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Documentary ‘Gods in Shackles’ on temple elephants is an eye-opener

Sangita Iyer’s film convincingly makes the argument that the animals belong to the wild.

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.

Sangita Iyer with Lakshmi.
Sangita Iyer with Lakshmi.

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.

What was the reaction to the screening of ‘Gods in Shackles’ in Kerala?
In a historic move, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly screened Gods in Shackles on the Assembly grounds. Sree Ramakrishnan also stated that I’ve raised an important issue, and gathered significant evidence after working on the film for more than three years. He plans to discuss the issue in the assembly when it convenes and I will of course be making a follow up soon. Additionally Gods in Shackles was screened in Trivandrum and Thrissur, Calicut and Kochi. Kerala’s world-renowned veterinary hospital wants to screen it at its Wyanad and Thrissur wings.

‘Gods in Shackles’.
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.


Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.


Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.