Elephants in Kerala culture: Wikis


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An elephant named Sri Hari during Sree Poornathrayesa temple festival, Thrippunithura.
Mahouts helping an elephant to take a bath, Thrissur, Kerala
Mahout and his elephant Guruvayoor, Thrissur, Kerala

The Elephants are an integral part of the daily life in Kerala, India.[1] These Indian elephants are loved, revered, groomed and given a prestigious place in the state's culture.[2] Elephants in Kerala are often referred to as the 'sons of the sahya.' As the state animal, the elephant is featured on the emblem of the Government of Kerala.


Elephants in festivals

Elephants standing during Thrissur pooram festival in Kerala state of south India.

Almost all of the festivals in Kerala include at least one richly caparisoned elephant. Elephants carry the deity during annual festival processions and ceremonial circumnambulations in the temples. The temple elephants are decorated with gold plated caparisons (nettipattom), bells, and necklaces. People mounted on the elephants hold tinselled silk parasols (muthukuda) up high, swaying white tufts (venchamaram) and peacock feather fans (aalavattom) to the rhythm of the orchestra.[3]Most of the Hindu temples in Kerala own elephants, the majority of which are donated by devotees. The famous Guruvayur temple in Kerala has more than 60 domesticated elephants, thus the presiding deity, Guruvayurappan, is said to be the owner of the world's largest number of domesticated elephants. The world's only Elephant Palace is constructed in Punnathur Kotta, 3 km from the temple, to house the temple's elephants. A famous elephant, named Guruvayur Keshavan, belonged to this temple.

Seventeen elephants are engaged for the daily ceremonial rounds to the accomplishment of Panchari Melam in the Koodalmanikyam Temple. The headgear of seven of these elephants is made of pure gold and rest of pure silver, which is unique to this temple.

Some famous festivals in Kerala are:

  • [1]
  • Arattupuzha Pooram
  • Chinakkathoor pooram
  • Nemmara Vallangi Vela
  • Thrissur Pooram
  • Kollam Pooram
  • Uthralikavu Pooram
  • Tripunithara Vrischikolsavam
  • Chettikulangara Bharani, Mavelikkara
  • Ganapathy-Naagam Vela, Vadakkencherry, Palakkad
  • Kavasseri Pooram, Kavasseri
  • Vadakanthara Vela, Palakkad
  • Manapullikavu Vela, Palakkad
  • Mannarkkadu pooram,Mannarkkad,Palakkad

Famous Kerelan elephants in history and legend

Caparisoned elephants during Sree Poornathrayesa temple festival. Mahout with his thotti (hook).

Many elephants are featured in the legends of the land. Aithihyamala (or a garland of historical anecdotes) by Kottarathil Sankunni was written in eight volumes; each volume ending with a story or legend about a famous elephant.

Some famous Kerelan elephants are:

  • kuttankulangara ramadas
  • Guruvayur Keshavan
  • Guruvayur Padmanabhan
  • Kuttankulangara arjunan
  • Mangalamkunnu Ganapathi
  • Mangalamkunnu Karnan
  • Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan
  • Mavelikkara Unnikrishnan
  • thiruvambadi sivasundar
  • Paramelkavu Parameshwaran
  • Thechikottukavu Ramachandran
  • Thirumala Ramdas
  • Thiruvambadi Chandrashekharan
  • Nanu Ezuthachan Sreenivasan

Elephants in captivity

Kerala has more than seven hundred elephants in captivity. Most of them are owned by temples and individuals. They are used for religious ceremonies in and around the temples, and a few elephants work at timber yards.

Caring for elephants

Each elephant has three mahouts, called pappan in the Malayalam language. The most important duty of the mahouts is to bathe and massage the elephant with small rocks, and the husk of coconuts.

In the monsoon season, the elephants undergo Ayurvedic rejuvenation treatments which include decoctions with herbs, etc. It is called Sukha Chikitsa in the Malayalam language.

Mahouts may be classified into three types, called in the Sanskrit language:

  • Reghawan: Those who use love to control their elephants.
  • Yukthiman: Those who use ingenuity to outsmart them.
  • Balwan: Those who control elephants with cruelty.

Ornaments used for elephants

Caparisoned elephants during Sree Poornathrayesa temple festival, Thrippunithura.

One of the famous families in Trichur district of Kerala, the Venkitadri family, has made ornaments for three generations, especially for the famous Thrissur pooram, the most famous of the Hindu temple-centred festivals. They make gold plated caparisons, umbrellas, alavattam, venchamaram, and necklaces. They decorate one hundred and fifty elephants with ornaments for temple festivals.

Female mahout in Kerala

Nibha Namboodiri is the first woman mahout in India. She is a zoologist from Kerala state. Now she is moving into the field of elephant welfare.

Devices used to control elephants in Kerala

Elephants in Kerala are trained not to move when a Valiya kol (long pole) is kept on them.

In India, and especially in Kerala, mahout use three types of device to control elephants. Thotti (hook) which are 3.5 feet in length and 3 inches thick, Valiya kol (long pole) which are 10.5 feet in length and 5.5 inches in thickness, and cheru kol (short pole).

Auspicious and inauspicious signs to determine the quality of an elephant

In Kerala, as in other states, the presence or absence of certain physical characters determine the quality of an elephant, especially its temperament and disposition. Those buying elephants pay attention to these traits when determining whether an elephant is auspicious enough to be owned or purchased.

These traits include[4]:

a) Portion on the face between the eyes and the tusk (cheela), b) leg and nails, c) tail and d) tusk and trunk.
a) Ear, b) eyes and temporal region (kannakuzhi), c) twin domes on the head (thalakunni), d) forehead bump (vayukumbham) and e) tusk.
Soman the elephant at an elephant training centre, Konni, Pathanamthitta
Eyes of an Asian elephant.
  • A dignified look with a raised head and low back.
  • The fore and the hind feet should be placed straight and firm on the ground. The legs must be straight without deformity.
  • The twin domes on the head (thalakunni), should be big, raised and evenly separated. They must not be close to each other
  • The forehead bump (vayukumbham) must be broad and projecting forwards.
  • The portion on the face, between the eyes and the tusk (cheela) must be compact. This portion must be long and broad. In cow (female) elephants this region is less pronounced.
  • The eyes must appear clear, with the colour of honey and should be moist. The pupils must be dilated. Red eyes in elephants indicate an aggressive and angry temperament. This is also observed during musth. Eyes may turn red due to injuries. One must be wary of elephants that have a fixed gaze.
  • The ears must be large. While being fanned, they must strike with a loud flapping sound, at the front. Small ears are not desirable in elephants.
  • The tusks are decisive in judging an elephant 's appeal. They may be formed in several ways such as, converging in the front, diverging, or curved upwards, etc. The ideal is that, the tusks should grow downwards, rise up, and then be evenly separated. The colour must be that of butter or sandalwood.
  • The trunk should be fleshy, broad , long and trailing on the ground. The tip of the trunk (thunikkai), must be long, triangular and strong. Injuries to the trunk, especially the thunikkai may disfigure the elephant.
  • The temporal region, (kannakuzhi), must be swollen and fleshy. If this region appears depressed due to loss of fat or flesh, it can be assumed that the elephant is tired or weak.
  • The back must slope downwards. The bones of the back must be pronounced and the area where the mahout sits (irikkasthanam), must be broad and fleshy ; otherwise it will not be a comfortable ride. This seat of the mahout, is above the forelegs and the scapular bone.
  • The body must be long and the stomach must always be full and big.
  • The tail must be long and end broadly into a fleshy region (vaal kudam). There should be ample hair on the tail. The tail must be long enough to touch the ankle, but not too long to trail on the ground, and should be devoid of twists or turns.
  • Elephant usually have 18 nails; five each on the forelegs and four each on the hind legs. Rarely some have 20 nails, which is considered very auspicious. Indian mythology claims that Airavat, the elephant of Lord Indra, possessed 20 nails. Elephants that possess 16 nails are considered inauspicious for individuals to own, but institutions like temples could keep them. The nails must be clear and smooth without cracks and must appear pronounced like the shell of a tortoise. Elephants used for labour and physical activity may have broken nails.
  • The skin must be jet black in colour ( like black teak or a group of rocks). In Malayalam elephants are called kariveeran, meaning the ‘black hero’. The skin must be resilient. Lack of resilience is an indication of dehydration.
  • When multiple hairs arise from a single root, it is considered an indicator of long life, and is a good sign. These occur usually below the eye or between the eye and the trunk, or on the sides of their chin.
  • If the insides of the mouth or the upper surface of the tongue is black , the elephant’s character is considered unpredictable.
  • It is inauspicious to have black markings on the penis.
  • The elephant makes a gurgling sound, from the throat, on seeing its favorite mahout or owner. Similarly it may excrete dung or urinate, to express its happiness. All these are considered as good signs. If the elephant remains motionless (without fanning its ears), when approached, then one must be wary of it.

See also

External links




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