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Sangita Iyer Headshot

The Indian Temple That's "Ground Zero" for Elephant Torture

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A world renowned Guruvayur temple in the southern state of Kerala (India) that has garnered the United Nations World Heritage Site status is the "Ground Zero" for elephant torture. This prestigious temple, glamorous on the outside, also has a sordid zone where some of the dark torturous practices continue unabated.

Welcome to the Punnathur Aana Kotta (Punnathur elephant palace) -- the so-called "captive elephant sanctuary," more aptly one of the world's worst factory farms. Here they house the performing elephants that are relentlessly tortured into participating in races, rituals and festivals to entertain the masses in the name of culture and religion.

When I visited this "Aana kotta" with a hidden camera, I was shocked to witness tens of elephants in such a congested area, these Gods embodiment(s) physically and psychologically tormented. Upon further investigation, I discovered that 59 elephants, mostly bulls, were crammed into an 11 acre space.

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Still shot from our video portraying the close proximity of male elephants

To begin, the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) guidelines suggest, an elephant in captivity should have a minimum of 1.2 acres of individual usable space. So 59 elephants would need a minimum of 90 acres just to themselves (excluding the office buildings, water bodies, visitor space etc.). But these regulations were being openly flouted by a prestigious temple, setting a poor example for the masses.

Most of the 55 bulls were in their peak musth, an annual cycle when the testosterone and energy levels surge up to 60-100 per cent the normal, and the bulls tend to be dominant. In the wild they burn up their energies by wandering for hours on end, fighting with other bulls and mating. But in Guruvayur's "captive elephant sanctuary" there's no way for these poor animals to burn up their energy reserves.

One of the most disturbing sights was the unhygienic grounds on which the elephants were made to stand for public display. It is natural for musth elephants to constantly dribble urine. But can you even comprehend that these sentient animals stand on their urine-contaminated ground for the entire duration of their musth that lasts between 60-120 days? Worse yet, as seen in this image below, the waste continues to accumulate, as the disposal is infrequent.

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Such poor hygienic conditions are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and pathogens that cause foot rot and deadly infectious diseases like tuberculosis. According to a Hindu Times report, on an average 25 captive elephants are dying in Kerala, many of them due to tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

Another issue is that the musth bulls also secrete a hormone that oozes out of their temporal glands, and releases a peculiar scent that can be sniffed out by other bulls from miles away. This smell evokes their fight instincts that instigate the dominant tendencies to be expressed in the wild.

Sadly, in the Guruvayur Punnathur Kotta, the musth elephants are tethered in such close proximity that even a whiff of air can trigger their natural tendency to fight, but there's nothing they can do to overcome their instincts. In sheer desperation they try to break lose their chains that dig into their flesh resulting in serious self-inflicted wounds.

As mentioned in my previous article, we have gathered shocking undercover footage from the Punnathur Kotta to produce a feature length documentary Gods in Shackles. This powerful film lifts off the cultural veil to expose the abhorrent torture and exploitation of temple elephants for profit. For more information on our campaign click here: Gods in Shackles. Here's a sneak preview of our movie:

These still shots from our footage portray the abhorrent treatment of temple elephants, as they try to cope with the inhumane suppression of their natural instincts.

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The shackles too tight and short for the poor elephant to place his foot on the ground

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Both hind legs are tethered so tightly, severely restricting movement

It was also gut-wrenching to witness how most of these animals were deprived of their basic necessity for shelter from the blistering sun at 34-40 degrees Celsius. Throughout the year these helpless elephants are exposed to unpredictable and often times harsh weather conditions. Unable to cope with the heat the bulls continue to display signs of intense distress, and hopelessness.

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No shade from the scorching sun for this elephant

There was no water in the vicinity to quench their thirst, and throughout the day they simply stood there and chewed on the cheap fibrous Karioyota palm leaves with little nutritious value, usually causing severe digestive issues and gut impaction. In the wild elephants feed on 100-200 diverse shrubs, leaves, barks, roots, grass, and herbs. Whereas in this factory farm, elephants were unable to even quench their thirst, let alone the variety of fodder.

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In this image the elephant is trying to reach the tiny cement tank for some water

Many elephants displayed a look of sheer resignation to their plight. In the image below the poor elephant's right ear has been ripped, most likely due to torture by bull hook.

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The elephant in the image below is trying to cope with stress by throwing mud at the onlookers. I happened to be filming at the time, and as you can see I was strewn with litter.

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As a consciously evolved species, all humans are expected to know that the worst act of inhumanity is to deprive a living being of its basic necessities of life. But these elephants were categorically denied of each and every one of these essentials -- proper food, shelter, and mating.

Meantime, the unscrupulous, greedy and corrupt humans that inflict unnecessary pain and suffering on these gentle animals have reasons to be concerned about the well-being of their "cash cows" that continue to draw millions of spectators from around the world annually and stuff their coffers.

I struggle to understand why Kerala -- a state that proudly calls itself "God's own country," continues to torture and neglect Gods own embodiment? How can the Keralites turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of an animal they claim to love so much? How can a world renowned Guruvayur temple get away with such horrendous treatment of India's heritage animal?

It is incumbent upon humans to raise their collective voices to end this ongoing indignation and torture of one of the noblest and most intelligent of all mammals that has graced our precious planet during our lifetime. If you are inspired to become part of our freedom legacy visit our campaign here: Gods in Shackles.

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    A helicopter containing a team of medics approach the fallen elephant.
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    The bull was was shot by poachers on September 15.
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    A team of medics treat the elephant.
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    A vet cleans the wound.
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    The elephant gets to its knees.
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    ...And finally stands following treatment.
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    Off he goes.