I was promised that there would be fifty-one elephants at the Keralan Festival near Kollam on Friday. When I arrived I was too overwhelmed by all of the gold-bedecked pachyderms, the banging drums, clashing cymbals, dancing men and smiling faces to get a firm count on the promised fifty-one but I can assure you that there were plenty of elephants on parade.
Elephants are sacred to Hindus and closely associated with the elephant-headed god Ganesha – Lord of Success and Destroyer of Obstacles. I think we could all use some assistance, now and again, from an obstacle-destroying elephant. So thank you, Ganesha.
Keralans seem especially fond of elephants and there is much to be fond of: five tons of beautiful animal, their strong, sly trunks, thick eyelashes, and surprising toenails (five toenails on each front foot, four on each back foot). They fill the roads with prodigious quantities of elephant-sized shit and elephant-sized piss from their elephant-sized lingams. (Suggesting comparison here to a flesh colored fire hose gushing the warm yellow would not nearly do them justice.)
The parading elephants, wearing gold-plated crowns and jewels and ridden by men in white robes with brightly colored parasols, lumbered down the road accompanied by their private orchestras – men clanging cymbals and beating drums to create what I came to think of as each elephant’s personal theme music.
Managing all of these elephants in one small-ish town involves some creative, if not always pleasant, institutions. The thick chains wrapped round and connecting the elephants ankles don’t look comfortable – a constant reminder that despite being so beloved and bejeweled, these enormous, intelligent creatures do not belong in captivity.
At least the official “SPCA Elephant Squad” was on hand, patrolling the streets in their “Emergency Elephant Care Unit,” a green ambulance-like truck, ready to provide elephant first-aid if called.
And we all know about the dangers of drunk driving. But what about drunk elephant driving? The local police are on top of that, too – conducting sobriety tests on the elephant mahouts (drivers). The mahout pictured at right seemed surprised and amused when he and his elephant were pulled over. Fortunately for all, he passed the blow test.
I am happy to point out now that I was wrong when I wrote that Kerala and the South of India aren’t as stimulating as the North. Kerala is more touristy and it took me a little longer to scratch the surface, but I have found just as much color, joy and life here as I did in Rishikesh and Varanasi, which is saying a lot. In my years of travel in over 40 countries, I think India may be the most engaging and rewarding place I have visited yet. I have sometimes felt, in the past two months, like India is the place I was searching for during all my previous travels and that somehow, whether through self-manifestation or simple luck, I have found everything I was consciously seeking in India as well as some things I didn’t know that I was looking for in myself.
I don’t know if this will be as hard for you to accept as it is for me and I don’t know how to break it to you any more gently. This is my last day in India. As the sun sets I leave the elephant festival and all too quickly I am on my last train, sipping my last masala chai, tearing my last warm chappati, clinging to my last swerving auto-rickshaw, boarding my flight, wheels up and up and though I am miles above India, the cymbals and drums are still ringing in my ears, fifty-one elephants.