Nilgiri: Every day, devotees gather at the Shiva temple in the remote hamlet of Devarshola near Gudalur in Nilgiris of Tamil Nadu, not just to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva but also to marvel at a giant robotic elephant. Programmed to perform the rituals like saluting the Gods, blessing the devotees and even pulling the chariot, the elephant has been installed on a wheeled pedestal enabling movement.
Named Sri Shankara Hariharan, the robotic elephant was recently offered by Sangita Iyer, an Indian-born Canadian citizen, a true lover of Asiatic elephants. Standing at 11 feet and weighing 800 kgs, the approximate cost of production is Rs 12 lakh. People throng the temple to touch the legs of the elephant while others keenly observe the movement of the head and fanlike ears.
“Will it bless us with the trunk?”, asks a woman, gaping in awe at the elephant. The mahout (technician) suddenly operates the system and the robotic elephant blesses the devotee. According to temple committee president R Balagopal, the robotic elephant is the first of its kind in Tamil Nadu. Inducted to the temple in a mega ceremony on February 4, a ritualistic Nadayiruthal (offering the elephant to God) also was held.
“The devotees want to be blessed by the robotic Ganesha with its trunk while others just want to have their eyes on the gentle robotic giant,” said Balagopal. He added that the presence of the robotic elephant has catapulted an otherwise lesser known temple to quick fame. A large number of people cutting across religious barriers including students, devotees, officials from various departments and elephant lovers have been making a beeline to the temple.
However, the temple committee has decided to fully utilize the robotic elephant only on special occasions. “We have restricted the demonstration of the robotic elephant only on special days as our technicians are yet to be experts in the operating the system,” said Janardhanan K, a devotee residing in the locality.
On the occasion of offering the robotic elephant to the temple, Sangita Iyer said that the move is aimed at putting an end to the often criticized practice of maintaining elephants in captivity at temples, often in unhealthy and inhumane conditions. An elephant lover herself who is also the founding Executive Director of the NGO Voices For Asian Elephants (VFAE) Society, she said that being kept in chains in temples, the elephants are tortured.
“On one hand we pray to Lord Ganesh, but we don’t treat elephants well,” she said. A native of Palakkad, Kerala, Sangita Iyer is an Indian-born Canadian author, documentary filmmaker and broadcast journalist. She has also produced a documentary film ‘Gods in Shackles’ on the poor plight of captive elephants in temples.