In a move to delink animals from traditional temple practices, the Sree Sankaran Kovil in Gudalur, Nilgiris, has received a life-size robotic elephant from the NGO “Voices for Asian Elephants.” The initiative follows a broader trend of introducing mechanical alternatives for animals traditionally associated with Hindu worship.
This follows a similar development in Kerala, where the Irinjadappilly Sree Krishna Temple in Thrissur incorporated a life-like mechanical elephant named ‘Irinjadappilly Raman’ for daily rituals, replacing the use of real elephants. This robotic elephant was donated by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India and actress Parvathy Thiruvothu in February.
Kerala’s Irinjadappilly Sree Krishna Temple will use a lifelike mechanical elephant to perform rituals, allowing real elephants to remain with their families in nature.
The initiative is supported by @parvatweets.#ElephantRobotRaman https://t.co/jwn8m2nJeU pic.twitter.com/jVaaXU7EHg
— PETA India (@PetaIndia) February 26, 2023
In a bid to alleviate the suffering of elephants used in temple rituals, Sangeetha Iyer, the founding executive director of an organization, announced the launch of robotic elephants for temple festivities. Iyer, a National Geographic Explorer and renowned nature filmmaker, highlighted the alarming statistics of captive elephant deaths and mahout fatalities in Kerala.
With an average of 25 captive elephant deaths annually and a declining population, the initiative aims to provide a humane alternative while preserving cultural traditions. The first pilot project is set to commence at Sree Sankaran Kovil on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in Gudalur. The life-size robotic elephant, named ‘Sri Sivasankara Hariharan,’ seeks to prevent the suffering of elephants and reduce risks for their caretakers.
The NGO behind the initiative is committed to expanding the use of robotic elephants in Kerala temples, citing the preference of many temples to avoid live elephants for ethical reasons. The introduction of robotic alternatives aims to ensure the well-being of these majestic creatures during temple festivities.
The predecessor, ‘Irinichadapilly Raman,’ was launched by the Thrissur Kalletumkara Irinichadapilly Srikrishna Kshetolsava Samiti for temple festivals. Now, ‘Sri Sivasankara Hariharan’ stands as its successor, standing at 10 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 700 kg. The robotic elephant’s lifelike movements, including its ears and trunk, provide an interactive experience for visitors.
Commenting on the initiative, Iyer emphasised the importance of fostering ethical practices while preserving India’s rich culture and traditions. The introduction of robotic elephants offers a solution to prevent the suffering of captive elephants and reduce risks for their caretakers.
Sangeetha Iyer, the founding executive director of the NGO behind this initiative, shared insights in Kochi, revealing growing inquiries from other temples interested in adopting similar robotic elephants.
Iyer emphasised the humane nature of robotic elephants, addressing concerns related to the suffering of captive elephants during temple festivities. She highlighted alarming statistics, noting that 25 captive elephants, known as Natanas, are affected by adverse conditions annually. In 2024 alone, three elephants have already succumbed to such conditions. The use of robotic elephants aims to prevent suffering and reduce security risks associated with live elephants, which often result in incidents of elephants running into crowds during festivals.
The initiative seeks to address the decline in the captive elephant population, which has decreased from around 700 in 2016 to 393 in 2024. Sangeetha Iyer expressed hope that robotic elephants like ‘Sri Sivasankara Hariharan’ would be more widely accepted in Kerala, offering a humane solution to temple rituals.
In addition to the introduction of robotic elephants, the NGO has acquired a 4.00-acre private plantation land in the South Nilambur forest. The expansion aims to restore and secure elephant habitats for approximately 340 elephants in the region. The organization’s efforts extend to West Bengal and Odisha, where EleSense technology has prevented over 600 elephant fatalities on train tracks. Elephant-friendly solar fencing in West Bengal villages has resulted in zero elephant deaths in these areas.
The NGO actively educates communities living in forest fringes, providing basic necessities to mitigate human-elephant conflict and promote peaceful coexistence. The acquisition of private plantation land underscores the organization’s commitment to habitat conservation and fostering a harmonious relationship between humans and elephants.
PETA India expressed concerns about the frustration and abnormal behaviour exhibited by captive elephants, which often leads to dangerous situations during temple festivities. According to figures compiled by the Heritage Animal Task Force, captive elephants have been linked to the deaths of 526 people in Kerala over a 15-year period. The organisation underscored the psychological toll on elephants kept away from their natural habitat, urging a shift towards compassionate alternatives.
However, devotees argue that such interventions by animal activists disregard the deep-rooted cultural and religious significance of animals in Hindu traditions. They cite examples of various deities associated with specific animals as Vahans (vehicles), emphasising the bond between humans and animals in religious practices. The use of real elephants in temples, including their participation in festivals, fetching water for rituals, and engaging in morning poojas, is viewed as a sacred tradition that embodies the symbiotic relationship between man and animal.
Critics of PETA’s stance accuse them of targeting Hindu rituals and traditions, highlighting previous instances such as the ban on Jallikattu (bull-taming sport) and the prohibition of animals in circuses. The reference to a judge seeking guidance from Jesus in writing orders further fueled suspicions of bias against Hindu practices.
The ongoing efforts to introduce robotic elephants in temples have met with resistance from those who argue that the real ones are irreplaceable in fostering the man-animal bond. Devotees cherish the human-friendly, intelligent, and controllable nature of live elephants, disputing claims of potential violence or accidents during temple events.
The larger debate also raises questions about selective activism, with critics questioning the silence of animal rights activists on the widespread slaughter of animals during religious practices in minority communities. The focus on practices like Halal certification and mass sacrifices during Bakrid has prompted calls for consistent advocacy against cruelty to animals across religious and cultural contexts.