Today, across Asia, some elephants can be chained day and night at religious temples, say activists. This elephant in Colombo, Sri Lanka, is trying to remove a chain from her feet near the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple.
Why are elephants used in temples and what are their lives like while in captivity? These are central questions filmmaker Sangita Iyer aims to answer in her new documentary, "Gods In Shackles."
"Traditionally, Hindus worship Lord Ganesh – the most worshipped god in the Hindu pantheon, who wears an elephant face," Iyer told The Dodo. "He's believed to remove all obstacles and bring good fortune. Therefore, Lord Ganesh is worshipped before embarking on any new ventures. His image is imprinted on wedding invitations and installed on door entrances."
In ancient times, Iyer continues, "elephants were treated with reverence and utmost compassion. They were not commercialized." They were, however, used in wars and also for the logging industry. But now, Iyer says, "human civilization has evolved and invented machines to replace these elephants, so essentially they have no function."
Except in captivity. Elephants are held in countless temples - 600 elephants are held captive in the Indian state of Kerala, alone, where Iyer focuses her new film. The massive animals, she says, "are loaded and unloaded in trucks from festival to festival, [with] no food [and] no water under the scorching sun, in 45 degree heat [Celsius, 113 degrees Fahrenheit]. [They are] exploited for profit under the guise of culture and religion."
Temples use elephants to draw crowds, she explains, and solicit donations that are used to maintain the temples, but hardly any money earned by these elephants are used to provide them with even the most basic necessities of life.
"They're decorated in heavy ornaments, made to carry heavy idols of deity and paraded for hours on end to entertain people," she says. "There's something sinister about using these gentle giants to worship the same god who created them."
Temple elephants are often chained "24/7...enslaved in shackles, tortured and neglected forever," claims Iyer.
Almost all of the elephants in captivity - males, females and babies - have been captured from the wild, she says.
Upon seeing the above photo of the elephant in Sri Lanka trying to take off her chains, Iyer says: "[The] image is heartbreaking! The poor elephant has been traumatized, she has been ripped apart from her family and is struggling to free herself. It depicts the psychotic behavior typical of all captive elephants. This noble creature cannot speak human language but the picture is speaking the language of agony that this poor elephant is suffering."
The world, Iyer argues, should wake up to the atrocities being committed against temple elephants. "Tourists should become more aware of the harsh realities of these gentle giants before they donate," she says. "It's time to end elephant slavery and exploitation for profit and stop tarnishing the values and philosophies of ancient Hindu traditions that call for compassion and kindness towards all sentient beings."
Iyer implores temple authorities "to look beyond the senseless torture of these sentient beings and do the right thing: Set her free!"
To find out more about "Gods In Shackles," go here.