In June 2013 when I embarked on my journey to India for my father’s first death anniversary, little did I know that I would be guided to serve a grander mission! Although it may sound esoteric to some, I’ve come to believe that this is just the way life unfolds.
I was on my way to attend my father’s first death anniversary in Mumbai, but I took a detour and decided to visit my favourite grand aunt in Ooty, one of the best kept secrets of India, a romantic hill station where honeymooners flock from around the world.
My cousin was awaiting my arrival at the Coimbatore airport, and quickly escorted me to his van. As we began the hairpin bend ascend, I cherished the cool breeze, the lush mountains and occasional waterfalls gushing from them.
As we were catching up on life, I asked my cousin if he’d been in touch with an old friend Mohanraj, a wildlife photographer and conservationist. It’d been a couple of decades since I had spoken to him. As fate would have it, Mohanraj had just arrived from a field trip, and he drove through the pouring rain the same evening to visit me.
I casually shared my soulful connection with elephants, and asked if he’d care to take me on a jungle safari. But he had better plans and drove me to one of the densest jungles of Southern India where elephants thrive. It was a district in Kerala state, called Wynad, a globally key habitat for Asian elephants.
I was up at 5:00 a.m., and after my routine yoga practice, ready by 7 o’clock. The minute I spotted his car turning into our curb, I ran down, and in a matter of seconds we were off for an adventurous day.
The slushy and bumpy roads winding down the hills of Ooty made my stomach a bit queasy, but I was comforted by the scent of eucalyptus trees that filled the crisp morning air and seeped through my nostrils, awakening every cell of my body. The monstrous dark clouds hanging in the skies and the rolling thunder threatened to unleash torrential rains.
Within just 30 minutes, Mohan’s phone rang. The shocking look on his face was disconcerting. Soon after he hung up he said it was a distress call from a forest warden. He was desperately trying to save an elephant that had slipped and fallen into a trench, a deep ditch that was dug out to prevent wildlife and elephants from entering into the human occupied areas.
The mighty animal, known to frequent the village and raid the crops was trapped in a trench. The male elephant, also called tusker supposedly slipped and fell into the ditch sometime due to the torrential rains. Without a moment’s hesitation I said, “Let’s go.”
At least a thousand villagers had lined up the pathway leading to the trench to witness the drama unfold. Beyond the crowd, a lush jungle packed with trees extended for miles on end, home to tens of thousands of Asian elephants and wildlife.
We parked our vehicle behind, and as we walked gingerly through the crowd a potent stench of manure filled the air. It felt like a movie, the commotion, the monsoon weather, the smell of the manure, the loud chatters filling the air and the poor helpless animal at the mercy of humans who would not hesitate to kill it if they felt threatened.
A veterinarian shot a tranquilizer dart, and after the animal passed out he made his way into the trench and injected a shot of “energy booster” into a vein in his left ear. He painstakingly climbed out of the slippery slope that was created to make way for the elephant to return into the wild.
Tensed moments ensued, as we eagerly waited for the elephant to regain its consciousness! Ten minutes went by…and then 15…but no signs of revival. By now the villagers were also growing impatient. They gathered around the beast and began to make sounds to awaken the elephant, so he would muster up strength to rise on his feet.
It felt surreal to witness such unconditional love being bestowed upon an animal that they also loathed when it raided their crops. During those moments the human-wildlife conflict melted away, and I vividly remember thinking, what if this had happened in Africa? Obviously, the ending would have been tragic.
Finally, after almost 10 hours of meticulous maneuvering they managed to rescue the tusker that ran for its life making its way back into the jungles beyond.
Weeks went by, as my first close encounter with this elephant in decades kept haunting me. I stayed in contact with Mohanraj and was deeply gratified to learn that the rescued elephant was never again seen in the village after the accident. In the ensuing months Mohanraj continued to send me the latest studies on elephants.
I’ve always felt a profound connection with elephants. Perhaps the fact that I was born on Ganesh Chaturti could be the reason why. But on a serious note, there are less than 50,000 Asian elephants – captive and wild, and more than 60% of them are thriving in India. But there is a dark side to this chapter. These amazing animals are being captured illegally from the wild and decimated for their ivory, as well as held captive for use in temple ritual and festivals.
One research article about captive and temple elephants of Kerala used in cultural festivals was nightmarish. This was one of the rare studies depicting gruesome images and heartbreaking tales of captive elephants that were abused and neglected. I also discovered that Kerala has more than 700 of the 3,000 — 18% of India’s captive elephants that are being tortured and exploited for profit under the guise of culture and religion.
This in and of itself is appalling, as elephants are considered to be the embodiment of Lord Ganesh. I was also astonished that despite elevating the Asian elephants to India’s Schedule 1 heritage animal status, their torture and neglect continued unabated.
So in December 2013, just six months after I witnessed the rescue of that bull elephant from the trench, I was back in Kerala. Mohanraj was awaiting my arrival at the Kochi airport and he said there was a massive elephant festival taking place in the city of Trissur.
We left early in the morning the very next day, with no time to recoup from my jetlag. It was hot, hazy and humid, and I struggled to breathe through the congested traffic. Cars were honking as they drove past, and the sounds of drums intensified.
In the distance I heard familiar sounds of drums, horns and pipes, sights and sounds that conjured up my childhood memories in Palakkad, where my grandparents raised me. I still remember how the handlers allowed me to play with the elephant that graced our family temple, as my grandma watched me nervously.
A few yards away scores of people had lined up on a narrow street. Suddenly I was blinded by a beam of brilliant light that reflected from a golden jewel sort of thing. It took me a few minutes to notice a dark grey gigantic figure adorned in golden caparison. It was an elephant carrying a massive plaque and three young men on its back.
We carefully drove past the crowd, parked the car, as I mounted my camera on a tripod and hurriedly brushed past the scanty crowd on the periphery oblivious to the oncoming traffic. But I was unable to push through the dense crowd, dominated by young men. So I began to film from the roadside. Through my camera lens I spotted a man holding an oil lamp so close to the elephant that even a slight movement could accidentally burn the poor animal’s trunk. I wanted to yell, “Please move the lamp” but had to stay calm.
As I tilted down my camera, I noticed heavy shackles hanging from the elephant’s back and over its massive belly, linked to another set of shackles on its hind legs. All four legs were shackled, one ankle in particular was so heavily chained that the elephant was weighing down on that side. Its forelegs were also tethered making it impossible to shift its body. Later I learned that it was intended to restrict the movement of elephants.
What really caught my attention was the colourful anklet that decorated the shackles. When I looked beyond those tawdry ornaments, I was devastated to discover the deep wounds on the helpless elephant’s ankles. It seemed to me that the ornaments were intended to mask the wounds. Three men were atop this magnificent animal and beneath were three handlers controlling every bit of its movement. They were shading themselves from the scorching sun beneath the elephant, as the poor animal was trying to cope with the merciless heat, fanning its ears and releasing heavy sighs through its trunk. The handlers were poking and prodding the poor elephant, forcing it to stand steady, further limiting the already restricted movement. I could feel my heart palpitating and the surging anger, unable to bear the plight of a giant who could trample the entire crowd in a matter of seconds.
An hour went by before Dr. Rajeev’s phone rang … an unusually long break for a vet. He signalled that we needed to leave and Mohanraj picked up my camera and led me to the car, as he realized I wasn’t budging.
Driving past the crowd I vividly remember thinking what on earth could have made this giant of an animal so obedient that he had forgotten his own power to break lose those chains of slavery? Tears began to flow down my face as I discreetly wiped them away, trying to put on a brave face.
I kept turning back at the crowd surrounding an intelligent animal that was standing helplessly as he eventually faded away from my sight along with the sounds of the haunting traditional music. Mohanraj had prepared me — somewhat — for this. But still it was too much to bear.
This is but just one story of the first elephant I encountered. And this was by far the best kept elephant. In the ensuing days I filmed hundreds of elephants in the most atrocious conditions. Some with ripped ears, inflicted by bull hook, others with massive tumours on their bodies, ghastly wounds on their legs, blind elephants being paraded on hot tar roads, elephants standing on their urine and excrement, tears streaming down their faces, as they helplessly stood beneath the scorching sun. Meantime the crowd was dancing away gloriously oblivious to their pain and suffering.
I returned home with about 25 hours of footage. And now what? What would I do with all this footage? I had no money to make episodes or even one film. I contacted one of my media colleagues and he suggested that I launch a crowd sourcing campaign. I immediately contacted one my previous editors and persuaded him to help me compile a five minute movie trailer, and he contributed his time and talents. I launched my first crowd sourcing campaign in March 2014 and raised just over $40,000. You can watch our movie trailer by clicking on this link: http://bit.ly/1STka8J
And so began an intuitive journey that began in March 2014. I hired a cinematographer and we filmed one of the grandest festivals that displayed the largest gathering of bull elephants in the world – Trissur Pooram, May 2014. We gathered more than 200 hours of footage, the dark side behind all the glitz and glamour, interviewed at least 17 experts in different areas of elephant welfare, filmed wild elephants, so we could juxtapose the lives of captive elephants. And in a matter of record 22 months we’ve produced a 91-minute long feature documentary film called Gods in Shackles. It’s a documentary film that exposes the abhorrent torture and inhumane treatment of the endangered Asian elephants, that are exploited for profit under the guise of religion. You can find more information about our campaign by clicking on this link: – http://bit.ly/1OIgpnt
We are now ready to get this movie out into the world, and we would like to ensure that the film has the farthest outreach, and maximum impact. This is critical in order to make a difference in the lives of these elephants and put an end to cultural practices that condone animal cruelty. I humbly ask for your support, as we need funding to translate the movie into five languages of key states where elephants are exploited – Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu. We need to submit our film in festivals where distributors flock to gather new films. We need to format our 91 minute film for theatrical, television (require editing to 52 minutes), online, DVD and Bluray releases.
After the movie release we also have long term plans to create a sanctuary for elephants and make sure that people in the elephant industry aren’t left stranded. Anything you can do to support would be much appreciated. Our In Demand crowd sourcing campaign has drawn more than 2000 supporters from over 52 countries. If you feel inspired to support our movement and help end the atrocities against these sentient animals, here’s the link to our campaign: http://bit.ly/1OIgpnt