3/2/2014 – The first sign of the Uthralikavu festival came as we drove into town and saw a huge wooden gate, lashed together with rough coconut fiber ropes and coated with freshly-painted designs. Beneath it, a steady stream of people walked down a side street. Naturally, we followed and got our first glimpse of what was to come in the following days. A colorful awning was erected and beneath it were a row of tall, folded umbrellas made from rich red fabric and decorated with gold fringe. In their center, wreathed with flowers, sat a shiny, gold plated icon of the local goddess who was said to reside in the adjacent temple, which was now being decorated with colorful garlands, banana fronds and long strands of shiny silver flags. Huge circular peacock-feather fans, yak’s-wool pom-poms and what looked like oblong gold-plated breastplates were strewn below, completing the display. Locals stopped to gawk and greeted our enthusiasm warmly, posing for pictures alongside us and explaining the display in snippets of broken English—this was all for the elephants to wear tomorrow.
It’s hard to grasp the true size and power of an elephant until you’re standing beside one. Having only seem them in zoos and years ago, it was truly astounding to confront an entire square full of them the next morning. We milled about taking photos as the patient elephants, clearly accustomed to crowds, happily munched on coconut fronds and handfuls of rice, lovingly hand-fed to them by their mahouts. After breakfast, the elephants bathed, sucking water from a bucket into their trunks and spraying it over their backs and often some of the crowd. Their mahouts helped reach the areas out of trunk’s range with a hose.
Now clean and well-fed, the elephants were fitted out in their costumes and their riders, three per elephant, climbed atop with surprising grace given they were wearing traditional dhotis (wrapped sarongs). They began to enter the temple compound, circling around the inner sanctum before taking their place in front of it—nine elephants in all, the central beast displaying the gilded icon atop his towering shoulders. This particular elephant happened to be the tallest in all of Kerala and was known by name in casual conversation (that’s Thechikaddu Ramachandran, if you’re curious). Posters pasted to all surfaces around town announced his presence, listing the names of his supporting elephants as well. With the reverent tone you’d hear people take when discussing their favorites, you’d think they were talking about rock stars not elephants..
The elephants stood patient and calm as a troop of musicians playing traditional drums and horns at top volume serenaded them and the thronging crowd. Men young and old jockeyed for position near the musicians, raising their hands and stomping their feet in time to the beat. Women, clad in their Sunday best, bright saris in a rainbow of patterns hugged the edge of the temple compound, shielding young children from flailing arms and legs and toe-tapping to the music. As midday approached, the air inside even the shaded temple compound became thick with humidity and incense smoke and we began to droop as quickly as the jasmine flowers adorning every young woman’s shiny dark hair. Little did we know, this morning was just a preview of what was to come…
The following morning, amid varying levels of enthusiasm, we departed the hotel at 5:30 to travel to the main festival site, a few miles away from the temple we’d visited the day before. As we approached on foot, bedraggled revelers streamed by us, headed home after having been up celebrating at the festival all night. Even from our remote hotel, we’d heard the resonating boom of firecrackers throughout the night. A few last fireworks lit the still-dark sky as we approached the festival grounds. At the site, two elaborately lit wooden facades resembling tall pagodas shone in the pre-dawn hemming in the temple itself, also festooned with a colorfully illuminated, specially built wooden gate. Despite the early hour and they crowds we’d seen leaving the field surrounding the temple was swarming with people. Young kids clung to their mother’s saris as vendors hawking balloons, plastic toys, trinkets and ice cream milled about with purpose. Young men roamed in tight groups, leaning on one another and holding hands with a natural intimacy we inexplicably find strange in the West.
From three sides, groups of elephants approached, each group bringing the icon of one of three sister goddesses that are united once a year at this festival. Each group was preceded by it’s own troop of musicians, all playing to outshine the others. The very air reverberated with the rich sound of large drums beat with wooden sticks and many-toned brass horns. Atop the elephants, the riders responded to the music, waving their peacock fans, lifting their umbrellas to the music and standing aloft to sway in time with their yaks-wool pom-poms like cheerleaders in slow motion. In the spirit of friendly competition, one group swapped out their umbrellas every few minutes for different colors—saffron, indigo, deep red, gold, pure white, a medley of lime, pink and turquoise. Other groups seemed to turn up the volume of their drummers in response.
Then, according to some unapparent cue, the three tallest elephants—those carrying the icons, left their groups and converged on the entrance of the central temple. The riders on top, leaned back precariously, pulled the icon on top of them to prevent it from hitting the lintel of the temple doorway. Amazingly, the elephants broad hips filled the doorway fully but allowed them to saunter in without any trouble. Each elephant’s troop of drummers and musicians followed him inside and then around the temple’s inner sanctum, completing a full circle that ended at the entrance to the inner shrine. At the mouth of the shrine, a holy man with long grey hair wearing a white dhoti, a belt of tarnished bells and a necklace of brilliant pink flowers, carrying a scythe also adorned with flowers, met the elephants and blessed them. The first bowed forward on his knees as the man raised a burning oil lamp toward the icon and offered a basket of rice. Following the blessing of each of three icons, the band of musicians would beat their drums and blew their horns with renewed fervor, creating a trance-like ambiance swirling with the deep beat of the drums, the swarming people jostling for position near the elephant and bouncing on their heels to the music and the sweet scent of incense wafting from inner shrine mixed with sweat and elephant dung.
Once each of the three elephants and their icons completed the procession around the temple, they all filed out into the open field and lined up in a single row—25 elephants, each sumptuous in its gold headplate dripping with colored tassels, necklaces and anklets of bells and easily supporting three or four riders, surely tired but sitting proudly in their dhotis, elevating their ceremonial parasols. En masse, the musicians beat out one more number and then the spell was broken. One by one, each elephant’s mahout led them away from the crowd to remove its ceremonial garb—at least until they arrived to the next festival. Driving by the temple grounds a few hours later, the area which only hours before had been buzzing with activity looked sad and desolate. Discarded paper blew across the dusty ground as workers piled up racks of metal pipes that had held the night’s fireworks. As we pulled out of town, a truck passed with a sleepy looking elephant standing it a custom-made harness in back, headed in the opposite direction.