Sangita Iyer’s investigative documentary Gods in Shackles takes on one of Kerala’s sacred cows – the captive elephant that is pressed into service for ceremonies and festivals at several of the state’s temples. The Canadian filmmaker sets most of the documentary in Thrissur, where the annual Thrissurpooram temple festival sees one of the most spectacular pachyderm parades in the world. In this “epicenter of the elephant entertainment industry”, as Iyer labels it, she finds compelling evidence of cruelty and neglect. Limbs are damaged, eyes blinded, and mental faculties disturbed as the mostly male elephants strain against their shackles. The taming and training methods often involve force and sharp instruments, and instances of elephants running amok are frequently reported.
Iyer uncovers the economic imperatives that drive temples to purchase and maintain these huge beasts as well as the complex and often contradictory relationship between mahouts and elephants. The film includes the stories of Lakshmi, a female at the Thiruvambaadi temple in Thrissur, and Sunder, the elephant that was rescued after being abused by its mahout from a temple in Kolhapur and moved to Banerghetta National Park.
You say in the documentary that your encounter with the elephant Lakshmi sparked off your interest in the subject. I met Lakshmi in December 2013 during my visits to Kerala’s temples. She belongs to the famous Thiruvambaadi temple, and we bonded on a deep level. She evoked emotions that I had suppressed. Lakshmi is one of the rare female elephants used in Kerala’s temples, because mostly bull elephants are used. She is the epitome of female subjugation in a patriarchal society. I watched this enormous animal with so much strength and power surrendering to her puny mahouts, having forgotten her own true potential. I had an epiphany of sorts. Growing up in a Brahmin family I was subjected to many restrictions and didn’t have the freedom to realise my innate potential until I moved to Canada.
Did you face obstacles or opposition during the shoot? We filmed in the public, mostly Thrissurpooram where thousands of people gathered to celebrate the annual festival. I was introduced to most people through acquaintances and I requested for access to film in Thiruvambaadi temple in Thrissur. They were actually quite friendly and I was upfront with them explaining that I was producing a documentary about the use of elephants in temples and festivals. My camera was quite inconspicuous and small, whereas my cameraman had the entire gear that we used at the Thrissurpooram and when we filmed Lakshmi.
The more footage we gathered, the more I realised that there’s so much more behind the glitz and glamour. I discovered stark paradoxes – they were worshiping the same animal they tortured, culture had become commerce. When I interviewed the elephant owner Mr Sundar Menon, I asked him that if he genuinely loved elephants, shouldn’t he release them in the wild and allow them to roam freely? They didn’t deny access at that time because I didn’t know the direction I was taking for the story plot. It evolved over a period of 18 months of filming various elephants and gathering footage as never seen before
What will it take for temples to stop using elephants for entertainment? Stringent rules, harsher penalties, and most importantly, enforcing the existing laws. The Kerala public would have to take a bold stance and boycott festivals where elephants are used. Perhaps a global outcry is needed. And sadly it will take many tragedies before people learn their lessons. But I feel optimistic because the new government seems to be more open to bringing forth much needed changes. The Forest Minister of Kerala announced just after a month of taking office that the government is considering banning elephants and fireworks in festivals. Now he has to live up to his words.