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Is filmmaker Sangita Iyer the answer to the brutal treatment of India’s temple elephants?

A defender of Indian elephants, Sangita Iyer, has projects on the ground to save the species from torture, slavery and accidental deaths

Published: 08th November 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th November 2020 04:53 PM   |  A+A-

Award-winning filmmaker Sangita Iyer

Award-winning filmmaker Sangita Iyer

Lord Ganesha needs help. Award-winning filmmaker Sangita Iyer, Founding Executive Director, Voice for Asian Elephants Society and a National Geographic Explorer, could be the answer. She is the champion of India’s temple elephants that are brutally tamed for festivals, tortured and shackled, and even blinded to beg on the road.

“It’s a tragic paradox that the embodiment of Ganesha should be treated in such a barbaric way in a deeply religious country like India. They are starved, paraded like commodities and trafficked,” says Toronto-based Iyer. Her upcoming book, tentatively scheduled to release next year chronicles the making of her 90-minute documentary, Gods in Shackles, in 2016. It exposes the dark side of Kerala’s extravagant cultural festivals and the exploitation of elephants in the name of religion for profit.

To give her investigation and research into the plight of the pachyderms—a visual dimension—Iyer next hopes to release a 26-part docuseries titled, Asian Elephants 101, an initiative started by her—in the next three months. It is an educational as well as an emotional chronicle that includes their habitat and heartrending stories of elephant slavery. 

Unlike Gods in Shackles, this tell-all series comes in a snappier format. “The human population is exploding—1.38 billion—to be precise. Compared to that, there are only 27,000 Asian elephants left in India,” she says, adding, “The intensifying animal-human conflict is terrifying. People are encroaching into elephant habitats, which are already being decimated by climate change and exacerbated by increasing pollution. We don’t realise that elephants are important for the survival of forest ecosystems, as well as humanity’s survival,” she fears.

Between 2014 and 2019, government data shows that 510 elephants died across the country of which 333 were electrocuted and around 100 were victims of poaching and poisoning. Iyer’s mission has its origin in a childhood experience. When she was three-years-old, her grandmother took her to a temple in Palakkad, Kerala, where she saw a magnificent bull elephant. It was brutally chained. Tears were rolling down its eyes. Nobody else noticed its misery. The young girl started spending a lot of time with the elephant. “It was love at first sight,” she confesses.

She questioned her grandmother, “How is it that the elephant has shackles and I am free?” The speechless grandmother got her an anklet and said, ‘Now you too have something to tie around your legs.’ Iyer answered, “It’s not the same thing, grandma. The chains around the elephant won’t let him move, while I can.” Temple elephants are the most persecuted of all their brethren. “Deprived of fodder and water, they’re made to stand in the scorching heat. They wince in pain but their mahouts pay no heed.” she shares, remembering an incident that sends shivers down her spine to this day.

“Once I came across an elephant in agony. He had just emerged from his ‘musth’ (sexual peak). This period is characterised by an intense desire to mate. A wild elephant can complete his cycle in the jungle but captive animals can’t even move,” says Iyer, who observes that the country has evolved technologically but not in conscience. She comments that women and animals are treated in similar ways. “Raised in a Brahmin family, I encountered restrictions.

When I see these elephants, it reminds me of my captivity. Their agony is a metaphor for the cultural shackles that prevent society from evolving.” Iyer’s conscience is unfettered. Along with her team, she raised funds to purchase a two-acre corridor in Kerala for elephants. She’s working with grassroots organisations in West Bengal to purchase flashlights for farmers so they can spot elephants in the dark. Scheduled to start this month, The Forgotten Elephants of Odisha project aims to protect wild elephants that perish by electrocution from sagging wires and illegal high voltage fencing, poaching, poisoning, rail and road collisions. If Iyer has her way, the torture of the gentle giants will no longer be the elephant in the room.

“Raised in a Brahmin family, I encountered a lot of restrictions. When I see these confined elephants, it reminds me of my captivity. Their agony is a metaphor for the cultural shackles that prevent society from evolving.” Sangita Iyer

The Dark Tales
Her upcoming book, tentatively scheduled to release next year chronicles the making of her 90-minute documentary, Gods in Shackles, in 2016. It exposes the dark side of Kerala’s extravagant cultural festivals and the exploitation of elephants in the name of religion for profit. To give her investigation and research into the plight of the pachyderms—a visual dimension—Iyer next hopes to release a 26-part docu-series—an initiative started by her—in the next three months. It is an educational as well as an emotional chronicle that includes their habitat and heartrending stories of elephants slavery. 



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