March 1, 2016
01.03.2016 - 01.03.2016 33 °C
Today was the elephant festival or Utharikkavu Pooram, which means festival to the gods.
We set out for the temple in town after breakfast to see what was happening. Just as we got there, a big elephant came walking along with his handlers or mahouts. They took him on a circle walk around the temple, which we were told later was to bless the elephant. As I stood watching, the elephant hesitated as he passed me and started to put his trunk out toward me. His handler called him off right away – I think he just wondered what such a white person was doing there. I promptly claimed him as “my elephant” and we decided to follow him around and see all the steps in getting ready for the festival.
We followed this elephant along the street to an area where they were washing the elephants, watering them – by sticking a running hose in their mouths, and feeding them prior to getting them decorated for the festival. While we were watching this, a couple approached me and told me “my elephant” was the largest elephant of the 9 from Wadakkanchery and would be carrying the “god”. This gold plaque was given to the temple by this woman’s grandfather, 90 years ago, and her family takes care of it at their home when it is not in use at a festival. They had seen me walk down the street and I had the impression that they came over specifically to talk to me and tell me this information. I also found out “my elephant” was named Arjuna and is anywhere from 34 to 65 years old, depending on who you ask.
When it was time to go, they lined up the elephants on the street and paraded them around a couple of blocks over to the temple.
It was now time to put on all the fancy decorations. Arjuna got decorated right in the temple courtyard and then the other 8 elephants joined him. They formed a line and the horn players and drummers started up. The ritual of music, called panjandrum, and whatever ritual the Hindu priests were doing was to transfer the god, Shiva, from the temple to this plaque that Arjuna would carry to the other temple out of town.
This “music” is quite a cacophony and after listening for awhile, we went out the side of the temple. There we were asked if we had eaten yet, we said no and then were taken to the head of the food line. Rice and curry and drinks for 10,000 people free of charge!! Amazing and delicious as well. It wasn’t very spicy, so I think I got off pretty lightly. They use metal plates, which are washed by a team of people to keep clean ones coming and everyone eats with their hands, so paper cups are the only garbage.
Eventually the rituals were over and it was time to start the procession. This procession passes down the main street and along the road to the temple of Utharikkavu, which is 3 km away. As they traveled down the road, 4 elephants across, there were places where they stopped and the horns and drums started up again for awhile. Although we had thought we would stay with the elephants the whole way, it was too slow and too hot in the sun, so we went on with the thousands of other people and made it to the festival grounds well ahead of the elephants. We found a fairly shady place to sit on some concrete steps with a view of the festival grounds. Large areas are blocked off so they can set off the fireworks safely.
There were nine elephants representing Wadakkanchery, and two other villages each brought 15 and 9 elephants respectively. Each elephant has three men on his back and the lead elephant from each village has four men. One man holds the tall umbrella, one the fly whisks, and one holds the large round fans. The fourth man on the lead elephants has to hold up the “god plaque” on the elephant’s neck – a very tough job to do for hours at a time. When the elephants arrived, they got to go off and get watered and fed again.
We think there was a lot of ritual going on that we had no idea about. We were quite a distance from the little temple and of course, as non-Hindus, we would not be allowed in (not that it was big enough, anyway). There were three sets of fireworks set off. The first one was about 4:30 – no colour, just smoke and noise. They were so loud, I could feel the explosion right thru my body. Incredible!! Then a long pause, then another set around 6:00. Each village does a set. Then they brought all the elephants down to the festival field and lined them up. They did some drumming and horns while the men on the backs of the elephants switched off the umbrellas they were carrying for many different colours of umbrellas. We have no idea of the meaning of this. But once it was done, the lead elephants from each village had to go to the temple and have the god transferred from the plaque to the temple for the night. This seemed to take ages, as we were standing in a large field of people in the dark waiting for whatever was next. They finally had all the elephants lined up in one line for a round of drumming and then the elephants left. We went up to the street to wait for the final fireworks. They had some colourful ones this time and lots of noise again. Even plugging your ears doesn’t help very much.
After those fireworks were done, we started walking back to our hotel, along with several thousand other people on the road with us. We heard there would be 40,000 people there at the festival site. We have no way to confirm this, but I think I have never been at any site with so many people before.
We picked up some food on our way back and ate in our hotel room after showering off all the grime of the day. Then we hit the bed.