Bejewelled and wearing golden head coverings called nettipattam, elephants majestically sway through the streets lined with people. Bells and necklaces tinkle as they go. Priests and elephant riders called Mahouts sit on their backs. And they carry with them fans made from peacock feathers called Aalavattom and silk parasols called Muthukuda, swaying them to the rhythmic Panchavadyam or temple music. Scenes such as these are common in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where the animals play an important role in annual religious festivals.
The biggest of these is called Thrissur Pooram, dubbed the Kerala Elephant Festival. It’s a takes place each year in the month of Medam and sees ten temples honour the god Shiva and features over one hundred elephants. Today, tourists flock to observe this 200-year-old festival, mesmerised by the bright and colourful scenes.
But elephants don’t just play a one-off annual role in life in Kerala. Indeed, a visit to Hindu temples in the stunning southern state will reveal that most of them are home to at least one of these magnificent mammals. Many are there as a result of a common religious custom in the region, where elephants are donated to the temple as way of an offering.
The grounds of Punnathurkotta are home to some of the 60 elephants from the Guruvayar temple – reported to be the largest number of temple elephants in India. Now, visitors to the temple are greeted by a life-sized statue of Gajarajan Guruvayur Kesevan, or the Elephant King. He was one of country’s most famous elephants, living to a grand old age of 72. And his death is still marked every year with a procession featuring the temple’s other elephants.
But in Kerala, it isn’t just on account of their religious roles that elephants feature prominently. According to the animal organisation, the World Wildlife Fund, there are now between 20,000 and 25,000 Indian elephants globally. And with its tropical climate and geography, Kerala provides an ideal home for the animal and has seen the establishment of the Tirunelli-Kudrakote Elephant corridor.
Covering over two thousand acres in the Nilgiri area, this piece of land is the product of collaborations between animal protection groups such as the Elephant Family and local community groups. Land has been purchased and 54 families undertook moves to remove themselves from the area and being rehoused nearby. The result is unbroken, human-free piece of the planet, where elephants and, indeed other animals can roam. The corridor is also sandwiched between two further protected areas, making it home to the largest population of elephants in the world.