8 – Temples, Elephants and Traditions – B.R. Haran

Sangita Iyer and Digby Cook are the director and writer for the film 'Gods In Shakles

B.R. HaranThe documentary Gods in Shackles is full of negativity and the makers have not attempted to show anything positive about temple traditions. It appears as though the film was made with an intention to end the use of elephants in temples. – B. R. Haran

Traditionalists, devaswoms and a section of devotees are of the opinion that elephants are a part of temple tradition and that some foreign forces which are inimical to Hindu traditions are campaigning for the removal of elephants from temples in the name of animal rights. As they have pointed towards the widely spread article by Liz Jones (seen in the last instalment) and the rebuttals given by Prem Panicker, Kalyan Varma and Sridhar Vijaykrishnan.

Unidentified Elephant Subsequent to Jones’s article, a documentary titled Gods in Shackles was released by one Sangita Iyer from Canada. Though the professionally well made documentary spoke in detail about the cruelty and abuse heaped on captive elephants in Kerala temples, the tone and tenor of the film sounded as if it was against temples and their traditions.

Sangita Iyer, a native of Kerala, lives in Toronto as a Canadian citizen. She has a MA degree in Environmental Science and a PGD in Journalism, and has been working as a media person in the field of environmental science since 1999. She has worked for American Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System and Discovery Channel. At present she is a columnist for Huffington Post and an independent photo journalist and a documentary maker.

Sangita Iyer came to India for her father’s death anniversary. During the trip a friend took her to some temples, where she saw the sufferings of elephants, which resulted in the documentary “Gods in Shackles”. Recently she gave an interview to Christina Russo for National Geographic, published on 25 May 2016. Some excerpts:

• When I returned to Toronto, my friend said he’d send me materials about the temple elephants. At first I was excited. I thought the information was going to be amazing, but it was shocking—I was shattered like a broken glass.

• So I saved up every penny I could … and returned to Kerala in December 2013. My friend took me to temple after temple after temple. I was horrified. Every elephant I saw—these majestic male tuskers—were completely enslaved. They’d surrendered to these puny human beings.

• During festivities the elephants are forced to walk around the temple three times and then brought before the altar, or in front of the temple. Then they’re forced to bow down…. When they bow down, a heavy plaque is put on them. Altogether, the elephants carry about 500 pounds on their delicate spine. (in a fund-raising initiative at INDIEGOGO, Iyer says, “There are over 3000 festivities in Kerala between December and May, most of them displaying ornate elephants. They are forced to carry more than 1000 kg of weight on their back, including the deity, ornaments, massive chains, and 3-4 men…)

• Between December and May there are hundreds of festivities based on the Hindu astrological calendar, culminating in the Thrissur Pooram. The elephants are trucked in absolutely precarious conditions and within a day transported to two or three festivities. The more the elephants participate, the more the owners are paid. For example, at 8 a.m. an elephant will be at one temple, then at 11 he’ll be at another, then at 3 p.m. he’ll be trucked to another. In the process the elephants are deprived of basic necessities of life.

• It’s a 36-hour nonstop festivity that starts at 10 a.m. The chikkottukavu Ramachandran is the star who inaugurates the ceremony. He’s actually killed more than 20 people and three other elephants, but he’s still used. (In one of her earlier articles in Huffington Post, 8 November 2015 she had written, “But Ramachandran also has a dark side. He has killed a total of ten people since 1988, and has been banned from festival processions.” (Reference)

Unidentified Elephant • During Thrissur Pooram, about 95 bull elephants are trucked in from various parts of Kerala and convene in the heart of Thrissur town. They’re then paraded in the streets for 36 hours nonstop under the scorching sun, on hot tar roads, and only intermittently given food and water. At night they’re still paraded. The whole time, three or four men are mounted on their backs, and the elephants are heavily shackled on their legs. Meanwhile, people are standing near them in close proximity—it’s chaotic, absolutely insane. It’s a sea of people that you can see for miles on end. Then at night they shoot off fireworks. I’ll never forget watching an old blind bull who was shackled beneath a makeshift temple, and only 300 yards away they were blowing off these high-decibel fireworks. The noise was so loud it shattered the roof of the temple. (In the fund raising initiative, she says, “This video still shot portrays the world famous festival “Trissur Pooram,” as millions of people, mostly drunk, are dancing and singing in such close proximity to the elephants.”) (Reference)

• Hindus, Christians, and Muslims—all use elephants. But it originated in Hindu temples; other religions followed suit because they didn’t want to be left behind. But nothing in Hindu scriptures says that elephants are needed in these festivities. (She preferred not to show any Christian or Muslim festivals in her film, and emphasises that elephants are tortured in Hindu temples in the name of culture and tradition.)

• The elephants are owned by private citizens as well as temples. The way the temples come to own them is when a group of devotees or one devotee makes an offering (donation) to the temple. But these elephants frequently come illegally from the wild. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 states that elephants are Schedule 1 animals and should be provided absolute protection. The elephants in Kerala are often transported illegally from places like Assam or Bihar—the law clearly says that no wild elephants can be transported between states. Neither the Central nor State Governments are doing anything at all about it because there are so many layers of bureaucracy and corruption. So you have the individual elephant owners, temples that own elephants, temples that don’t own elephants, and then a broker in between who will liaise and coordinate what elephants will go to which festivals so they can generate as much revenue as possible.

• When the elephants run amok, they’re captured and tortured. They’ll be inflicted with the worst form of barbaric torture, using the worst form of prohibited weapons to discipline them. We have lots of undercover footage in the film that exposes this brutality.

•  The musth period goes on for three to four months in bull elephants. [Musth is when bulls experience a surge of hormones and become very aggressive.] In the wild they wander for miles on end, and that’s how they burn their energy. In captivity they’re shackled even more severely—both rear legs and at least one front leg. Their owners also starve them to intentionally deplete their energies. When the elephants come out of musth, the mahouts believe the elephants have forgotten their commands. So seven or eight men usually beat the living daylights out of the animal for 48 to 72 hours. They use weapons like the bull hook and long poles that have pointed metal spikes on the ends. The wounds previously mentioned when the writer first saw elephants at the temples in 2013 are from the katti adikkai. They’re beaten continuously to shatter the animals’ spirits—and every year, every single captive bull elephant in Kerala endures this.

•  Owning elephants has been illegal, and regulations go as far back as 1879 with the Elephants Preservation Act. In the past few decades, illegal activities have intensified because Asian elephants have become an endangered species. With depleting supplies, demand has increased dramatically, despite the fact that these iconic animals are India’s heritage animal. These intelligent, sensitive animals are captured, trained, and exploited for profit. Just in March 2016 the Kerala State Government discovered more than 289 elephants without ownership certificates, but granted the owners amnesty. This has been rejected by the Supreme Court of India [article deleted].

• Many prominent Hindu priests are speaking out against the brutality inflicted upon temple elephants. Many temples in Kerala are realizing the devastation for both humans and elephants and have begun to use chariots instead.

• We filmed Lakshmi to feature a day in the life of a temple elephant. Every day, she’s woken at her owner’s home at 4 a.m. Her mahout brushes her and bathes her in a tank with contaminated, stagnant water. Then she’s given just a scoop of leftover rice. She’s then taken to the temple in shackles—her only exercise. She performs her rituals at 7:30 a.m., then again at 9:30 and does her circuit rounds with pilgrims following her. She’s then taken home and shackled between 12 and 4 p.m. She’s taken back to the temple for her evening rituals at 6:30 and 7:30. Then she’s shackled again at her owner’s home.

• First of all she’s (Lakshmi) a female. Watching her shackled and tortured … in front of my eyes, I was reminded of my own cultural confinements and so many restrictions. Women are subjugated—they don’t have the same kinds of rights in India. I was born and raised in Kerala in a Brahmin family with strict parents and had no freedom. I came to believe I was inadequate and as a woman could not be successful, and my role is to be subservient. It was only when I moved to my adopted home of Canada that I tasted freedom.

• The paradoxes are stark. On the 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. The vast majority of people in India are unaware of the deception. We’ve received the green light from the Central Board of Film Certification in India [to show the film], and the Indian audience will one day be watching Gods in Shackles, and will decide for themselves the truth. What they decide is to be seen.

While the film was under production in 2015, Sangita Iyer wrote an article on the website www.foodrevolution.org to raise funds. The article also carries a trailer of the documentary.

Screening and Awards

Sangita Iyer had screened her documentary in many places and it won several awards

• Hollywood International Independent Documentary Film Festival Award (2015).

• The IMPACT Docs – Award of Merit (2016)

• Golden Award at the World Documentary Awards. (2016)

• The Los Angeles Cine Fest Award. (December 2015)

• Nominated for the prestigious International Elephant Film Festival (UN, CITES, Jackson Hole Film Festival) – 2015.

This documentary was certified by the Central Board of Film Certification in February 2016. The film was exclusively screened for Members of the Kerala Legislative Assembly on 29 June and subsequently screened for the public in Trivandrum, Thrissur and Calicut in July 2016, as also in Delhi. Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, an animal activist, attended the screening and reportedly gave an assurance that she would arrange for its screening in Parliament and for telecast by Doordarshan.

Gods In ShacklesChennai screening

Gods in Shackles was shown in Chennai on 21 July 2016 at C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer Foundation. Those who attended included poet and animal rights activist Sugatha Kumari; temple priest Akeeramon Kalidasan Bhattathirippad; Heritage Animal Task Force Secretary K. V. Venkitachalam; elephant veterinarian Dr. Jacob V. Cheeran; Professor Dr. Raman Sukumar of Indian Institute of ScienceDr. Chinny Krishna, Vice Chairman, Animal Welfare Board of India; Vinod Kumar, Assistant Secretary, AWBI; government veterinarian Dr. P. B. Giridas; elephant owner Dr. Sundar Menon; festival organizer C. A. Menon; mahouts Venugopal and Muthu; veterinarian Dr. Sanath Krishna who treated elephant Sundar of Jothibai Temple, Kholapur; R. S. Suresh of Karnataka Zoo Authority; Dr. Chaitanya Koduri, Science Policy Advisor for PETA and Suparna Ganguly, co-founder of WRRC, and this writer. Their views can be seen at the God In Shakles trailer.

The film focused on the cruelty and abuse of elephants at Guruvayur Temple, Punnathur Kotta where Guruvayur elephants are sheltered and Thrissur Pooram festival.  It showed the story of Sundar, elephant of Jyothibai temple, Kholapur, Maharashtra. Sanskrit slokas on Bhagwan Ganesha like Vakrathunda Mahaakaaya resound in the background and the Guruvayur Temple surrounding was termed a “resort”.

While the makers of the film refrained from showing anything positive about temple culture and tradition, they repeatedly reiterated that temple elephants are tortured in the name of culture and tradition. The film projects Punnathur Kotta as a place of cruelty where Guruvayur Devaswom elephants are tortured.

The film also covers the story of elephant Lakshmi and her painful ordeal at the hands of mahout Venugopal. It emphasises that Hindu scriptures do not say that elephants are an integral part of temple rituals. Although the film is about captive elephants in temples of Kerala, it shows the sad story of elephant Sundar of Jyothibai temple, Maharashtra, thereby trying to show that elephants are subjected to cruelty at temples across the country.

The documentary is full of negativity and the makers have not attempted to show anything positive about temple traditions. It appears as though the film was made with an intention to end the use of elephants in temples.

Question and Answer Session

After the screening, Sangita Iyer answered questions from viewers. She requested the animal rights activists in the auditorium to focus more on captive elephants in temples. Many viewers said the film was an eye opener for them. When a young female activist asked for her advice for youngsters like her, Sangita promptly said, “Stop going to temples”. When another person objected to this, Iyer pretended she didn’t mean what she said. She replied, “I am also a devout Hindu. Please do not misunderstand me. What I meant was that we should boycott only those temples which have elephants. Only then the temple managements will focus on welfare of their elephants and treat them properly”.

B. R. HaranThis writer took the mike and said, “The owners, mahouts and temple management must be blamed for cruelty and ill-treatment of elephants. Hindu culture and temple traditions must not be cited as reasons for the crime committed by those people. You have not brought out this fact clearly in the film. You are simply blaming Hindu culture and temple traditions for the crime committed by owners, mahouts and managements. The film which presents cruelty along with Sanskrit slokas might create hatred against temple traditions in the minds of viewers. I feel it was deliberately planned in such a way! I feel the name of the documentary also implies the same objective. If removing the elephants completely from temples is your main objective, then we will not allow that to happen. There are indeed solutions to take care of elephants’ welfare as well as to continue the centuries old traditions.”

At this, Sangita and others vociferously objected saying that elephants belong to the forest and there is no question of keeping them in temples. They also felt that there cannot be any equitable solution. With that, the question and answer session was brought to an end.

Two persons, Hari Rama Varma and Ganesh Narayanan from Kerala, came up to me and said, “We agree with your point of view. We cannot afford to put an end to our age-old traditions. We agree that there are problems in Kerala, but we can rectify it. Sangita Iyer has not done a fair research on Kerala’s culture. We will definitely oppose the agenda of removing elephants from temples”.

The documentary is very professionally made and poignantly presented. However, this writer feels that there is more to Liz Jones’s article and Sangita Iyer’s documentary than what meets the eye!

» B. R. Haran is an independent senior journalist in Chennai. This series of articles on Indian elephants will be continued.

Chennai screening of Gods in Shackles

Gods In Shackles

2 Responses

  1. Whatever the dubious motives of Sangita Iyer, Shri Haran’s series on temple elephants show the abuse of elephants. I even read somewhere that in the Sri Rangam temple an elephant was made to dance/walk on 3 legs while the spectators laughed and applauded as if they were watching a circus act.

    The domestication of animals has been there since time immemorial and elephants have been used to clear forests etc. and in ancient times they were used during war.

    That is different from the rank cruelty shown towards these animals in today’s India.

    This is certainly not Vedic dharma and it should be stopped as soon as possible. Mere lip service and talk about looking into the question and reform etc. won’t do.

  2. There is a new video for the Srirangam temple elephant Andal, with whom I spent 2 hours during 2 inspection visits, being forced to hop on three legs to the cheers, laughter and loud cries of people very similar to morons who gather to watch Jallikattu. Because Hindus will do nothing to end the misuse and abuse of temple elephants, Hindus must reconcile themselves to ending the use of elephants in temples. And Hindus must see the shed on which Andal is housed. A forest animal chained inside a concrete shed the size of a garage. Hindus citing customs and tradition must first explain how things have come to this pass. Shooting the messenger is the shortest of shortcuts.

    Here is the Facebook link to the Andal video (you have to log in): https://www.facebook.com/anand.kso/videos/1235518453136851/

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