In the 2016 documentary Gods in Shackles, filmmaker Sangita Iyer shines a light on the brutal treatment of temple elephants in her native Kerala, India. Poached from the wild at a young age, these elephants are forced to live out their lives abused and neglected by a system that uses religion to justify their enslavement. The temples earn millions of rupees by exploiting elephants for profit during cultural festivals, treating them more as commodities than sentient, sapient beings.
As of 2018, there were more than 500 captive elephants in Kerala. Most are male tuskers, a practice that threatens the genetic diversity of wild populations. Chained, shackled, and unable to move, they stand on harsh concrete for hours in the blistering sun. For an elephant with sensitive skin and no sweat glands, such treatment amounts to torture. In the wild they would spend most of their lives roaming freely through open grasslands and shady forests, cooling themselves with mud baths that keep their skin healthy.
Instead, chains dig into the elephants’ ankles, leaving open wounds and scars that are crudely covered with makeup by the temple mahouts. The elephants exhibit unhealthy psychological behaviors, such as swaying their heads back and forth as a way to cope with the distress of their captive circumstances. During the four months that males spend in musth, a phase in the mating cycle when testosterone and aggression levels rise, they are chained 24/7 and suffer painful beatings designed to break their spirits and make them shells of their former selves.
In the film, Iyer forms a bond with a female elephant, Lakshmi, who is blinded in one eye by a severe beating, as punishment for eating vegetables that belonged to her mahout. Although he denies ever beating her, evidence suggests the injuries to her cornea were caused by a bullhook — the long sharp instrument wielded to gain control over the elephants. She continues to dutifully carry her own chains, a sight that absolutely broke my heart.
Such inhumane treatment is compounded by the very nature of elephants: they’re highly intelligent, sensitive creatures. In one scene, Lakshmi encounters a dead cat while walking on the road to the temple, and gingerly steps around it. To say that they’re a lot like us would be an understatement. Elephants are self-aware and emotionally complex, famous for their ritualized expressions of grief. They come to the aid of other elephants, and even soothe one another with affectionate touches.
Elephants also react to the distress of a companion by exhibiting distress symptoms of their own, a behavior known as emotional contagion. Watching Gods in Shackles, I too experienced emotional contagion. It pained me to see these magnificent beings suffer so unnecessarily. In the film, Iyer suggests we identify with their suffering because it touches some hidden pain of our own, an that idea resonated with me. I knew from my own experience loving animals, and elephants in particular, that compassion for another being can help unearth and even heal these hidden wounds.
A few days after I viewed the film, I was walking around my apartment in sandals with the back straps undone. I had just done yoga and hadn’t taken the effort to re-buckle them. With each step, the metal buckles clanked against the trail of wooden floor behind me, and the sounds stopped me in my tracks. I felt a visceral sense of recognition.
Although the Kerala temple elephants live 8,000 miles away, I now carry their story in my heart. Watching this documentary has changed me. It’s clarified the importance of my own role as an advocate for the voiceless. Elephants deserve more than just freedom from suffering — they deserve their full autonomy and the love of other elephants, which only a wild existence can truly provide.