Canada-based filmmaker Sangita Iyer’s award-winning documentary Gods in Shackles highlights the plight of temple elephants
The dark night still covers the sky, but the day has begun for Lakshmi, as she is woken up for a bath in the neighbouring tank filled with contaminated water. Scrubbed by her mahout, she is fed leftover rice before being taken to the Thrissur temple in her shackles, where she is followed by pilgrims during the ritualistic rounds around the sanctum. There is no freedom during the afternoon break either. She lives in constant fear of severe punishment, involving hours of torture and starvation.
“I kept thinking, what could have taken your power away? What could have broken your spirit so much? You are so strong and huge, why are you not retaliating?” says Sangita Iyer. The Canada-based filmmaker has spent days with Lakshmi. She is among the handful of female temple elephants in Kerala, and features in Iyer’s documentary Gods in Shackles. The film brings out the paradox of worshipping elephants as the embodiment of Lord Ganesh, and using the veil of religion to torture and exploit them. “It’s shocking to see how people get so lost in revelry that they just don’t see the bleeding, wounded elephants in front of them. Blinded, bruised and tortured by their mahouts, they are forced to walk around the temple during the festivities, and bow down with the heavy plaque with three or four men seated on top,” says Iyer.
Born and raised in Kerala, the environmental journalist and independent documentary filmmaker goes behind the grandeur of the ornately decorated elephants paraded in the state during the festivities, to showcase the miserable lives they lead in the temple courtyards where they are held captive. She tells their story through four celebrity elephants, including Lakshmi, whom she and her crew closely observed in 2014-15.
Also among them is Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, who inaugurates the Thrissur Pooram. “He has killed more than 20 people,” notes Iyer. There is also a reference to Guruvayur Arjunan, who was beaten to death earlier this year because of Katti Adikkai — continuously beating elephants with weapons such as bull hook and long poles that have pointed metal spikes to shatter their spirit and reduce their energy during the musth period, when the elephants experience a surge of hormones and thereby become aggressive. “It is the cruelest of rituals. Seven to eight men get drunk and beat the living daylights out of the elephant,” says Iyer. The numbers are staggering.
The filmmaker notes that Kerala has around 600 captive elephants. Between 2012 and 2015, 175 died and this year, eight have lost their lives, including a temple elephant named Keshavankutty. Iyer recalls he suffered from pulmonary disease and digestive disorders. Denied a proper diet and veterinary care, he was seen eating sand two days before he collapsed and died. In the film, she interviews one of Kerala’s most revered priests, Akkeramon Kalidasan Bhattathiripad, poet laureate Sugadha Kumari and world renowned elephant scientist Raman Sukumar, all of whom speak against the brutalities inflicted upon the temple elephants.
While Iyer brings forward their plight, she also touches upon the illegalities and the trade. Earlier this year, the Kerala government discovered more than 289 elephants without ownership certificates. It almost granted the owners amnesty, but that was rejected by the Supreme Court. Often rented to maximise the money made by their owners, their very journey to Kerala, where they are often smuggled from the the wild, is illegal. “The elephants in Kerala are often transported illegally from places like Assam or Bihar. The Wildlife Protection Act clearly says that no wild elephants can be transported between states. Neither the central nor state governments are doing anything about it because there are so many layers of bureaucracy and corruption,” says Iyer.
Nominated at the United Nations & Jacksonhole Film Festival in New York in March, the film has won six international film festival awards, including the Los Angeles Cinefest Award and Golden Award at the World Documentary Awards, and was recently screened at the Legislative Assembly of Kerala.
“Maybe, the film will manage to bring about a change,” says Iyer. She depicts hope in Sunder — a 13-year-old elephant kept in captivity for seven years at a temple in the Kolhapur district before he was released into the Bannerghatta Biological Park in Karnataka in 2014.
The film will be screened today at PVR Rivoli, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, at 4 pm