The great Elephant March-when a 101 gloriously
bedecked elephants parade through the town of Trichur towards the
village Cherpu. The event is viewed with awe and wonder by thousands
of visitors from India and abroad.
The streets are
choc-a-block with cars, jeeps and an assortment of cycles. I am
unable to park my car till a kindly vendor clears a space for me by
unceremoniously pushing a row of cycles against the wall. When I look
doubtful, he grins broadly, nobody will mind today. I
thank him and park.
The air is thick with
excitement. Little girls with scarlet ribbons and giant balloons
hurry their parents along, while the sky fills with streamers. The
rooftops of commercial buildings have been captured by young boys,
while groups of giggling young girls holding their saris tightly join
the crush of people flooding the vast Tekkinkadu maidan, surrounding
the famous Vadakkunnathan Shiva temple at Trichur.
It is an extraordinary
tourist happening, a three day extravaganza designed by the tourism
wizards of Kerala, to be held every January.
The show opens at
Trichur, or Tiru-Shiva-Perur which means the town that bears
the name of Lord Shiva. Set amidst exquisite countryside, Trichur is
a pretty mosaic of old fashioned cottages with sloping tiled roofs,
tidy public structures, a string of shops and thatched sheds for
This sleepy little place
that normally wakes up only once a year for the mammoth Pooram
festival, also held at the Vadakkunnathan temple, seems to have
shaken off its usual lethargy, and appears delighted at the prospect
of playing host to the thousands who have converaged here today;
amongst them a few hundred foreigners.
Streamers and festoons
and gay red banners proclaim- The Great Elephant March. The festival
is built around Keralas best loved animal, the elephant.
A hundred and one
tuskers, gloriously bedecked with glittering gold nettipattams
or frontlets, stand proud and stately in the Tekkinkadu maidan.
Their mahouts are atop, rising brilliantly coloured parasols in a
mock staging of the great Pooram festival. The changing of parasols
is a ritual known as kudamattom performed to the hypnotic
rhythm of the pancharimelam, a traditional form of musical
People scramble to get a
better look at the elephants. A few touch the great beasts and then
shy away, overcome by their own daring. The music reaches a crescendo
and fills the air, while cameras whirr furiously.
A battery of Kerala
Tourism volunteers run hither thither in a flurry of officialdom,
answering queries, consulting the mahouts.
Catherine a Canadian
journalist confesses that she has never seen anything like it.
A hundred and one elephants at one spot! Look at the children, they
arent scared at all. I laugh and reply that an elephant
ambling along the lanes is a common enough sight in Kerala. There
are households that keep the elephant as a member of their family.
Meanwhile, after the
elephants garland the flushed and excited foreign tourists, it is
time for the ceremonious feeding of the elephants. The crowds roar
in delight as the mighty animals raise their trunks and open their
cavernous mouths for the pazham kolas or the knots of ripe
yellow bananas hat are a great favourite with them.
The tourists participate
in this, nervous but keen. Lisa and Dennis Wheatley from New York
are simply thrilled at the whole thing. Gosh, its going to be great
actually sitting on these giant fellers.
In fact the crowning
excitement of the day seems to be the ride atop the beasts, from
Trichur to Cerpu, a village about 12 kilometres away, through the
scenic splendour of the typical Kerala landscape. Acres of coconut
palms, trees heavy with fruit, titled roof houses with spacious
courtyards, luxuriant paddy fields. Villages and towns fuse as one,
dispelling any suggestion of an urban-rural divide.
The second days
festivities are staged in the breathtaking Kuttanad backwaters, in
the coir town of Alleppey. With a backdrop of swaying palms these
sparkling water are a picturesque setting for the snakeboat race
about to begin.
We are at Vattakayal,
somewhere in the middle of the backwatyers on a specially raised
platform of land where chairs are placed on corcarpets that wind
their way across a considerable length. A multi-coloured canopy hangs
overhead protectively. The voice of the master of proceedings blaring
over the loudspeakers is a jarring note in the tense atmosphere of
And finally it begins.
From the far end, long sleek snake boats known as chundan vallams
shoot off in an equal burst of speed. Yet soon some outdistance
the others. Furiously the hands fly in incredibly swift motion as
fast as two dips per second. Sunbacked brown skins, flashing white
teeth and spectacular rhythm.
On the ridges of land
that line the waters, thousands of spectators cheer wildly. A boat
drifts past bearing women in white traditional Kerala dress, with red
shoe flowers in their back hair, who sing the hauntingly melodious
vanchi-pattu or the boat warriors ballads.
There are a hundred
oarsmen in each boat and four cheerleaders. A drum beat pulses
stacatto, egging them on and on. This drum beat is actually a
smashing sound made by one of the cheerleaders hammering away at the
vedi thandi or a central spot on the floor of the boat.
The oarsmen seem
possessed by a demonic energy, sprayed with water, drenched with
Supplies of golden
bananas, crisp tapioca fritters, loaves of freshly baked bread and
fruit juices arrive in tiny canoes for the tourists who are shouting
themselves hoarse, caught up in the general excitement.
Catherine who is sitting,
or rather standing on the chair beside me, has demolished four kariks
or tender coconuts and calls for more.
The boats are neck to
neck and one edges ahead by an inch, to hurl itself across the
finishing line with a supreme final effort. There is absolute
pandemonium for a while with the tourists yelling and the spectators
jumping into the waters to congratulate the winners.
It takes a few minutes to
register that the water carnival is over Catherine is despondent but
cheers up at the thought of the next days show. In any
case she declares! ;love elephants more.
The third and final day
dawns in Trivandrum, Keralas lovely green capital city, built
on five hills. In the central stadium, the mighty elephants wait
patiently, their great ears fanning back and forth.
Suddenly the sky is
filled with thousands of coloured bits of paper dropped from a
special display aircraft. The show is beginning. The temple musicians
build up the pancha vadyam a musical display of five
instruments, the chenda, madalam, elathalam, kuzhal and the
By now the tourists have
got over their awe of the elephants, and walk up close to click
picture after picture. The stadium seats are overflowing. The whole
of Kerala responds with incredible enthusiasm to festivals.
Somehow the feeling is
one of enjoyment rather than excitement. Its like settling down
happily in a theatre seat, knowing in advance that the performance
will be spectacular. The last two days have given us reason to expect
only the fabulous.
The elephant show is
followed by a hilarious tug of war between the elephant Wynad Mohana
and a hundred youths. Clearly the huffing and puffing youths are no
match for the stolid tusker who seems to exert hardly at all. The
youths pull and the elephant tugs, then suddenly, almost
deliberately, Wynad Mohana lets go he rope. Crash
The young boys collapse in a heap while the giant animal seems to
grin from ear to ear.
There is a cultural
fiesta after this-Kalaripayat, Mohiniattam, Bharat Natyam
spectators who till nowhere languorously draped across the chairs,
now stiffen to collective attention as the kalaripayat gets underway.
This marital art is
believed to be the forerunner of all oriental forms of martial art.
Taught initially at kalaris or schools for the warrior clan,
kalaripayat has survived in all its glory to date.
A team of muscled,
bare-chested men leap on the performing stage. Each bends gracefully
at the feet of his guru for his blessings, and the
demonstrations begin. It is fascinating to watch the oiled glistening
ebony skin, flashing limbs in a flowing symphony of motion.
The aging guru
also participates, his body still tightly wrought and flowing in even
more fluid motion than his shishyas. The expression of
surprise at attack, anger and retaliatory fury, are beautifully
expressed on their faces. There is no accompanying music, only the
thud of their feet on the stage and the clash of metal weapons.
There is petering away of
sound, a flagging of spirits, that marks the end of the festivities.
It would all have been over on a forlorn note, but for the final
gathering by the sea at Trivandrums premier beach resort,
Kovalam is a sheltered
natural bay that has an illusory quality about it. A sheet of pure
silver sand curves into an arc that is bordered on one side by the
azure waters, and on the other by a sumptuous spread of green palm
The night air is fragrant
and fresh. Chairs are placed under thatched umbrellas on the sand.
The tourists stand around in little groups talking animatedly,
exchanging notes. Mr.Jayakumar, Director, Kerala Tourism, looks
pleased. When asked as to whether he was happy with the turnout, he
says that the response has been fantastic. The idea was to
give the visitor a glimpse of Keralas rich heritage, a taste of
Kerala so to speak, and in that I think weve succeeded.
Bright lights, the soft
sand under our feet, and the cool sea breeze washing over us make for
a heady experience. Suddenly a million fireworks explode in unison,
renting the sky with indigo, magenta and silver stars. The Great
Elephant March is at an end, it is goodbye then, until the next
magara maasam or the month of January, when elephants and men
will meet and celebrate once again, playing host to the new year on
the loamy rich soil of kerala.