a bunch of people getting mowed down by a train. Locals had then said that spectators wanting to get a panoramic view of the display sat on a nearby train-track and the sound and light show made them oblivious to the oncoming train.

As Kerala prepares to celebrate Vishu next week, the Kollam tragedy is bound to cast a pall of gloom over it. The saving grace will be if authorities are able to regulate and reduce the brazen fireworks and stop the participation of animals like elephants in these festivities. Only then will the temple festival revert to being the social gathering it usually is, where people mostly meet, greet and for the spiritually inclined, pray.


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