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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.

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‘Gods in Shackles’.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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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.