Every year, on the first day of the month of Karkkidakam (July-August), according to the Malayalam calendar, hordes of people descend on Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, to witness the Aanayoottu, or the ceremonial feeding of elephants.
The crowd has to be seen to be believed, as the Vadakkunathan Temple transforms into a sea of humanity. Though it lacks the pomp and pageantry of Thrissur Pooram -the spectacular festival of colour, light and sound, caparisoned elephants and the breathtaking display of pyrotechnics- we saw people perched just about everywhere...on roof-tops, trees, lamp-posts, scaffoldingsâ€¦.wherever they could find a toehold, all eager to have a glimpse of the much-awaited annual feast.
Elephants occupy the pride of place in the social and cultural milieu of Malayalis. Since time immemorial, Malayalis have always loved, respected and revered the domesticated elephant.
As Malayalis -especially Hindus- consider this mammal a harbinger of good fortune and an â€˜obstacle-removerâ€™, they have become an inseparable and integral part of the religious life in Kerala.
It is fascinating to watch 30 unadorned elephants positioned in a straight line and worshipped with a delicious feast. There are other special rituals too by which elephants are worshipped.
Ayurveda -an alternative system of medicine that originated in the Indian subcontinent- considers this month ideal for all kinds of rejuvenation therapies. The main idea of feeding elephants is to give them the benefit of such therapeutic treatment.
The day starts with the Ganapathi Homam to propitiate Lord Ganesha, the elephant-God or Vigneshwara, the â€˜removerâ€™ of all obstacles. The preparations that go on for the mammoth feast in one of the nooks of the temple are as interesting as the festival itself.
A group of 55 cooks are engaged in preparing huge medicated rice balls that are meant for feeding the 30 elephants lined up for the festival. The number of items used are mind-boggling - 10,000 coconuts, 2,200 kilograms of jaggery, 50 kilos of rice to churn out 6,000 appams, 2,000 adas and 1,600 kgs of beaten rice.
It is a treat to watch the elephants with their trunks raised and mouths gaping wide open, waiting in anticipation to gulp down the big balls of cooked rice mixed with jaggery, liberal helpings of ghee, bananas and other delicacies.
The sumptuous feast also includes coconut, sugarcane leaves, rice-flakes etc. The ritual starts with the chief priest of the temple feeding one of the pachyderms. Soon after that, the mahouts are permitted to feed the elephants.
The visitors who congregate at the temple also get to feed the elephants with cucumber, watermelon, yellow melon, pineapple and other fruits. Once the feeding in the temple concludes, all the elephants that took part in the ritual and pay obeisance to the presiding deity, before leaving the premises.
All photographs by Susheela Nair
(Susheela Nair is a Bengaluru-based food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer.)