I post this after being absolutely disheartened watching a documentary titled Gods in Shackles yesterday at C.P. Ramaswami Foundation, Chennai. While on the outset, the documentary is brilliant for the activists who advocate release of elephants into sanctuaries, for someone who has grown up with elephants, and is really passionate about the animal, the associated culture and tradition, this is a clear sham. Because those passionate think about the issues more practically and endorse reforms to be built, and not an overnight ban. While the documentary beautifully covers the negative side of the festivals, it has failed miserably to cover the essence of Kerala, its rich and old tradition, the erstwhile elephant management practices, which are(were) supposedly the best in India. Now don't argue saying it is all cooked up. We have evidences on this dating back to centuries, even from the days of Sangam Literature. And this opens up the floor for debates on whether the filmmaker has ulterior motives and in fact, gives enough evidence in support of the same.
There is a lot of negative attention on temples and their tradition, but sadly even though there are elephants paraded in churches and mosques (quite rampantly mushrooming, rather) in an equal number to the temples, no mention of the same is seen in the documentary. Ms. Sangita also mentioned this during the after screening Q&A session that she wanted to specifically keep it to tradition and culture. Maybe there lies the reason for such a documentary. She even passes a statement asking people to boycott temples. What is she trying to tell the world, that the temples in Kerala are torture chambers? The way she portrays world famous (infamous as per the documentary) Guruvayoor Temple is way beyond acceptance to any devout Hindu.
Incidentally she claims to be a devout Hindu herself. I really did not know how, for a lady who has lived all her life in Canada (that’s what we are to understand) can just one fine evening in 2013 decide to do a documentary on the plight of domesticated elephants in Kerala. It was filled it with half-truths and bitter lies. On the whole, this looks nothing but an attack on Hindu Temples, the traditions and the culture. For a person who has hardly lived in Kerala, seen elephants and elephant management practices in Kerala, who does not understand the essence of a centuries-old association, more research and a balanced story line would have made it appealing to the larger masses; this is just for the activists and is a really slapdash work! Now tell me your outreach is great -- I tell you, that lies cannot remain uncovered for a long time.
From the looks, the director purposefully has not scripted a balanced thread and made a piece which is appealing to the activists. While the elephant owners in Kerala are to be blamed for lackadaisical management and brokers who mint money for making this passion into a “trade” or an “industry”, it seems the activists are using this opportunity to make their share of money, which would be much more than what owners and brokers make.
Kerala had a golden era. Elephants were part of the family, mahouts and elephants shared father-son bonding. It’s only in the turn of the century, when more and more temples, churches and mosques, started using elephants in small and large numbers for festivals and created a “demand” for elephants in Kerala. More elephants were brought in from neighbouring states, and even from North and North-eastern states as capture was banned across India in 1970s. Due to the exponential growth in festivals and sudden inflow of elephants in large numbers, there created a vacuum of “quality mahouts”. Mahoutry is an art, also more of a science, which was passed on from father-son, guru-shishya. In the old school mahoutry, the “ankush” is rarely used; in rare cases of self-defence, in event of the animal turning on the mahout or to save life of another. It takes years to learn and be a good mahout.
Typically one would start by being the assistant mahout and do the odd jobs of cleaning the tethering site, clean the chains, tie the food, feed the animals at regular intervals and do on-the-job training with the Guru for close to a decade before becoming a head mahout oneself. For a trainee/assistant mahout both the elephant and the head mahout are gurus. Kerala had the finest of mahouts who could control an elephant with his look and just his index finger. The sudden rise in the “trade” led to dilution of the same and like we Indians accepted the “bad” side of western civilization, the mahouts resorted to using brute force, drugs and alcohol to control the animals. These are facts, which someone who has lived with, seen, worked or even observed elephants in Kerala can easily understand. Maybe the Western ideologies of the filmmaker overlooked it. There are still mahouts who follow the erstwhile tradition.
There has been a steady erosion, we agree, but why does the film not even attempt to peek into those aspects. The writer-director has not even bothered to touch these subjects, but she is bent on showing chains on the legs and the wounds on the animals alone. There is not even a mention, of how it was, how it is and how it became so and what are the contributing factors. There are, but just so called “undercover” footages, most of which have been circulating in YouTube for ages. Mind you, not every animal has a wound, this is not a slaughter house that we have here in Kerala, where all the animals has to be necessarily tortured and killed.
A major part of the documentary unfolds in Thrissur and revolves around Thrissur Pooram, Thiruvambady temple and their elephant Lakshmi and Siva Sundar (wrongly called Siva Sundaram, as per Ms. Iyer, which again proves that she has not done her home work well). For someone who knows what Pooram and Thrissur is, we can easily guess what she is getting at. Especially after the Q&A, one feels that she is prejudiced. Again from a recent post in her Facebook page, Voice for Asian Elephants, she had mentioned about Lakshmi getting the company of the 3 female elephants brought from the Kanchi Mutt to a “rehab centre “at Marakkanam, Chennai.
The later part of the documentary throws light on Sundar, an elephant which PETA had confiscated from (the infamous as per the director) Jyotiba temple, in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. She tries to narrate how he was suffering and how he is at a rehab centre in Karnataka. The part on Sundar is just an eyewash, just to bring everybody’s attention to rehab centres, which if we think, is their major aim. There are millions of Dollars received in the name of these rehab centers. There is a mention of “shackle-less” Sundar at the facility, but you can clearly see the short chain and/or the drag chain in the fore limbs. Clearly an eye wash, here again, when there is a mention of Sundar’s mahouts using no weapon, you can see a mahout approaching him with a stick. Now for the information of larger audience, Sundar is housed at a Forest Department camp at Bannerghatta National Park and he still has short chain and drag chains on his forelegs. The mahouts also use sticks, but maybe he is having a better life, but it’s still not shackle free as she narrates.
Another thing that I am pondering over and over, since the screening is regarding the certification of the film. The date as per the certificate is 22-02-2016, while the film claims to have footages from April, May and June 2016. Has the same been edited after receiving the certificate? Is it legal? To the best of my knowledge, the frames can be deleted but if some things are added, shouldn’t it be certified again? Well, if someone can distort facts, pick and choose only negatives of a system and make a “brilliant” documentary, may be YES! They might not need to re-certify!
One thing that seems to be obvious from the screening is that organizations like AWBI and WRRC are actively involved in the calculated “character assassination” of Kerala. This is a clear case of what we say “fishing in troubled waters”. All the parties are just using this to their advantage and probably making Money. Dr. S. Chinni Krishna, Vice Chairman of AWBI, during the Q&A session had mentioned that the AWBI representatives, (Dr Rakesh Chittora, Mr Suni Havaldar, Mr M N Jayachandran and Ms Preethi Sreevalsan, as we know from the report) were not allowed to inspect elephants during Thrissur Pooram 2016.
Surprisingly the fact remains that on the within days of the Pooram, PETA published the report submitted by the four representatives of AWBI in their website. If they were not allowed to observe, how did they write a so-called comprehensive report? Was the report already made before Pooram? What were the qualifications of these individuals? What right does PETA have to publish? Who gave it to PETA? Thanks to Right to Information Act 2005, we obtained details of Pooram inspection from AWBI and it turns out that Dr. Boon Alwin, a vet from Anna Zoological Park Chennai and Mr Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, a PhD scholar on elephants, from IISC Bangalore, were also two authorized representatives of AWBI at the Thrissur Pooram in 2016.
According to the report submitted to the Board by Mr Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan (obtained through RTI No. 25-45/2016-17/RTI), Dr. Boon had an emergency and couldn’t attend the function but Mr Sreedhar had covered the whole festival and inspected individual elephants, and has given a pragmatic report, in comparison to the illogical and biased report given by the other four individuals, wherein the keyword all over is torture and violation. While Dr. S Chinny Krishna and Mr Vinod Kumar spoke about Pooram vehemently during the discussion after the documentary screening, it has to be noted neither of them mentioned about this report during the discussion. Why does AWBI want to hide this report, which a person authorized by them had submitted? The objective is unknown, but there is a certain mission to target the culture and tradition of Kerala, or perhaps even India as we have had similar cases with Jallikattu ban in TN. Social media is quite vocal about the double standards and ulterior motive of such organizations.
During the course of the whole event, there were references for elephants being used for begging in Kerala. Are they really that ignorant? Such a custom is unheard-of and is not prevalent in Kerala. Why don’t they really study the real issue in hand? What is preventing them from doing that? Why can’t they regulate the festivals? Why don’t they stop the usage of elephants in non-religious functions? Why don’t they think of a gradual phase out of elephants? Why can’t a festival / celebration without 20-25 years of history be prevented from using elephants? This would ensure the animals receive ample rest and are given proper care. Unlike the west, India boasts of a rich tradition and culture, which the authorities are seemingly bent on destroying. The culture, tradition has to carry on. We cannot afford to lose it. We have already lost a better part of it, spare the rest. Allow it to continue in a controlled environment.
Even if they want to ban use of elephants in festivals, what will be the plight of the poor souls? Can all the 600 odd be taken back by the governments, from whom the owners have at some point in time bought it? Why should an NGO take care of it? They can certainly not be sent back to the wild. They are not completely wild! They will become crop raiders. Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, are already facing issues of fragment forests, loss of habitat and elephant corridors and serious Human elephant conflicts, resulting in loss of lives either side. Moreover Kerala has a highly skewed male-biased population. It is clear that none of these activist bunch have any idea, whatsoever about elephant biology, or behaviour or the nuances associated with their management.
Rehab centres across the world do not have such large numbers of male elephants. Unlike the females, the males are more solitary, especially after a certain age and also become uncontrollable during must.
To sum up, the activists who are shedding crocodile tears on the domesticated elephants seldom see the plight of their wild cousins nor the pitiful condition of the poor animals that are slaughtered daily in thousands in India. They say, the elephants are denied of their basic instinct to mate. Are the foreign labs allowing bulls in India to mate? Why are the authorities preaching artificial insemination of cows and denying the bulls their right? What is the plight of the broiler chickens grown in the poultry farms? Let alone the farms, the way they are transported to butcher shops in cramped cages. Are the chicken given their due right? All of them are impregnated artificially, injected hormones to grow faster? No matter whether it is an elephant, a duck, a frog, a cow, a chicken or a tiger for that matter any animal or bird, the treatment has to be similar, there has to be certain bit of parity, compassion should be equal, if that is the goal. The palatable animals are always given a partial treatment. Is it because there is no money in fighting for them and there are countless dollars at stake? May god bless them!
P.S. On closer inquiry, with a few friends in Thiruvambadi, I came to know that Ms. Sangita came and met the officials of Thiruvambadi in the guise of documenting culture of Kerala and shot all the footage and it was all after obtaining due consent and not undercover stuff as she claims. Moreover Mr. Gopalan, the Mahout was forced to administer the drug in Lakshmi's eyes by Ms. Sangita who later portrayed it as an utter brutal practice. I don't know what to say about people like this, I am just totally disheartened.
The copy of the report we received through RTI is here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B0AhvZeLtPc0V0tzS29BN2ZmcTQ , the other report can be downloaded from http://www.petaindia.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/AWBI-INSPECTION-REPORT-ON-THRISSUR-POORAM-2016_23.04.2016.pdf