New Documentary Shows Brutalization of Temple Elephants in India


Each year, from December to May, the Indian state of Kerala witnesses a frenzy of religious ceremonies with millions of believers participating in these festivities that honor an array of gods. At the center of these celebrations are hundreds of captive elephants that are flamboyantly decorated and marched across many houses of worship. However, behind all the pageantry, these elephants are made to endure hell, as Sangita Iyer, director and executive producer of Gods in Shackles, has revealed in her new documentary, which follows the lives of the endangered tuskers. Kerala has as many as 600 captive elephants, the vast majority being males. According to Iyer, these animals are chained, tormented and starved on a daily basis. While 175 elephants were reported dead between 2012 and 2015, this year alone, at least 16 have already lost their lives.


Speaking to Atheist Republic, Iyer described the plight of one such temple elephant. Keshavankutty, who is 55 years old, had been suffering from digestive disorders and pulmonary disease and was still denied a healthy diet and proper veterinary care. That is how he eventually lost his life. Keshavankutty was apparently so starved just two days before his death that his mahout saw him eating sand. For those in charge of Keshavankutty and other temple elephants, this one death came as no surprise.

“Elephants kept for cultural and religious reasons live in perpetual fear of being punished,” explained Suparna Ganguly, president of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center (WRCC) in Bangalore. “They’re nonhuman reminders of the violence and degradation of slavery in the West and bonded labor in the East.”

Ganguly, who has kept a tab on temple elephants for decades, recently had her organization rescue 10 of them. However, those who own these tuskers believe temple elephants play an integral role in Kerala’s religious ceremonies and cultural heritage. Turning a blind eye to the plight of these animals, Elephant Owners Association asked the state government last year to stop worrying about the wellbeing of tuskers and protect their festivals instead.

Gods In Shackles Documentary Trailer from Sangita Iyer on Vimeo.


In a heart-wrenching interview, Iyer, who was born and brought up in Kerala but now lives in Toronto, Canada, spoke of the elephant brutalities she witnessed while making her film, strongly condemning the mistreatment of tuskers in the name of God.

Question: You had not planned to make this documentary until you saw a wild elephant struggle for his life during one of your visits to India. The experience affected you so profoundly that a conservationist friend of yours offered to show you what these elephants are made to endure in your home state. Tell us more about that.

Iyer: When I returned to Toronto from India, my friend said he would send me information about Kerala’s temple elephants. Initially, I was excited because I thought all the material would amaze me but when I received it finally, I was shocked and shattered. That is when I started to save every penny I could to buy a basic camera. When I returned to Kerala in December 2013, my friend accompanied me to temple after temple after temple and what I saw was horrifying. All the elephants I saw were shackled and forced to surrender themselves to the puny, petty human beings around them.

I thought to myself what could have possibly robbed them off their might, what could have broken their spirit to such an extent? I could not fathom why the elephants could not retaliate despite their size and strength. I had already started filming but could barely maintain my calm when I saw the deep wounds on their feet that had been caused by the rusty chains around their legs. They had lesions near their tusks and tumours on their hips. There was no food or water in sight. That is when I learnt those who own the temple elephants deliberately inflict these injuries on them.

Question: How are the elephants used for temple festivities?

Iyer: Kerala has several districts and each district constitutes a number of cities or towns. The cities and towns have innumerable temples, which have different dates for various festivities. These elephants are made to parade outside the temples’ premises where the public gathers to watch the grand spectacle. During certain festivities, the elephants are forced to march around the temple three times before being brought to the altar or the front door, where they must bow down so a heavy plaque can be placed on their back. The plaque along with the three or four men already seated on their back total as much as 500 pounds.

Question: Do the elephants belong to one temple or are they rented and shuffled among many temples?

Iyer: From December to May, there are hundreds of festivities based on the Hindu astrological calendar. All of these come to an end with Thrissur Pooram. For all these occasions and especially on Thrissur Pooram, temple elephants are transported in thoroughly precarious conditions from one festivity to another. Their owners are paid per their engagement in these ceremonies, which is how the tuskers are typically denied their basic necessities.

Question: Why do you mention Thrissur Pooram of all the festivities celebrated in Kerala?

Iyer: Thrissur Pooram is celebrated continually for as long as 36 hours. The elephant Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran is the star of the show as he has been inaugurating the ceremony for many years now. During this celebration, approximately 95 male elephants are brought in from various parts of Kerala to parade in the heart of the town. For 36 hours at a stretch, they are made to march on hot tar roads, under the scorching sun. Only intermittently are they offered food and water but still not allowed to sleep at night. The entire time, people are either seated on their backs or standing around them while they remain shackled. Amidst all this chaos and insanity, the elephants have to bear the deafening sound of firecrackers and loud music.

I remember watching this one blind tusker that was chained below a dilapidated temple. A group of people decided to light fireworks only 300 yards away from him. The crackers produced such loud sounds that the roof of building broke down. I cannot imagine the impact it must have had on the elephant. Elephants are hypersensitive – their feet and trunk can sense even the subtlest seismic vibrations – and this makes them want to flee.

Question: Do only Hindus use these elephants?

Iyer: I am glad you ask. Hindus, Muslims, Christians – they all use these elephants. Even though the ritual started off with Hindu temples, mosques and churches followed suit, as they did not want to be left behind. However, there is no mention in any Hindu scripture of elephants being used for such festivities.

Question: Who owns the tuskers?

Iyer: Private citizens own some of the elephants while temples own the rest. The way in which a temple acquires an elephant is when a devotee makes such an offering. However, all of these elephants are captured illegally from the wild.

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 categorizes elephants as Schedule 1 animals that require complete protection. Yet, they are transported unlawfully from other states such as Assam and Bihar. Even though the law clearly states that no wild elephants should be transported between states, neither the center nor the state does anything to stop this practice because of the many layers of bureaucracy and prevailing corruption.

So there are private citizens that own elephants, temples that own elephants, temples that do not own elephants and brokers in between who decide which elephants will attend which festivals in order to generate maximum revenue.

Question: In your article on Huffington Post, you wrote about one elephant, Vedakkumnathan Ganapathy, who killed his mahout after breaking free from his shackles. He was apparently captured by other handlers after that and tortured in the witness of hundreds of locals. Is this common?

Iyer: It is the same story every time. Whenever an elephant runs amok, he is captured and tortured over and over again. The worst kinds of weapons are used to barbarically torture these animals that are anyway captured illegally and held against their will. There is a lot of footage in my documentary that exposes these brutalities.

Question: During a brutal religious ritual, a 20-year-old elephant, Chitillapilly Rajashekaran was beaten to death earlier this year. You describe this ritual, also known as Katti Adikkai, as the cruelest of all religious rituals that defy all the holy books in the world?

Iyer: Elephants experience musth for three or four months a year. Musth is the period when male elephants feel a surge of hormones that typically makes them behave in an erratic or aggressive manner. Left in the wild, they are free to wander for miles on end, which allows them to drain the excess energy. But in captivity, mahouts shackle them even more severely, often chaining both hind legs and at least one fore leg to the ground. Sometimes, the elephants are intentionally starved so as to deplete them of their energy.

When the period of musth comes to an end, ill-informed mahouts believe their elephants have possibly forgotten all of the previous training. This is however not true, as elephants are known to have very strong memories. Still, a group of seven or eight men often beat the living daylights out of each elephant for 48 to 72 hours with long poles that have metal spikes at the ends or bull hooks even. Remember the wounds I had first seen in December 2013? Those had apparently been inflicted during Katti Adikkai. Such repeated beatings every year cause the animals’ spirit to shatter. All captive elephants in Kerala continue to endure this till date.

Question: Will anybody be punished for these deaths?

Iyer: Obviously not. Owning elephants was criminalized a long time ago, with regulations dating back to 1879, when Elephants Preservation Act was first introduced. However, nothing good has come out of these legislations. In fact, illegal activities in this sphere have only intensified over the past few decades, as Asian elephants are now considered an endangered species. With depleting resources, the demand for elephants has increased all the more, which is why these sensitive, intelligent tuskers continue to be captured, trained and exploited for money unlawfully as well as with impunity. This is even more appalling because elephants are supposed to be one of India’s heritage animals.

Question: Is there nobody in Kerala that condemns this?

Iyer: Some Hindu priests in the state have started to speak out against such brutalities. In fact, I spoke with one of Kerala’s most revered priests, who said this must be stopped immediately. Many temples too have realized the devastation that such rituals are causing not only elephants but also humans. They are now propagating the use of chariots instead.

Question: Are there any female temple elephants and are they treated any differently?

Iyer: In my documentary, we have featured one called Lakshmi. She stays at her owner’s home, where she wakes up at 4 am everyday. After her mahout brushes and bathes her in a tank of stagnant, contaminated water, she barely eats a scoop of rice. She is then escorted to a temple – her only form of physical exercise – where she performs her daily rituals at 7:30 am. At 9:30 am, she does circuit rounds with pilgrims walking behind her. After that, she is taken home at around 4 pm. In the evening she is taken back to the temple for evening rituals between 6:30 and 7:30 pm. In the night she returns home tired, eventually retiring for the day.

Question: Is this all legitimate because it is done in the name of God?

Iyer: It is all such a paradox! On one hand, India is a nation where elephants are considered holy as the embodiment of Lord Ganesha and on the other, they are tortured and exploited for the purpose of profit in the name of religion. All kinds of exploitation in the world are justified by manipulating the Holy Scriptures. While the majority of Indians may be unaware of such brutalities, I am glad our film received the green light from the Central Board of Film Certification, which will make it possible for the audiences to watch “Gods in Shackles” and hopefully raise their voice against such brutalities.

Elephant 2

Days after Iyer spoke with Atheist Republic, her documentary exposing the cruelty against captive temple elephants was screened at Kerala’s Legislative Assembly.

“This is where policies are made so I thought it was best to screen the documentary here in front of the law makers. It is important to make them understand and bring together all the stakeholders and discuss what needs to be done and not done,” said Iyer at the screening on June 29.

Assembly Speaker Sreeramakrishnan reportedly gave the go ahead to screen the documentary for lawmakers but only a few MLAs bothered to turn up. Those who did, assured that the matter would be taken up for discussion at the Legislative Assembly.

“I will be taking up this issue in the Assembly. It is a very important and relevant issue. Things can't change suddenly but slowly we hope to bring some change,” said MLA AN Shamseer while MLA VT Balram said, “It is a well made documentary. It is important that more people become aware of the issue. Not just policy makers but public too.”

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