A mammoth blessing
Each religion has his favourite animal. Hinduism, which has a broad-minded ecological outlook, adores many animals. But still the elephant is one of the favourites since it is used in temples to carry the image of the deity. Also, the elephant is considered to be a symbol of Lord Ganapati. Elephants are a fixture in temples of Kerala.
Their presence adds to the majesty of the deity. And a unique rite held in certain temples is the elephant race. There is a huge debate over the use of elephants for race nowadays. So, it is interesting to dwell upon the religious and mythical importance of the rite.
In Guruvayoor, the festival is celebrated during the month of Kumbha (February-March). The rite of elephant race is conducted prior to the hoisting of the temple flag for the festival.
As part of the ceremony, the elephants are made to run from near the banyan tree by name “Manjulaal” at the east door to the main gate, named after Manjula, a great devotee of Lord Krishna. Then the elephants are made to circumambulate the temple tower thrice. The one that touches the flag post first, having completed the circumambulation, is declared the winner.
The winner elephant is given certain privileges. During all the 10 days of the festival, the winner elephant can consume the rice meal made up of a special variety of grain and the sweet broth offering at the temple.
Similarly, during the Sreebhootha Bali procession, Thidampu, the gold frame that represents the deity will be placed and made to bear on the back of this elephant. The devotees also feed the animal plantain, jaggery and coconut. He who bears the title “the king of elephants” is treated with love, care and respect.
There is a legend relating to the elephant race in this temple. It was from the king of Kochi that the elephants were hired for the procession during the festival. Once while it was time for the festival, the king, who had a grudge against the temple authorities, informed them that the elephants were not available. This worried the authorities and the devotees.
Swasthi prajabhya paripaalayanthaam
Nyayyena maargena maheem maheesaa
(Let the subjects enjoy wellness. Let the kings maintain the world doing them justice.)
This is what the dictum says. But here, the king himself did injustice and caused them worry. Hence, people sought refuge at the feet of the deity Himself. They stood crowded at the temple gate on the day of the flag hoisting for the festival. And they kept chanting His names aloud, full of piety.
Amazingly, there came two elephants at the eastern gate in the afternoon, circumambulated the temple and stopped near the flag post, all, on their own. The people praised the Lord and fed the elephants with jaggery, plantain, coconut etc. The festival was celebrated with all the pomp, as ever before. Later it was known that these elephants had run away from Irinjalakuda Koodalmanikyam temple. The mahouts who followed the elephants, running after them all the way, heaved a sigh of relief and took them back.
It is in memory of this incident that elephant race was included in the rites of the festival next year on.
Also, in Thiruvarppu Sree Krishna Swami Temple elephant race is part of the festival. It is held in the month of Meda (April-May). The elephant at the procession is provoked with howling and made to run. However, since the mahout will be on its back to control it, it all ends in peace.
Elephants are an integral part of our religion and any decision to regulate their presence in festivals should be taken keeping our traditions in mind.
— Dr Venganoor Balakrishnan is the author of Thaliyola, a book on Hindu beliefs and rituals. He has also written books on the Vedas and Upanishads. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org