Legend has it that a true Malayali can tell one elephant apart from another, just by looking at it. Although this is an exaggeration, the elephant in all its majesty continues to hold sway in the malayali way of life. Intelligent, gentle and graceful by nature, elephant is our animal of splendor and gaiety, and is an integral part of life in Kerala. They are featured in art, literature, dance, music and above all in our festivals. While traveling through Kerala one would most likely encounter a local temple elephant in the middle of the road, carrying its fodder of coconut palm leaves in its trunk. On national highways cars and buses break for the giant to pass by. These well tamed giants are the center of attraction at Kerala’s festivals. They also have a natural ability to toil in the timber yards, carrying large teak logs through the trails of mountainous forests. Although some domesticated elephants work the hardwood forests, most tamed elephants in Kerala are showcased in our festivals.
Elephants in their natural habitat
Elephants are amazing animals to see in their own environment. The tropical forests of India, Sri Lanka, and South and Southeast Asia are the natural habitats of Asian elephants. In south India wild elephants are found in the forests of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamilnadu. They are distinguished from the African ones by their smaller size, smaller ears, and more rounded back. Periyaar National Park, nestled within the Western Ghats mountain ranges in Kerala, is one of the most captivating wildlife parks and an absolute paradise of wild elephants. The park is covered with dense evergreen forests interspersed with grass lands. The picturesque Periyaar Lake in the heart of this wild life sanctuary is a favorite haunt of playful wild elephants and an ideal place to observe elephants in their natural surroundings. The best time for elephant sightings is the warmer months of summer when the animals are more concentrated around lakes and rivers. Herds of them come here to bathe, swim and frolic in the water. A large elephant herd may contain forty elephants, which include both females and male tuskers and quite a few young calves. Wild elephants live in a matriarchal society. Led by a group of females, elephant calves and young adults all move together from place to place in the forests in search of food. The tuskers often lag behind, unless they fear some approaching danger. The life expectancy of the Asian Elephant is 70 to 80 years.
Sighting a wild herd was indeed a terrifying and awe-inspiring experience. Our car was negotiating a steep hair-pin bend along the mountainous road to Karnataka from Kerala. Cars ahead of us on the road suddenly came to a screeching halt and remained silent; there was a huge wild elephant standing in the middle of the road. The herd was right behind, and they were trying to cross over to the river on the other side. No one in the cars dared to move or speak – we watched them, trembling in silence. The leader of the herd stood in the middle of the road and watched us for a while, and then majestically led its herd across the road. As soon as they crossed, cars began to move. It was an unbelievable experience. Months later when our son wrote about this experience for his elementary school assignment, what you did on your summer vacation, his teacher sent home a note that said – “Your son has a very vivid imagination. But I am concerned that he wrote a story instead of an actual experience”. I still remember the bewildered look on his American teacher’s face when I explained to her that this was indeed a true story.
Elephants in Kerala Festivals
Kerala wakes up to one festival or the other, almost every day of the year. Elephant processions are always a part of Hindu temple festivals; but now other religious festivals also feature elephants. Spring brings along a special air of festivities, when over a hundred temple festivals are celebrated from March through May. The gentle elephant is revered like divinity and given the privilege of escorting the numerous gods and goddesses of this land. Most festivals of Kerala feature spectacular elephant processions, the best occasions to watch the majestic tuskers in all their caparisoned splendor. At the grandest festivals there are several elephants elaborately bedecked with gold-plated headdresses and colorful parasols. Riders on top of the elephants carry peacock feather fans and mohair whisks in their hand. The elephant in the middle would carry a decorated idol of the deity under a golden parasol. They lead the procession swaying to the rhythm of the band of drummers and pipers. When the procession stops at designated points, the drummers and pipers would render a loud serenade and the riders on top of the elephants would stand up and slowly wave their peacock feather fans and mohair whisks. The much-acclaimed Thrissur Pooram festival stands apart with its elaborate panchavaadyam (drums and pipe concerts) concerts, processions of caparisoned elephants, and the elaborate kudamattom, exchange of colorful parasols, on top of thirty elephants standing face to face.
Elephants have a varied vegetarian diet, and feed on grasses, bamboo, leaves, bark, shoots, creepers and palm leaves. They also enjoy sugarcane, bananas, wood apple and mango. The typical Kerala elephant enjoys its share of cooked rice. Anayoottu, feeding of elephants, is a popular offering at temples and they attract many on-lookers. All the elephants are taken to the temple and fed a sumptuous feast of fruits, jaggery and boiled rice. The temple festival at the famous Guruvayoor temple stage another unique event – Anayoottam, elephant run. Punnathoorkotta, near the temple, houses one of the largest groups of captive elephants. These elephants are offered to the deity by rich devotees. During the temple festival elephants are gathered at the banyan tree, a mile away from the eastern entrance to the temple, and from there they make a run to the temple. They enter the temple and touch the kodimaram, flagpole, in the end. The first elephant to touch the flagpole is the winner of the race and earns the privilege of carrying the Lord's thidambu, image, for the procession.
In spite of their size and weight, elephants are really placid animals. Once you get to know them and they get to know you, you will see the true qualities of their gentleness. Elephants only turn aggressive when they are threatened. People of Kerala have long forgotten to fear these tamed elephants. They obey the commands of their caretakers, during festivals and even small children approach to feed them bunches of bananas and chunks of jaggery. Several rich temples own elephants, often donated by devotees. Until a few years ago many well-to-do families In Kerala owned elephants which were considered as members of the household. Exquisite ivory carvings from Kerala are today a thing of the past. The government has banned ivory trade to preserve the elephant population. Bangle bracelets and rings set with a strand of hair from the elephant’s tail are considered auspicious amulets.
Elephants in History and Religion
The early Indians’ fascination for the elephant is reflected on cave drawings. Ancient Indian kingdoms had elephant brigades in their armies besides infantry and cavalry.
Indian literature provides a fascinating history of the association between the elephant and humans over centuries. The elephant is so majestic that in olden times it served as a vehicle for kings. Poet Mathurai Kumaranar Wrote in Purananooru, ancient poems from the Sangam literature of South India (3rd century through 5th century A.D).
The King has chariots with banners fluttering at their heights
With horses that gallop like the rush of the wind and
That king has elephants, which fight as if they were ramming mountains
While his army glowing with weapons, could as well be the ocean.
Along this historical path arrived other kings, both Hindu and Muslim origin, who embraced the elephant as their chosen carriage.
Indian epics and mythology are also sated with stories and anecdotes about the elephant. There is the story of Iravatha, the beautiful white elephant that emerged when Gods and demons churned the ocean of milk. The elephant faced Lord Ganapathi, destroyer of all obstacles, is invoked at the beginning of every endeavor. He is pleased with simple offerings, perhaps a grass garland made with karuka grass or a coconut smashed to smithereens in front of the temple. His favorite food is believed to be modakam, a simple steamed coconut and jaggery sweet encased in rice flour dough.
In contemporary Indian society, elephants continue to be portrayed with as much interest, love and care. Poaching for tusks and illegal trade in ivory have left elephants an endangered species. Elephant tusks weigh over forty to fifty pounds a pair. The dwindling elephant population of Western Ghats is now part of the Elephant Project, a nation wide conservation effort to protect them from extinction.