Episode 17: The dark reality behind India’s festival elephants

In Indian culture, elephants are revered like gods. But in reality, these temple elephants endure much reported abuse, which animal welfare advocates are bringing to the public’s attention.

Elephants in Kerala, India spend their lives chained, living in small spaces and performing in festivals.
Photo by Brent Stirton

For thousands of years, people in India have captured elephants to serve as war machines, beasts of burden, and part of religious festivals. And while they’re revered like gods, and adorned with embroidered garments and jewelry in parades, National Geographic Explorers Sangita Iyer and Jyothy Karat say these endangered Asian elephants are often living in distress and are mistreated by their handlers. Iyer and Karat tell us what life for India’s temple elephants are like and we’ll hear about a possible way for Indians to celebrate elephants with new robotics technology.

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(Cheering crowds)

BRIAN GUTIERREZ (HOST): This is the sound of a festival in India called Thrissur Pooram. Thousands of people attend this annual festival, including dozens of musicians, but the highlight of the celebration, standing out over the crowds, are the elephants. They are covered in golden decorations and flowery necklaces as they parade through the crowded streets of the festival.

It’s a beautiful and impressive sight, and part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. But two National Geographic explorers are taking a hard look at the practice.

(Jangling of large chains)

Asian elephants are an endangered species and capturing them from the wild has been a major contributor to this decline. According to one estimate, nearly one in three Asian elephants lives in captivity. And training an 8,000-pound wild animal to walk peacefully through crowded streets involves a lot of physical punishment.

(Men shouting)

Beneath the flowers and ornaments, these elephants often have scars from the hooks, prods, and shackles used to tame them.

I’m Brian Gutierrez and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

For Earth Month, National Geographic is releasing the documentary series Secrets of the Elephants on Disney+. As a part of that project, we are putting together a three-part podcast series on elephants with an all-female group of National Geographic Explorers.

This is the final installment. Our first two episodes were about African savanna elephants, but this week we’re talking about their cousin, the Asian elephant.

That’s coming up, after the break.

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Sangita Iyer is a documentary filmmaker and advocate for Asian elephants. Her film Gods in Shackles, released in 2016, started a conversation about the treatment of Asian elephants in captivity.

(to Iyer) I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the relationship between Indian culture and elephants.

SANGITA IYER (FILMMAKER): Yeah, actually, elephants are considered a cultural icon in India. Elephants were used in warfare in ancient times. The more the elephants they had, the more power they had. Additionally, in India, elephants are revered because they are considered the embodiment of Lord Ganesha. Lord Ganesha is a Hindu god with an elephant face. Because of that reverence, elephants had always been considered holy. That’s the tragic paradox because on the one hand, elephants are revered and worshiped. And on the other hand, they’re enslaved. They’re not only enslaved, but they’re deprived of the basic necessities.

GUTIERREZ: I wonder if you could go into a little more detail into how the elephants are being used.

IYER: So elephants will be leased out. The minute they arrive into the temple, the first thing they do is decorate them with all these garlands and bells, and even the shackles are decorated. And then the deity’s idol will be mounted on the elephant’s back. And plus, there are about three or four men sitting atop the elephant. Overall, a total of about 300 to 400 kilos. And then they are forced to circle around the temples three or four times with the music and trumpets and drum beats that are so disturbing because elephants have such sensitive hearing. Plus, don’t forget the firecrackers. They live peacefully in the forest. What a stark contrast.

GUTIERREZ: I’ve heard that some individual elephants have sort of celebrity status. Is that true?

IYER: Absolutely. So there’s this one particular elephant called Thechikottukavu Ramachandran. He is a superstar. Elvis Presley would have loved to receive this kind of welcome, frankly. As soon as he steps out of the temple, people go crazy. They yell and shout and scream. And at the same time, you see his handler poking and prodding his very sensitive trunk so he salutes everybody. They don’t even notice how painful this ankush—or the bullhook—is.

GUTIERREZ: At ten and a half feet tall, the elephant Thechikottukavu Ramachendran could easily be the largest captive elephant in India. Because of his size, he has traditionally opened the largest festival of the year in the Indian state of Kerala.

But controlling such a large animal can be challenging. Over the years, Ramachendran’s handlers lost control of the animal. He has killed at least 11 people and attacked other elephants. After one of these attacks, the subsequent punishment from his handler left him blind in his right eye. Although he’s been occasionally banned from festivals after these incidents, he still performs today.

(to Iyer) I wonder if you could tell me about a particular elephant that you came across in your reporting that you connected with.

IYER: Wow. There are so many elephants that I connected with, but there’s this one beautiful elephant, Lakshmi is her name. And when I met her, she was just swaying side to side and bobbing her head up and down, completely bored stiff. I just stood there and I observed her from a distance. After about 2 to 3 minutes, she stopped swaying her body and she then stuck out her trunk, sensing my presence, feeling me. And I just stood there. Then I approached her closer, and then she just kind of wrapped her trunk around me as though she knew me forever. My goodness. It just makes me feel like it’s happening right now. And I get very emotional when I talk of her.

And so we bonded really, really closely. And then after two years of filming her, something tragic happened in November of 2015. Her one eye was actually scarred and she seemed blind. I asked around. As it turned out, her mahout, he actually whacked her face with the bull hook and she became instantly blind.


IYER: And this, this is because she was at the temple and she took his food, apparently, that he had left, like, some fruits or something. And he brutalized her. When I heard of that story, I immediately launched a complaint at the Animal Welfare Board of India, and they fired him within about a few weeks. But ever since that incident, they have prevented me from seeing her. And I—I just really miss her. To this day, I can never forget our first—love at first sight, actually.

GUTIERREZ: What you said when you first met Lakshmi, she was swaying back and forth. What does that mean in elephant language?

IYER: They are so bored because they have nothing to do with their time. So they sway side to side. They bob their heads up and down. So that’s what she was doing.

GUTIERREZ: I think it’s easy when you see the elephants swaying and kind of swinging their trunk back and forth to—it seems like a kind of joyous behavior, right? It looks like they’re dancing a little bit.

IYER: Exactly. And that’s one of the things that many handlers even believe that, oh, this elephant is enjoying the music and the trumpet and the dancing of people and the crowd because they are swaying side to side and, you know, they’re shaking their heads, etc. And they’re distressed to an extent that they’re threatened.

GUTIERREZ: We’re going to take a quick break and then hear from another National Geographic Explorer, Jyothy Karat.

JYOTHY KARAT (FILMMAKER): I’m Jyothy. I’m a filmmaker and an anthropologist from South India.

GUTIERREZ: Do you remember your first time seeing an elephant?

KARAT: Oh, wow. That was a very, very long time ago when I was a very young child. So I had the privilege to see elephants in two contexts. One is in the wild because my mother’s village is adjacent to a national park in South India. And if you are just there, you will see wild elephants. And the other scenario is where my father is from is a place called Thrissur in Kerala. And there, you have a lot of captive elephants. You see elephants in churches, mosques everywhere. So I’ve grown up watching elephants in captivity and in the wild.

GUTIERREZ: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your film, Elephant Country.

KARAT: Well, although I am from that culture, I had not really looked at it objectively or even tried to learn why we do what we do. Not to judge whether it’s right or wrong, but just to record and document what was being done and for what reasons. And how were the elephants being—how were the elephants responding also?

GUTIERREZ: It sounds like you kind of went in with some idea of what you might find and sort of some preconceptions. Did making this documentary change your mind about anything?

KARAT: There were people who took really good care of elephants, and there were people who, whether intentionally or unintentionally, were really hurting the elephants. And by that, I also mean within the constraints of keeping a wild animal, which is supposed to roam free, in these human spaces.

GUTIERREZ: There’s an important distinction between animals that have been domesticated and animals that have been tamed. Dogs, chickens, and silkworms have been domesticated because over many generations they have been bred from wild animals to be dependent on humans and live in human spaces.

Although elephants have been used as war machines and beasts of burden for thousands of years, they’ve never been domesticated for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it’s difficult to breed them in captivity. And if you do manage to get a baby elephant, it takes 15 to 20 years for that baby to grow to a useful size. That’s a lot of elephant food in the meantime.

Historically, instead of breeding elephants, it’s been much easier to let them grow up wild. And then capture adults as needed. So even today, nearly all elephants in captivity at some point were captured from the wild.

KARAT: With elephants, they go through a lot of rigorous “schooling,” as the people in the industry like to call it. But actually, what it is is it’s a lot of beating, basically taming them to obey you as a child. So it kind of learns that they need to obey a human being. And if not, if you don’t obey, then it’s punished. So this is how they are able to walk along with human beings in a very, very crowded street, you know, but a wild elephant captured. I mean, if you have seen this capture, it’s really heart wrenching. It’s very hard to watch. At least this is my—this is my personal opinion. I don’t think they are ever fully tamed because there is always an element of the wild in them. And at some point when you cross the line, they will, you know, bring out the wilderness in them.

GUTIERREZ: One of the things that—I think it was an elephant owner—in your documentary, he said it’s basically impossible to get a new elephant.


GUTIERREZ: And that you’ll only be able to see these elephant ceremonies in documentaries.

KARAT: Yes. He was one of the members of a temple. Yes—he was talking about how this is the last generation of elephants in captivity that we will see in India because our laws have prohibited anymore of captive elephants. So this generation dies out, then we are not going to have any more captive elephants.

GUTIERREZ: So you’re saying that when this current batch of captive elephants dies, there are not going to be very many replacements.


GUTIERREZ: In 2003, the practice of buying elephants was banned in India. Today officially owning an elephant requires a certificate showing that it was captured before then. The law isn’t bulletproof. People still capture and trade elephants illegally, but overall the law appears to be working.

The population of captive elephants is decreasing. It’s estimated that there were about 1,000 captive elephants in Kerala in 2010, and there are fewer than 500 elephants today. However, that reduction is painful. The extra demand is causing current elephants to be over stressed as they are booked in more and more festivals. And those elephants, legal or not, frequently die before their natural lifespan.

(to Iyer) Do you think there’s a way to keep elephants in captivity humanely?

IYER: Well, so the elephants that have already been in captivity, there’s no way to release them in the wild because, you know, they may not survive.

GUTIERREZ: This is Sangita Iyer again.

IYER: However, a proper sanctuary would be a place where elephants are allowed to roam freely without the interference of anybody. And they can just go inside a semi-wild forest and just do the things that they usually do. That would be humane.

GUTIERREZ: So it sounds like the humane way to keep an elephant in captivity is to get it lots of space and generally leave it alone as much as possible. Is there a sort of a humane way to keep elephants, but also keep the traditions of Hindu culture?

IYER: Well, not using live elephants. We have actually commissioned the production of robotic elephants, which we are hoping to introduce early next year.


IYER: So that’s a good way to offer an alternative.

GUTIERREZ: Could you tell me more about these mechanical elephants? Are they—what do they look like?

IYER: Absolutely. These robotic mechanical elephants are lifesize elephants. And they can wave their trunk. They can move their ears and they can carry the temple idol. And even men can sit on their back. So all those things are possible. They are really, really the next generation alternative.

GUTIERREZ: Do you know what the sort of the theological perspective is on either using like a substitute for a live elephant or not using elephants in these ceremonies?

IYER: Well, there are absolutely no religious scriptures, no Hindu or Islamic or Christian scriptures that suggest that you need to use elephants to make gods happy. I have really been researching that for a very long time. And indeed, there are so many Indian priests who are speaking out against the use of elephants because they clearly understand that this has nothing to do with culture or religion, but rather to do with profit and maintaining their status quo. So that’s what this is all about. So this has nothing to do with theology or religion or culture. This has everything to do with profit and commercialization.

GUTIERREZ: Have you gotten any pushback from these criticisms of the industry?

IYER: Absolutely. My life has been threatened. I’ve received numerous death threats, even via email, even from the elephant owners whom I had interviewed. And cyberbullying has been like a common thing. But you just have to keep doing and speaking the truth.

If I had to, you know, submit to these threats, then who’s going to speak out for these elephants? So I’m not going to be deterred. I mean, I’m not threatened. I am not bullied. So I’m just going to continue to do what I’m doing—undeterred.

GUTIERREZ: That was Sangita Iyer, National Geographic Explorer and creator of the film Gods in Shackles.

If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

We’ve created a hub on our website where you can see all of our coverage on elephants this month. Including Secrets of the Elephants, a four-part National Geographic series streaming on Disney+.

We’ve included a link to the hub in our shownotes. We’ll also include links to the work of Sangita Iyer and Jyothy Karat where you can learn more about their work advocating for India’s elephants. You can find the show notes in your podcast app.


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by me, Brian Gutierrez.

Our other senior producer is Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode.

Our photo editor is Julie Hau.

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode, and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorers Sangita Iyer and Jyothy Karat.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

Thanks for listening, and see you next time.


Want More?

Check out even more coverage on elephants this month, including Secrets of the Elephants, a four-part National Geographic series streaming April 22 on Disney+. Visit NatGeo.com/elephants to learn more.

Also explore:

In addition to a film Sangita Iyer has also written a book, Gods in Shackles: What Elephants Can Teach Us About Empathy, Resilience, and Freedom. You can check it out as well as her other work at the website of her organization, the Voices for Asian Elephants Society.

More information about Jyothy Karat and her films and photography can be found on her website.