I first met Ayyappan in May 2014 during my second visit to the southern Indian state of Kerala for the production of my documentary Gods in Shackles. One of the most handsome bull elephants, he was three metres tall, with dark grey skin, stunning tusks, and sparkling light brown eyes. He captivated my heart and soul instantly. As I stood near him, Ayyappan displayed his true nature, playfully curling up his trunk and rubbing his forehead with his mouth wide open for the goodies that he had already sniffed out. It didn't take him long to stretch his trunk and take the bananas from me, which he quickly tossed into his mouth, devouring every single bite.
I stood there gazing at Ayyappan, completely mesmerized by his presence, and as he began to shift his body toward me playfully, his handlers took control of him immediately by yelling and intimidating him with the vicious bullhook. It was heartbreaking to witness the way this majestic animal swayed his body in distress, shackled by unreasonably short chains, one of his hind legs tethered to a cement pole and his front legs chained like a handcuffed prisoner. He had no wiggle room, and was forced to stand in one spot, making it difficult to balance the massive weight of his body.
The next time I visited Ayyappan was in November 2014, when he was in his musth cycle. During this time, the testosterone and energy level surge and the bulls are overwhelmed by the urge to mate. In the wild, they wander for hours on end and deplete their energies by mating and fighting with other bulls.
But in captivity, Ayyappan's primal instincts were cruelly denied, the shackles were tightened severely. It was gut-wrenching to watch Ayyappan desperately trying to break his shackles. He was so frustrated that he began tossing palm branches and rocks at the mahouts.
During my next visit in June 2015, I learned that in order to deplete his energies, Ayyappan was deprived of the basic necessities of life during his musth. It was especially saddening to see the handlers feeding and bathing the other two elephants in that same compound, while ignoring Ayyappan. I dared to pick up the hose and began watering him from a safe distance. I will never forget how Ayyappan desperately opened his mouth and drank water continuously for nearly 15 minutes.
I left the compound with a heavy heart, haunted by the atrocities that I'd seen. As soon as I landed in Bangalore (India) that evening, I called his owner, Sundar Menon, and reported what I'd witnessed. He assured me that the mahouts were being monitored, by a CCTV camera that was installed around all three elephants in his compound. But he fell short of answering why Ayyappan was being neglected so badly.
Fast-forward to November 2015. The first thing I did as soon as I landed in Trissur, even before checking into my hotel, was bought fruit for the three elephants. I went straight from the airport to Sundar Menon's mansion, and had finished feeding the two elephants, Shiva Sundar and Lakshmi.
Just as I was approaching Ayyappan to feed him pineapple, an infuriated man came screaming at me, telling me to leave the complex. He was the handlers' supervisor. I had never seen this side during the my previous visits. He seemed like a kind and compassionate man, always greeted me with warm smiles.
But why was I surprised? By now Gods in Shackles documentary was making waves around the world, and the temple authorities had been informed that my documentary is going to be damaging for them. The last thing I remember as I was being escorted out is Ayyappan stretching out his trunk for his pineapple that was owed to him. I later learned that they had asked the supervisor not to let me inside the compound to see the elephants.
Only if I had gotten to Ayyappan a bit earlier, I could've fed him. To this day I struggle with guilt for not having fed Ayyappan, what was meant for him, his share of fruit. A year went by, but despite repeated attempts, the owners and temples denied me access to these elephants. They were furious that the truth had been revealed.
And then ... a bombshell dropped!! On Dec. 17, 2016, I received a phone call early in the morning from the Heritage Animal Task Force secretary, Venkitachalam. He broke the devastating news... Ayyappan had died that day. According to his petition to the director of Project Elephant in India, the postmortem results revealed that his intestine was clogged with date seeds. I was utterly speechless, shattered like a broken glass. I hung up the phone and began to cry uncontrollably. They are supposed to feed only seedless dates. I could barely imagine how agonizing the pain must have been for Ayyappan during his final hours!
This majestic animal was kidnapped from the wild, ripped apart from his family and tortured physically and psychologically. He would be wandering freely had he been left in the wild. But he was captured, emasculated, enslaved and brutalized.
Later in the day I received an email attached with photos of Ayyappan's body, covered in garlands and flowers. How ironic that they revered Ayyappan in his death after torturing him all his life. What a tragic paradox! At least Ayyappan will no longer suffer. He is finally free, no more shackles, no more torture, and no more deprivation.
Ayyappan is among the three elephants featured in my film that have died due to serious health issues. I will share the stories of the other two elephants in the coming weeks.