In partnership with the National Geographic Society. This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.
TRIVANDRUM, INDIA—There’s no scholarly consensus on when, exactly, the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple was built, though there’s evidence that a temple honouring the demon-slaying, lady-charming Hindu deity Krishna has stood on this parcel of land in southwest India since the 8th century.
Hundreds of years on, the temple appears to have absorbed objects and memories from nearly every year of its existence. There are murals from the 18th century and tarnished bronze deempam—oil lamps—that are at least a century old, as well as discoloured patio chairs purchased sometime in the early aughts and gold streamers from a festival last winter.
The newest addition: Notices in bold, black lettering, printed on white A4 paper, pasted all around the temple’s inner sanctum. “Inside the temple premises, there is a compulsory ban on mobile phones, cameras, and plastic carry bags”, they say.
Disobey, and you may get stern looks from one of the dozen or so retirees who spend most of their days here, or be approached by a priest or administrator who will politely inform you that Aranmula is one of 1,058 temples in the south Indian state of Kerala that have pledged to eliminate plastic this year.
“We are trying to go back to the ancient days, when there was no threat of plastic”, says A. Padmakumar, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, an administrative body that oversees all 1,058 temples, and resident of Aranmula village. It was his idea to phase out plastic throughout Kerala temples, though he says religious leaders had been advocating for a ban for years.
And the move is in line with national policy: in June, Indian Prime Minister Nahendra Modi announced plans to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. Individual states across the country—including Kerala—have already started to phase out, if not outright ban, certain forms of it.
But convincing 1.3 billion Indians to give up the convenience of plastic isn’t going to be easy, Padmakumar says. “Already, just six months into our ban, we’re finding it difficult. Doing good is difficult”, he says.
“But that is why this work has to start in temples—these are our centres of culture”. If anything will convince Indians to give up plastic, he’s betting it’ll be their love for, and fear of, God.
Parabhrama or Plastic?
Actually, there’s something eerily unnatural, and ungodly, about plastic, says Thantri Suryakalady Jayasuryan Bhattathiripad, a pujari, or priest at Mangaladevi temple in northern Kerala. “I’m a farmer, as well. And it is very sad to see very old plastic packaging coming out of the soil when I plough my land”, he says. “Even the emblems, the brand names will still be on there—it’s like an immortal substance”.
With a laugh, he adds: “As far as I know, only Parabhrama—the Supreme Being—is supposed to last forever!”
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PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS P. PESCHAK, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
The trouble is, Hindu rituals can involve lots and lots of stuff: camphor and incense to purify the air; butter, milk, and rosewater to offer at the shrine; oil to replenish the traditional lamps; turmeric and sandalwood powder to smear across the forehead and open one’s third eye. And these days, all of it is packaged in plastic, says Aneesh Mon, who sells supplies to devotees from a small stall just outside Aranmula temple.
In principle, he says, he fully agrees with the temple’s new rules. “But how is it possible when everything comes in plastic covers?”
Since the pledge took effect in January, Mon has made some changes. His convenient “pooja kits”, which include fruit and snacks to offer the gods, are now sold in reusable, biodegradable plates made from dried palm leaves, instead of plastic bags. But the mini bottles of oil and rosewater are still packaged in plastic. “This is how it comes, from the companies”, he shrugs. “Though we’re working with suppliers to find some alternatives”.
Over the past few months, he’s had quite a few frustrating conversations—with the company that supplies him with rosewater, asking them if it’s really necessary to wrap their plastic bottles in an additional layer of plastic film, and with the company that makes the incense, pleading with them to consider paper packaging. And then there’s convincing his customers to pay an extra five rupees for the camphor wrapped in paper. “They say that if they come on a regular basis, the five rupees adds up”.
By next year, with help from temple administrators, he’s hoping to start buying oil by the gallon and decanting it into smaller clay or steel containers for devotees, which is a system that some temples in the region have already adopted. Other temples are avoiding packaging altogether by making their own rosewater and sourcing oil from smaller, local producers.
The problem is, the mass-produced, plastic-wrapped stuff is cheap and easy, he says. “Now we can’t even think of a world without plastic”.
Death of an Elephant
The need to imagine, and realise, a world without plastic is growing more and more urgent, says Thirumeni Rajeevararu, the head priest at Sabarimala, a shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Ayyapan in the heart of Kerala’s Periyar Tiger Reserve.
In January, a 20-year-old wild elephant in Periyar died after consuming some of the trash discarded by the tens of millions of Sabarimala pilgrims who trek, each winter, through more than twenty miles of heavily wooded forest to reach the shrine. A necropsy revealed that a large quantity of plastic had blocked up the animal’s intestines, causing internal bleeding and organ failure. Forest rangers also found a fully in-tact plastic bag in dung nearby.
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“The death of the elephant in Periyar disturbed me a lot”, says Rajeevararu. “The elephant is an important animal for temples”—it is metaphysically connected to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom.
“But it’s not just elephants. Other animals have died as well after eating plastic”, he says. These include deer and birds, according to local environmental non-profit Thanal.
“God is in nature”, Rajeevararu says. “So I consider it our dharma, our duty, to stop using plastic”.
Giving Up Plastic for God
Religious leaders at Sabarimala have been trying to phase out plastic for the past five years. “We are trying our maximum to implement a full ban”, he says, though it hasn’t been easy.
Tens of millions of pilgrims carry with them bottles of water and all manner of snacks, often packaged in plastic, and they tend to tote it all around in plastic bags. There are designated trash disposal points, and for the past several years, a group of volunteers have posted themselves along the Periyar trail to help collect and manage the pilgrims’ waste. But even a couple of hundred wardens are no match for the millions who trek through the forest.
To convince pilgrims to leave their plastic at home this coming winter, Sabarimala has enlisted the help of the state government and local nonprofits to fund and launch a massive public education campaign, spreading the gospel of plastic-free prayer through gurus and other religious leaders across the region.
Thantri Suryakalady is confident that’ll work. “It is very clear that the preachers, astrologers, priests, we’re the ones that will get people to give up plastic”, he says. “For better or worse, people believe in us. They believe in their religious institutions”.
In fact, religious institutions of all creeds in India have joined in the fight against plastic pollution. Notably, the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine for India’s sikhs, in Amritsar, banned plastic carry bags in April.
Across Kerala, churches and mosques have followed suit.
At the Palayam Juma Masjid in Trivandrum, Kerala’s capital city, Imam Suhaib Moulabi says he’s had a pretty easy time getting his community on board. “We believe in life after death: There is hell and there is heaven”, he explains. “I say to my people, if you are polluting the Earth, you have to reply to God’s questions after death. God will ask: Why have you disturbed the Earth?”
And unless they have a good answer, “they risk going to hell”. It’s harsh, but effective, Moulabi says. This year his mosque eliminated all plastic during Ramadan, serving thousands of worshipers iftar meals on reusable plates.
Across the street, St. Joseph’s Cathedral banned plastic during saint day feasts, and wedding ceremonies, starting earlier this year.
“Whether a total ban in these places works or not, they’re daring to make this kind of statement against plastic, and that is very powerful”, says Shibu K. Nair, director of the local environmental group Thanal, which has been consulting with government and religious groups looking to reduce their dependence on plastic. “Believers may hear that messaging in their places of worship, and think about their use at home as well”.
At Aranmula, several worshippers said the temple’s plastic ban has served as a reminder that they need to be more mindful about their habits. “At first it was difficult to remember to bring cloth bags instead of plastic”, says Rajee Nireesh, 34, who was visiting the temple with her mother. “But we are getting used to it”.
Others said they were already trying to avoid single-use plastics at home. Among them is 75-year-old KR Viswananthan, a retired labourer who now likes to spend most of his days meditating, and socializing, at the temple.
“Think about it this way”, he says. “Goddess Earth takes in everything we throw at her, including our feces. But she cannot take in plastic—it just doesn’t decompose. That’s got to tell you something”.