Interview with Sangita Iyer – Director of Gods In Shackles

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Sangita Iyer is an Award-Winning Journalist, three-time International Award-Winning Nature and Wildlife Film Maker and the Director of documentary film, “Gods in Shackles”.
She has reported and anchored for the ABC/ CBS affiliate in Bermuda, produced Nature and Wildlife reports for the Daily Planet on Discovery Channel Canada, Co-founded the Bermuda Environmental Alliance and is currently a Contributing Writer for The Huffington Post.

Gods in Shackles is a multiple award-winning and United Nations nominated feature-length documentary film revealing the dark side of the southern Indian state of Kerala’s glamorous cultural festivals that exploit temple elephants for profit, under the guise of culture and religion. By exposing the abhorrent torture suffered by India’s heritage animal, Gods in Shackles offers hope to the thousands of endangered captive and wild elephants in India through heightened awareness that will inspire key stake holders and policy makers to enhance the living conditions of these highly social animals.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Sangita Iyer;

It’s rather ironic that some people who worship Lord Ganesh, are also the ones who torture these elephants. What measures do you suggest to change people’s mindsets?

Sangita Iyer: The paradoxes are stark, they worship and torture elephants – the embodiment of Lord Ganesh – in venues of worship, and this sadly has been normalized by people and has become a social norm.
The first step is to educate and empower people with knowledge and information so that people can see for themselves the harsh realities – the suffering of India’s heritage animal that is being exploited for profit under the guise of culture and religion.

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What were the biggest challenges you faced while making this film? What kind of reactions and responses did you get from the locals?

Sangita Iyer: The Thrissur Pooram festival is considered as the Mother of all festivals and shooting here was really tough.

We could see raw bleeding wounds on the elephants’ ankles and on top of those excruciatingly painful wounds, the elephants were tethered with heavy shackles.
Their suffering was very evident but the public were so enthralled by the festivities that they were totally unaware of the agony that these elephants were going through.

Initially, I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the crisis, and so I approached the owners and handlers with curiosity. I sincerely wanted to learn what was going on, and did not take any preconceived notions or judgments.  I think my genuine intentions and questions allowed them to open up to me and even the President of Kerala’s elephant owner’s association and handlers, among other elephant experts gave me interviews.

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The presence of elephants is an integral part of the Thrissur Pooram festival. How do you look to tackle this issue?

Sangita Iyer: To begin, change is inevitable, but it will not happen overnight. The reality is that there are less than 40,000 Asian elephants left in the world. How long can we allow the exploitation of these majestic beings? The rate at which they are being torn from their families and deprived of their basic right to mate, how will their species survive if they don’t produce kids?

We need to provide alternatives to the owners, brokers and handlers because it’s a huge “industry” – Thrissur Pooram is when you see all the vendors coming out in the droves, tourists flock, businesses boom and everyone is happy, even as the poor elephants suffer.  So again, this has to be a multi-pronged approach.

While educating the masses, we need to change the entire model of tourism. Tourism in Kerala now thrives on Thrissur Pooram, but I will be proposing ecotourism opportunities. There are such tremendous opportunities in Kerala, especially with the rich cultural dances and traditional ayurvedic remedies to bring the entire world to the doorsteps of Kerala – if and only if they choose to change their tourism model.

How challenging was it to get the videos of these elephants being tortured?

Sangita Iyer :Despite resistance from the Mahouts at the festival, we managed to capture lots of gruesome images. It’s a public event and they blocked our camera, as it put them in bad light. By preventing us from shooting they acknowledged the fact that what they’re in the wrong. Why else would they block our cameras?

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Are these elephants owned by the temples? If yes, will they be punished for any harm caused to the elephants?

Sangita Iyer: The elephants are mostly owned by private citizens, and some of them are “donated” to temples by “generous” devotees who don’t realize that they are facilitating the torture of elephants.  There is so much ignorance surrounding the practice of using elephants, and at the core is commerce – not religion or culture.

Elephants were used in wars when we didn’t have the sophisticated weapons of destruction; they were used for logging when we didn’t have the sophisticated machinery. Despite having everything now, Indians seem to have forgotten their own spiritual roots. Our rich Hindu scriptures teach us compassion, love, empathy and forgiveness – whereas what you see at Thrissur Pooram is the antithesis of Hinduism. It’s the ground zero of elephant torture.

The exploitation of animals in the name of God is simply sad. How do you think we can combat this?

Sangita Iyer: There are NO scriptures – Hindu, Christian or Islamic – that even suggest using elephants in festivals. Gods in Shackles exposes the economics and commercialization of these supremely intelligent animals and many people are now awakening to the truth.  By educating people using such films, we are harnessing the power of sights and sounds that resonate well and have a profound influence on people’s perceptions and understanding.

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