Elephant Parades in Kottayam

While some things we get to experience are easy to find out about, others are somewhat harder. There was meant to be a 10 day festival called Thirunakkara Arattu Utsavam happening at nearby Kottayam, the highlight of which was to be a parade of 22 elephants. We had found out some dates and had asked around for some more specific details as to which day the elephants were parading and had managed to narrow it down to any day out of three possibilities.  

There were meant to be lots of events on during the ten days so we thought we would catch the bus to Kottayam and see what was what. Kottayam was really buzzy when we arrived with loads of traffic and people everywhere and as we were catching our tuk tuk to our hotel we saw an elephant being walked down one of the streets!! Now we are slowly getting used to seeing the bizarre and wonderful but this sight had both of our jaws on the floor!! It also got us pretty excited that we were on the right trail.

We dumped our bags in our budget hotel and headed straight out to the Thirunakkara temple to try and find out what was going on. The temple was surrounded by a large walled complex where there was a stage set up and a large barricaded walkway running down the centre. At the back of the complex was the temple itself with steps leading up to the entrance. It was obvious that something big was going on and just as we were walking up to the entrance we saw a truck with an elephant on its tray pulling up outside the complex!

We joined the crowd rushing to see what was going on and stood around the truck and watched as the elephant was guided off the truck by his handlers. It was quite amazing watching this huge animal turning 180 degrees on the back of the truck and then using his trunk to locate each step casually stepping off the back. All the while traffic was driving past and the crowd was encroaching closer and closer. I couldn’t believe how close we all were and how calm and unbothered the elephant seemed to be.

The only thing to do was to follow the huge animal as he made his way through the crowds in the complex and up the stairs towards the temple and straight through the front door. I don’t know how he fit through the door but once inside we saw that the temple had about a dozen elephants all scattered around eating under the shade. We honestly didn’t know where to look.

While we were wandering around looking at the elephants enjoying their wash downs and their feed, people were coming up to us to ask where we were from and checking that we were enjoying our time in Kerala. We soon found out that the elephants were indeed going to go on parade at 4pm today!!! We couldn’t believe our luck.

We dragged ourselves away from the elephants and the temple and went for a walk around the town centre where we found a great spot for lunch where the only option was vegetable curry served on a banana leaf accompanied by paratha. The restaurant was pretty basic but just down the road there was a fantastically modern shopping mall which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the centre of Brisabane.  

On our way around we stopped into a sunglasses shop and as usual got chatting and the shop owners were very helpful with recommending where to go and what to see and as we were leaving they asked to be friends on Facebook so we accepted and then they wanted a photo of us all together. By the time we had got back to the hotel for a cooling shower they had posted the photo on Facebook!! The dichotomies of India are going to constantly amaze us.

Soon enough we were back at the temple complex jostling for a good position to see the elephants. There was quite a crowd gathering and the whole complex was a sea of people. Luckily we were about a head taller than most of them so could see everything that was going on. The buzz of of the crowd turned into cheering as the first elephant appeared at the entrance of the temple. The cheering got even loader as the elephant raised it’s trunk in a superb pose. The elephant then walked the length of the complex through a gap in the crowd to take it’s place at the end of the complex right in front of where we were stood.

There then followed another 21 elephants until there were two rows of eleven elephants stood opposite each other about 100m apart. The handlers then proceeded to dress up the elephants with magnificent golden face coverings, necklaces and ankle bracelets. Three people then sat on top of each elephant and the ceremony began.

One of the handlers was holding an umbrella, one some fluffy pom-poms and the last was holding two fan-like things. The ceremony seemed to involve swapping the umbrellas over to ones on different colours whilst waving the pom-poms in the air. This was all accompanied by about 50 musicians who were blowing horns and beating drums in a fantastically fast rhythm. The whole effect was mesmerising and was really getting the crowd going.

As we were stood in the crowd a man who was in the central VIP area waved over to us and shouted that we should come in!! We were pretty easy to spot being the only two westerners in a sea of about 50,000 Indians and soon got ourselves through the scrum where we were waved passed security and welcomed right into the middle of all the action!! We were then able to stand right in front of the glorious elephants while being deafened by the drumming!! We had to laugh at this point as this morning when we set off on the bus we had no idea what was going to happen and now we had seriously hit the jack pot!!

The ceremony lasted from 4-8pm and during that time we got to shake hands and chat with a whole host of wonderful people who all smiled warmly and seemed to be so happy to see us there. We both had eyes popping out of our heads in wonder and huge smiles on our faces in absolute delight!

The show ended and the elephants were undressed and most headed back towards the temple. We thought we would have to move out of the way, but no, they walked them so closely passed us that we could have reached out and touched the huge animals. It has to be said that throughout the whole ceremony the elephants looked completely unfazed by everything and were obviously adored by their handlers. 

One of the elephants didn’t make its way up to the temple and must have lived locally for its handlers guided it the other way through the crowd and onto the street!! Now the elephants are chained to stop them from running but otherwise the handlers are just guiding them with their hands so it was quite awesome to see this huge animal walk its way through the crowds and away from the ceremony.

We walked around a bit soaking up the atmosphere and had a great meal at a locals restaurant all the while smiling away. I think today has to go down as one of the most incredible experiences we will ever be lucky enough to see!!! T

Seeing the truck pull up with an elephant on the back tray was jaw dropping.

The huge animal just casually climbing off the back, not bothered by all the onlookers at all.

He casually made his way up the stairs and into the temple for a wash down and a feed.

It’s really quite wonderful being in the presence of these animals.  At this stage they were all eating away in the temple waiting for the heat of the day to disappear.

During our walk around town we saw this girl having her arms painted with henna in preparation for her upcoming wedding.

An elephant coming down the stairs from the temple and the sea of people waiting for them.  It was mostly men at this stage but more women and children did arrive later but on the whole it was definitely a mostly male affair.

The first elephant to take his place in the line up, this one was playing up for the crowds much to everyone’s excitement.

The line up complete.

The process of dressing the elephants up.

We had a pretty great spot to see the show anyway but we were then invited over the barrier to stand where the guy in green is.

Just awe inspiring to be so close and from where we were stood we were right in the middle of the action.

The musicians who kept up an impressively quick beat throughout the four hours.

Nothing seeemed to faze these elephants I even think some of them were asleep!

The security guys insisted on a selfie with me!

The ceremony in full swing, basically every 15 minutes they would swap the umbrellas for ones of a different colour.

After having their costumes taken off they walked right passed us.  

Heading home off down the road.

The hustle and bustle of the streets after the ceremony had finished. 

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