Indian elephant festival

By Kimberly Edwards
This item appears on page 30 of the April 2013 issue.
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The majestic elephant wields a special significance in India, having transported royalty over the centuries, entertained princes, led fabled charges by Rajput warriors and paraded in gold and velvet at religious celebrations.

Desirous of viewing these revered giants during a visit to the southwestern state of Kerala in March ’09, I had my hotel arrange for me to attend an elephant festival (along with another couple).

Following a two-hour taxi drive from the town of Kovalam, we arrived in a village, name unknown, and bounced into a dusty lot connected to a Hindu temple.

Elephants prepare to parade through a village in Kerala, India. (They will go single file.) Photo: Edwards

Between the buildings, dozens of elephants, costumed in bells, tassels, necklaces, medallions and gold-plated headdresses, presided in roped-off areas. Nearby sat their mahouts (handlers), young men passing the time chatting, their sticks at rest, enjoying the warm afternoon.

For two hours, Hindu prayers blared across the yard over a loudspeaker. Though I couldn’t follow the program, it was clear the elephants were being introduced off to the side. Meanwhile, in a designated area between the buildings, shirtless young men in the customary white skirts played drums and cymbals.

As the sun lowered and the crowd swelled, 30-plus elephants, mounted by devotees with tinseled silk parasols and swaying peacock plumes, lined up to parade through the village. I joined the onlookers lining the narrow streets. Exchanging smiles and peace signs with the children and their families gave me great joy.

When the procession began, the beasts strode by in single file. At a pivotal point, the loudspeaker sounded and each elephant stopped to be fed a stalk of bananas. It was exciting to be part of the local community and observe the procession so closely.

After most of the elephants had passed, however, a scream arose from down the crowd. People began to run. It was hard to know what was happening, yet instinctively I grabbed hold of the strangers on either side and ran with them toward the stone building behind us. As the gathering crowd pressed against me, I realized there was little room to move.

Thankfully, control was quickly regained. I recovered my hat, trodden but intact, and my driver whisked me back to the car.

Never did I learn the cause of the panic, but my driver speculated that an elephant had taken a slight step to the side, causing “mob mentality” to grip the bystanders. He revealed that at a previous festival a local woman had been killed.

Would I go again? Yes! The vibrant pageantry of the elephants, the devotion of the men and boys participating in the rites, and the children and families bearing religious paint on their foreheads all are memories I cherish. However, I would offer the following tips to others.

• In picking a spot to watch the elephants parade, avoid narrow streets. Always have a spacious escape route in case the crowd panics.

• Travel with a guide or driver known to your hotel and who will take you away at a moment’s notice or when you are ready to leave.

• Arrange for a designated meeting point.

I would add ‘wear walking shoes’ and ‘as elsewhere in India, women should dress conservatively, especially at temples.’

KIMBERLY EDWARDS
Sacramento, CA

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

The majestic elephant wields a special significance in India, having transported royalty over the centuries, entertained princes, led fabled charges by Rajput warriors and paraded in gold and velvet at religious celebrations.

Desirous of viewing these revered giants during a visit to the southwestern state of Kerala in March ’09, I had my hotel arrange for me to attend an elephant festival (along with another couple).

Following a two-hour taxi drive from the town of Kovalam, we arrived in a village, name unknown, and bounced into a dusty lot connected to a Hindu temple.

Elephants prepare to parade through a village in Kerala, India. (They will go single file.) Photo: Edwards

Between the buildings, dozens of elephants, costumed in bells, tassels, necklaces, medallions and gold-plated headdresses, presided in roped-off areas. Nearby sat their mahouts (handlers), young men passing the time chatting, their sticks at rest, enjoying the warm afternoon.

For two hours, Hindu prayers blared across the yard over a loudspeaker. Though I couldn’t follow the program, it was clear the elephants were being introduced off to the side. Meanwhile, in a designated area between the buildings, shirtless young men in the customary white skirts played drums and cymbals.

As the sun lowered and the crowd swelled, 30-plus elephants, mounted by devotees with tinseled silk parasols and swaying peacock plumes, lined up to parade through the village. I joined the onlookers lining the narrow streets. Exchanging smiles and peace signs with the children and their families gave me great joy.

When the procession began, the beasts strode by in single file. At a pivotal point, the loudspeaker sounded and each elephant stopped to be fed a stalk of bananas. It was exciting to be part of the local community and observe the procession so closely.

After most of the elephants had passed, however, a scream arose from down the crowd. People began to run. It was hard to know what was happening, yet instinctively I grabbed hold of the strangers on either side and ran with them toward the stone building behind us. As the gathering crowd pressed against me, I realized there was little room to move.

Thankfully, control was quickly regained. I recovered my hat, trodden but intact, and my driver whisked me back to the car.

Never did I learn the cause of the panic, but my driver speculated that an elephant had taken a slight step to the side, causing “mob mentality” to grip the bystanders. He revealed that at a previous festival a local woman had been killed.

Would I go again? Yes! The vibrant pageantry of the elephants, the devotion of the men and boys participating in the rites, and the children and families bearing religious paint on their foreheads all are memories I cherish. However, I would offer the following tips to others.

• In picking a spot to watch the elephants parade, avoid narrow streets. Always have a spacious escape route in case the crowd panics.

• Travel with a guide or driver known to your hotel and who will take you away at a moment’s notice or when you are ready to leave.

• Arrange for a designated meeting point.

I would add ‘wear walking shoes’ and ‘as elsewhere in India, women should dress conservatively, especially at temples.’

KIMBERLY EDWARDS
Sacramento, CA