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There exists in Malayalam a term for a kind of mania that Keralans succumb to en masse during the winter festival season: anapraanth, or “elephant madness”. Various manifestations of this uniquely South Indian mentality occur, but the most pervasive is the tradition of parading elephants around temple precincts during festivities – or utsavam – accompanied by ear-splitting drum orchestras and firework displays.
Tens of thousands turn up to adore the assembled tuskers, which are always caparisoned with gold headdresses (nettipattom).
A total of around seven hundred elephants live in captivity in Kerala, ninety percent of them in the care of temples. The largest and best loved enjoy film-star status. One – a massive 3.2-metre-tall tusker called Guruvayur Keshavan who, before his death at the age of 72 in the 1970s, was adored for his exceptional intelligence and devotion to Krishna – has even had his skeleton, tusks, and a life-size effigy of him placed at the entrance to the famous Guruvayur temple for pilgrims to venerate.
Temples actually compete to secure the services of the most beautiful animals, bidding often huge sums at auction for past winners of the prestigious annual Gaja Raja elephant beauty competition. Websites such as elephantstars.com have also sprung up to keep fans in touch with their favourite performers, in which enthusiasts animatedly compare the lengths of different elephants’ trunks, prominence of their foreheads and way they hold up their heads. There’s even a weekly show dedicated to temple tuskers on the Malayali TV channel, Kairali.
However, the increasing popularity, and scale, of Keralan utsavam has placed the pachyderm population under considerable strain. Not only do processional elephants have to stand for hours enduring the barage of drumming and fireworks, they also have to walk for up to twelve hours between venues, or be trundled over bumpy roads in the back of specially adapted Tata trucks.
Moreover, to suppress must (an annual phase of sexual heat in which male elephants grow restless, oozing liquid from glands between their eyes and ears), their mahouts sometimes deprive them of water for two or three days at a stretch. Randy tuskers regularly crack under the strain and go on the rampage: an average of fifty people are trampled to death each year, and hundreds injured – worth bearing in mind if the anapraanth takes you and you’re drawn too close.
A holy racket
Whether big or small, temple utsavam always follow a similar set structure. First off, the lead elephant, resplendently caparisoned in a golden nettipattom,carries the temple deity shield in procession around the temple courtyard, usually three times, accompanied by a small drum troupe. Then, the full team of tuskers lines up to be serenaded by the massed panchavadyamorchestra, comprising as many as a hundred-and-fifty drummers playing traditional hard-skinned chenda.
They stand in ranks before the animals, bare-chested in white cotton mundu, with a row of master performers at the front trying to outdo each other with their speed, stamina, improvisational skills and showmanship. Facing the chenda will then be musicians playing long double-reed, oboe-like kuzhals and C-shaped kompu bell-metaltrumpets. Over an extended period, the whole cacophonypasses through four distinct phases, each twice as fast as the last, from a grand and graceful dead slow through to a frenetic pace.
At the arrival of the fastest tempo, boys astride the elephants stand to perform elaborately choreographed routines with yak-tail fly whisks and giant peacock-feather fans. Sequined umbrellas are twirled in flashes of dazzling colour, their pendants glinting silver in the sun. Cymbals crash furiously, often raised above the head, and a chorus of trumpets, blasting in ragged unison, create a sound that can have altered little in centuries.
All this is greeted by roars from the crowd: many people punch the air, while others are clearly talam branthans, rhythm “madmen”, who follow every nuance of the structure, fuelled by copious quantities of alcohol. When the fastest speed is played out, the slowest tempo returns and the procession edges forward for the next cycle, the mahouts leading the elephants by the tusk.
©David Abram 2009
This article was first published in the Rough Guide to Kerala, and is reproduced by permission of the author.