Tortured in temples

Tortured in temples

As a child, Sangita Iyer used to go with her grandparents to their family temple in Kerala’s Alathur village which is in Palakkad. It was where she developed a deep bond with the temple’s elephants. Then she moved to Canada, but carried along the memory of these majestic animals tied in chains. It was in December 2013, during one of her home visits, when she was devastated to witness the sad state of these elephants in temples. “There were tumours in their hips, raw bleeding wounds on their legs and tears streaming down their faces. They were deprived of food and water, and still paraded beneath the scorching sun,” recollects Iyer, who has been a video journalist for over 17 years.

“When I returned to Toronto, I was haunted by the painful expressions on their helpless faces. And I knew I had to do something,” she adds.

This is how the concept of Gods in Shackles developed, and to film the voice of these voiceless animals, she returned with her camera crew to cover annual Thrissur Pooram festival in 2014. “I was disheartened to see how people were rejoicing and partying and the poor elephants were standing shackled beneath the blistering sun,” she recalls.

“The narrative emerged as I shot more than 100 hours of footage during our first visit. But I returned to Kerala around eight times to gather footage to corroborate with my findings, and that helped connect the dots,” she adds.

The 92-minute documentary unfolds against a backdrop in Kerala, Kolhapur and Bangalore. It has won six international film festival awards. The narrative follows the lives of four elephants for a year — three male festival elephants, and one female temple elephant, Lakshmi.  A fifth male elephant, Sundar, whose rescue from a temple in Kolhapur had made international headlines, has also been featured.

“I chose Sundar’s story as it empowers people, and gives hope to thousands of temple elephants across Asia. We’ve covered his story from capture to torture, and finally, his release into a wildlife sanctuary,” she tells Metrolife.

“The ultimate goal of the film is to unshackle the gods in shackles, and give a bright future to India’s heritage animal that are being captured illegally from the wild, torn from their families and exploited for profit under the guise of culture and religion,” she adds.

More than 12 experts are featured in the documentary, including elephant veterinarians, and scientists to provide a balanced perspective. She has also interviewed elephant owners and handlers. But temple authorities weren’t keen to participate. “I spoke with the Thriruvambadi temple authorities, and offered to help them understand the science of elephants. But they bluntly rejected my proposition, without even considering a discussion. Last week, I had a conversation with one of the members of the Cochin Devaswom board, a socio-religious trust, and he argued that they look after their elephants well, and justified that the living conditions in captivity is better than the wild,” she says.

“Their approach seems to be that it’s best to deny and justify than accept reality. There are groups of people who are wilfully blind, while the vast majority is unaware of the harsh realities of these festival and temple elephants,” she adds.

Iyer hopes that the documentary is able to inform and sensitise people around these gentle giants who, according to her, are being misunderstood for their sheer size and strength. “The documentary ends with a sad story about the plight of an elephant that was intentionally blinded. It was caused by sheer ignorance and arrogance that drives the mahouts to inflict barbaric torture and instil fear in the minds of these elephants,” she says.

“Gods in Shackles” will be screened at PVR Rivoli on July 16.