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All for Lakshmi

Sangita Iyer with Lakshmi in a still from Gods in Shackles .  

A powerful feature-length documentary, Gods In Shackles , brings viewers face to face with several uncomfortable truths about how as a society we perceive animals and treat them. Sangita Iyer’s 92-minute film explores the use of Asian elephants in India’s cultural and religious festivals by following elephants highlighting how unsuitable they are for such activities.

As the producer, director, co-writer and narrator of the film, Iyer was deeply disturbed by what she saw while visiting temples in Kerala in 2013. “I was shocked and devastated to find many of the temple elephants being paraded in the scorching heat and confined places were blind, bleeding from their raw wounds and having massive tumours.”

The wounds inflicted on them especially on their feet in the name of discipline are heart-wrenching as are the tightly wound sharp and heavy chains around their feet. The tools used for taming them — metal capped long poles, sticks with spikes, ankush, the bulled hook — are the reason for ripped ears.

Confined living quarters, lack of hygienic conditions, inadequate food and rest periods, and the absence of medical facilities aggravate their pathetic condition. The worst is the high-decibel fireworks the animals have to suffer through during parades.

Disturbed by these images, Iyer wondered as “to how an animal that embodies Lord Ganesha and is part of Indian heritage can be treated with utter disrespect”. Iyer was inspired to take action, and it was her interaction with Lakshmi, the only female temple elephant, that spurred the film.

“We made an instant and special connect,” says the filmmaker. “Watching such a majestic creature with immense strength subdued reminded me of Indian women who had been subjugated in the patriarchal system.” This deep relationship between the two comes forth on screen when Iyer is seen feeding and bathing Lakshmi.

The film debunks the view that the use of elephants for temple festivals is part of religion. According to Iyer, not a single Hindu scripture mentions the use of elephants to carry idols, the waving of umbrellas or carrying passengers as done in the processions. “I have studied the religious texts and nowhere is there a reference to such practices,” she says. “In fact, Isha Upanishad states that humans are not above animals thereby emphasising that we must take care of them,” says Iyer. She adds that King Sakthan Thampuran of Cochin had introduced elephants to carry the deities. “With many barred from entering temples, he saw it as a means to allow them to have a glimpse of the idols.”

Lending weight to the thought are observations and comments by several notable personalities like Sugathakumari, poet and activist; Suparna Ganguly, co-founder of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre; Dr. Raman Sukumar, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; and Vinod Kumar, member, Animal Welfare Board of India. Sugathakumari, especially, condones the practice saying it is wrong to call an elephant savage when it attacks people, since the tortured being needs an outlet to vent its pain and rage.


Buoyed by the screening of the film in the Kerala Legislative Assembly, the director is hopeful that it will educate and create awareness among people and policy makers, making them take a positive step in eradicating this practice. “As a society we need to take a collective step to ensure that our record of animal welfare is not blotched.” But Iyer knows it will be a long haul as the State is reluctant to interfere where religious sentiments of the people are involved.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 9:19:14 PM |

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