"Gods In Shackles" Exposes the Dark Truth about Kerala's Temple Elephants
By Brittany Michelson
At the Los Angeles premier screening of Gods In Shackles, I shifted in my seat.
I had previously heard about the exploitation of elephants at the temples and cultural festivals in Kerala—a state in southern India—but seeing the film footage was much more affecting.
Decorated in ornate gold head pieces, heavy plaques, and gold-plated coverings, with three to four men on their backs, these poor creatures suffer for many hours in the sweltering heat and ongoing cacophony—drums and horns, shouting and cheering, blasting of high decibel fireworks—an assault on their sensitive hearing.
They move steadily forward amidst throngs of people, then form a row in front of the temple where they stand obediently.
After the festivities wind down late at night, the elephants are tethered with chains that create sores from grinding into their skin. Restricted to one spot, they are deprived of sufficient food and water and are granted no freedom or proper rest. To be used for entertainment in the first place, they are torn from their families in the wild and have their sprits broken through extreme abuse so they will submit to human control.
Gods In Shackles reveals a harrowing look at the miserable condition of India’s temple elephants—powerful, intelligent beings reduced to enslaved workers. Ironically, it is the elephant-headed god Ganesh that is worshipped in Hinduism. At first glance, the average onlooker might believe these adorned beings are treated with respect—after all, the elephant is India’s heritage animal. Yet if the onlooker’s eyes travel down to the ground through the colossal crowd, they would see ankles with chains around them and thick skin marked by bleeding, untreated wounds.
Executive Producer and Director Sangita Iyer says, “On one hand you have a nation that worships elephants as the embodiment of Lord Ganesh, and on the other hand they’re torturing and exploiting them for profit under the veil of religion. They justify their exploitation by twisting the meaning of the holy Hindu scriptures.” She also notes that the vast majority of people in India are unaware of the deception. Regarding the ancient Indian text The Bhagavad Gita, Sangita states: “There is not one single scripture that says you’ve got to use elephants to empower people or worship god. This is all concocted by human beings.”
There are around 600 captive elephants in Kerala and elephants are used in two-thirds of the 3,000-plus festivals that take place annually in the city between December and May. The grandest of all the festivals is Thrissur Pooram, which is 36 hours of non-stop celebration and involves around one hundred elephants.
Gods In Shackles offers information about the decline of India’s wild elephants and the impact this is having on the captive elephants, who are rented out and overworked to maximize profit for their owners. There are roughly 26,000 wild elephants in India, which is almost 60 percent of the world’s wild Asian elephant population. Other than a handful of females, it’s male tuskers who are used at the temples, which has resulted in a greatly skewed gender ratio in the wild. Because Indian elephants have been labeled an endangered species, there is actually a ban on their capture, but they are still captured illegally due to layers of bureaucracy and corruption.
While the temple elephant situation is certainly disturbing, the film’s inclusion of periodic commentary by highly regarded figures in India brings viewers an element of hope. The poet laureate, a co-founder of the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, representatives from both the Indian Institute of Science and the Animal Welfare Board, and a well known priest in Kerala all express concern for these elephants and disapproval of their exploitation.
Sangita Iyer is an environmental journalist and independent filmmaker who was born and raised in Kerala and returned to her native land in 2013 to investigate and begin documenting this dark truth she had become aware of. She is a determined animal activist on a mission to “stop the brutal torture of these sensitive, intelligent creatures.” With the launch of her internationally-recognized, multi-award winning film, she has been able to raise public awareness about this critical situation in hopes of creating change for these magnificent animals.
Sangita is showing free screenings in India and wishes to tour around local schools in Kerala to educate the younger generation what’s behind the scenes of the glamorous festivals. At some point she hopes to create a sanctuary for temple elephants to be retired and rehabilitated.
Since attending the Los Angeles premier on June 19th, this deeply affecting film has been on my mind. Perhaps one of the most emotional images was seeing elephants forced to carry the weapons their owners use against them. One carried his chains in his trunk; another carried a bull hook, the sharp headed instrument used to beat him. During peak mating season, bulls become more dominant and their handlers can’t control them as well, so they’re shackled even more severely and starved to deplete their energies. After the three to four month hormonal musth cycle ends, they are heavily beaten by a group of men who believe they have to re-break the elephant’s spirit so he won’t lose the facility to obey commands.
Although I had known to some degree about India’s temple elephants, Gods In Shackles thoroughly educated me about the extensive magnitude of the crisis. Elephants are considered gods in a culture that exploits them. While this is indeed tragic and unjust, Sangita Iyer’s highly dedicated and passionate efforts are giving India’s heritage animal a fighting chance at change.