Gods in Shackles: What Elephants Can Teach Us About Empathy, Resilience and Freedom

Gods in Shackles: What Elephants Can Teach Us About Empathy, Resilience and Freedom, Sangita Iyer, Hay House, New Delhi, 2022.  ISBN: 978-1-4019-6884-7. 304 pages

Gods in ShacklesThis book talks about the ill-treatment meted out to Asian elephants in the state of Kerala, during religious processions. Well, almost. Gods in Shackles is a book that tries to interrogate the notions of loneliness suffered by the temple elephants (they are separated from their families when they are small) and reciprocity (despite the pain and sufferings, these captive elephants display love and affection), besides plunging deep into the philosophies of empathy, resilience and freedom. On first reading, it might look like the author Sangita Iyer has broached open the subject of religious insanity of people who parade elephants during holy festivals in the South Indian state of Kerala. The book may, without an in-depth reading, even be considered a very urbane attack on Hindu religious festivals that take pride in showcasing beautifully caparisoned elephants in large numbers. And the setting of this narration is Kerala, and hence it is very easy to write this book off as one more attempt to desecrate the sanctity and blessedness of the participation of these pachyderms in temple carnivals in God’s Own Country.

However, by bringing in a bit of warmth and attention, this book will talk to us about our own misgivings, our own beliefs in misguided myths and our own wanton perpetuation of blissful ignorance. This book is about why we humans turn a blind eye, why we humans remain unaffected in the face of an animal’s sufferings, and most importantly, why we humans spread allegories to rationalize oppression of animals. From the start, Iyer is thoughtful of ways in which we humans have been baited into believing the sanctified and sanctioned use of elephants in Hindu religious jamborees. Breaking myths, through unpretentious presentation of the actual daily routines of slave elephants, is one of the two things Iyer does in her book. The second one is truth-breaking, by providing the readers a globular view as to why we humans faultily think it our duty to take control of elephants.

Gods in Shackles, the title of the book, gives the impression of Divine Beings brought down to the terra firma, to take part in the everyday mockery of their very existence. Daily beatings, regular spurring, continuous chaining, forced fasting, and physical punishments for ‘disobedience’ are all a part of these chained cosmic creatures, also known as elephants. It is very well documented that Indian elephants, especially in South India, bear the brunt of human malfeasance, especially before, during, and after festivals associated with the innumerable temples here. For many, it is a joy to see the huge elephant swinging and swaying with deities atop – a kind of religious euphoria and excitement. For a few others, it is a matter of prestige, pride and power, to own or rent elephants for such crowd-pulling pious events.

As the executive director and producer of the powerfully-designed documentary christened Gods in Shackles (in 2016), this book, eponymously titled, is part autobiographical and part heart-rending narration of the plights of temple elephants. The book is fairly autobiographical, because it chronicles the journey of Iyer’s project, from ideation to completion. The thought was, according to Iyer, to understand and document the love-hate relationship that people in South India have for the elephants. This book, hence, is also about the untamed conduct of the owners, the mahouts, and the onlookers. It is not about the affection we have these enslaved creatures, but the triviality of their existence.

Iyer has taken a lot of efforts to document the pains and discomforts of the bonded labourers that the elephants of Kerala are. She has narrated the travails of her journey in Kerala, and brings to fore many characters that played a role in her expedition to expose the troubles of the elephants. She had to talk her way through government officials, forest officials, vets, mahouts, owners, and a host of others. Fortuitously for Iyer, “My entire journey into exposing the plight of elephants has been intuitively guided. It had been designed meticulously by the Creator, to unshackle my own myths and mental conditioning so I can then work with people to unshackle the suffering elephants.”.

Gods in Shackles, like the documentary before, is a brave work, a sincere effort and an open toil. Maybe it will take a few more years for all of us to realize that elephants are calm animals that need to be respected. However, more than our own longing to grant freedom to elephants, we are disturbed into accepting, endorsing and certifying that any religious festival is incomplete without the presence of an elephant. Such is the power of rites and rituals! Such is our need for pomp and glory! Maybe we are slaves of a different kind, who like to make slaves of elephants. Iyer throws light on the bitterness faced by the elephants in the hands of the handlers – more than the physical pain, it is the thought behind harming the elephants, which pains the readers. Elephants, after all, can be dispensed with, is a feeling exhibited by people involved in the elephant business.

Dr Jane Goodall, in her foreword, appeals to the niceties of human species: “…in both Buddhism and Hinduism the elephant is revered. The Hindu God of Beginnings is Ganesha or Ganesh, depicted with the head of an elephant. In Buddhism, the elephant stands for strength, honour, patience, peacefulness, and wisdom. Both these religions teach respect for animals”. This book provides adequate leads to understand the narrative from a legal-rights point of view. Despite the fact that the author was awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar in March 2017, not much effort has gone into de-glorifying the business of usage of elephants in temples. Just as wild animals, including elephants, are banned from circuses in India, there are a few rays of hope that indicate that elephants will soon be relieved of their ‘saintly and religious’ duties. Gods in Shackles by Sangita Iyer is one such ray.

G Narasimha Raghavan, Associate Professor – Economics, Jansons School of Business, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Been teaching for the last 14 years.

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