Known for being intelligent and sensitive, elephants are social animals that will greet each other and display affection towards members of their herd. These magnificent creatures are strong and loyal, and though they will protect their herd from potential dangers, they can also be incredibly gentle. Habitat loss and poaching have threatened elephants in many parts of the world, but there are other human-caused actions that threaten and exploit this incredible and majestic animal.
In the documentary Gods in Shackles, director and producer Sangita Iyer uncovers the horrific abuse and torture of temple elephants in Kerala, India. It’s estimated that there are around 600 captive elephants in Kerala, and many are used by temples as part of the Hindu festivals that occur between December and May.
Entire communities partake in the festivities, where elephants are paraded around the temple and through the streets. The elephant is India’s heritage animal, and those who lead the festivals believe that using live animals is part of the culture and honors the gods. But as the film shows, behind the bright colors and festive attire lies a horrible truth of torture and neglect.
Animals Are Exploited in the Name of Tradition
During the festivals, elephants are adorned with enormous golden headpieces and colorful decorations. Through scorching heat, they’re forced to walk down crowded streets with up to four men riding on their back, slowly dragging their heavily shackled feet along the hot pavement as they’re prodded with sharp poles to keep them moving.
During one festival, Thrissur Pooram, the elephants are paraded around for 36 hours, with only a few short breaks for food and hydration. After an exhausting day in the heat, they’re forced to endure loud fireworks as the festival continues into the night. During the Umbrella Ceremony, elephants are placed in rows as men holding umbrellas stand on their backs and perform in front of cheering crowds.
Elephants are often rented out to other temples, and they will sometimes participate in up to three festivals per day. They’re given little time to rest between events, and they are forced to stand with shackles restricting their movement as people crowd around them and the sound of loud music fills the air. Highly sensitive to noise, the overwhelming atmosphere causes such distress that elephants sometimes bolt, destroying everything in their path and injuring people in the process.
In 2015, there were 3,082 incidents where elephants ran loose during a festival or event — between 2012 and 2015, these incidents resulted in the deaths of 73 people and 167 elephants. This behavior causes people to fear elephants and is used to justify the methods used to control them, but the reality is these actions are purely the result of an overwhelming and abusive environment.
A Life of Unimaginable Abuse and Suffering
Temple elephants spend their entire lives in chains that are sometimes so short they can hardly move. They receive just enough food and water to keep them alive, and to keep the elephants “trained,” handlers shock them and repeatedly hit their bodies with long poles and bullhooks.
“Over the last three years, more than 150 captive elephants have died due to torture and neglect.”
The beatings result in ripped ears and skin injuries, only adding to the pain caused by wounds from the shackles wound tightly around their ankles. In one horrific case, an elephant’s eye was injured by a bullhook, causing a painful injury that will likely result in blindness. And one young elephant was beaten so severely, he died a few days later.
Physically and mentally broken, the elephants spend their days swaying back and forth — a result of stress caused by a lack of movement and socialization. There’s no mercy, even for elephants that are elderly, blind, or injured. And this horrific cycle of abuse continues day after day, until they succumb to injury or illness, or are killed.
Working to Save the Temple Elephants
Conservationists and advocates in India are working hard to stop the illegal trafficking of elephants for entertainment. In 2015, the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center launched a case against states that use captive elephants and those who own them illegally. The local government granted amnesty to the owners, but the Supreme Court, in a case that remains ongoing, directed the amnesty to be withdrawn.
They’re also working to spread awareness about the abuse that occurs behind the festivals, and Iyer hopes that her documentary will help people understand that you can honor elephants and culture without keeping animals captive and forcing them to perform. The efforts have also led some Hindu priests to urge people to end the use of live elephants at temples, and an emphasis is being placed on activities that involve traditional human entertainment acts instead.
They know that changing traditions and beliefs takes time, but by educating people and encouraging them to seek other methods of entertainment, there will hopefully be a day where all of the elephants will be living the happy and free lives they deserve.
Watch Gods in Shackles, here.
All images source: Gods in Shackles/Facebook