In 2013, Selvaprakash Lakshmanan, then a photographer for the Time Out magazine in Bangalore, decided to work on a project capturing the lives of temple elephants and their mahouts (keepers) at a government-run rejuvenation camp in the state.
Six years on, the project, which Lakshmanan had started in his spare time, is a vivid look into the annual 48-day camp and the journey the elephants undertake to get there.
Initially, the idea was to create portraits of the temple elephants and their keepers, with the forest as a background, recounts Lakshmanan. He wanted to portray the irony by showcasing these animals surrounded by green trees and the wilderness, but laden and painted with religious symbols. He hoped to make people question the same.
Lakshmanan was curious to follow the entire goings-on of the camp, right from boarding of the elephants in the lorries, to the food they were served during their stay. On his visits, he constantly interacted with the mahouts, which gave him an insight into their relationships with the animals, as well as the workings of the camp as a whole.
While at the camp, the elephants are given nutritious food, medical care, showers and walks every day. For some, it is a much-needed change from their temple surroundings, which at times are not suited or equipped for their needs.
In recent years, there have been frequent reports and debates on the mistreatment of temple elephants in the country, and the Bengaluru-based photographer is well aware of these animal rights issues. But with this project, Lakshmanan wanted to highlight what was happening at the camp. "I’m trying to highlight what kind of food they are getting to eat, what kind of treatment they are getting. And how comparatively it is a better environment than the temple," he says
Since his initial trip, the photographer has revisited the camp in 2016 and twice in 2018, always expanding on his work.
Lakshmanan believes that the camps are bringing about a positive change and things are slowly, but surely, moving in a better direction. Rehabilitating the temple elephants for the wild is a long-term process, especially in a country like India, where there is a religious value attached to them. But according to him, as long as they are in a captive environment, they should be treated as best as possible, and the temples need to ensure that too.
Although an initiative of a political party, for Lakshmanan, the rejuvenation camp is beyond any political event, and to lose the same for any reason would be a shame. It's even beneficial for the mahouts, he says, as they get a chance to exchange ideas during their stays.
For now, Lakshmanan plans to carry on with the project. There are talks of moving the camp to a different city and he wants to document the changes along the way. "There are multiple layers around these stories, so I’d like to continue this," he says.
All images by Selvaprakash Lakshmanan
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Updated Date: Sep 11, 2018 12:08:30 IST