Towering rhythm, trumpeting majesty

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February 2nd 2006
Published: November 23rd 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

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An oracle stands guard in front of the idol atop a caparisoned elephant at Nayarambalam temple festival.
Two rows of drummers and three rows of pipers are building a tower of rhythm in front of the Bhagati temple in Nayarambalam. As the melam reaches a crescendo, men on top of the nine caparisoned elephants behind the pipers stand up, ritualistically fanning their alavattom and venchamaram. Pambadi Rajan, the King of Elephants that presides over the nine tuskers, stands majestically with four men and the deity on its top.

Eight days and eight nights of festivities have left the elephants tired. Each of them has three men on top and two mahouts nearby. The animals stand motionless amid the crowd as tourists click away at the magnificent view. Wounds on their legs and hips constantly remind them of the harsh lessons given by their little trainers. As a session of the concerts gets over, the party proceeds to circle the temple, with the elephants in pursuit.

The ritual repeats on the four sides of the temple. Artistes and their admirers, animals and their trainers retreat for an interval before the big show, when the annual temple festival will culminate with a grand chenda concert and colourful fireworks. As men with parasols and other curios get down, the
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A treat atop a row of caparisoned elephants at Nayarambalam temple festival.
elephants walk up to the nine plantain leaves filled with jaggery, sugarcane, plantains. A ritualistic bath awaits them: another spectacle for elephant-lovers.

Nayarambalam is one among the many temples on the long island of Vypeen, now connected to Kochi by a series of bridges.

Each temple festival is rated for the percussionists it arranges and the number of elephants it assembles. The famed Peruvanam Kuttan Marar would have enthralled audience today, had he not have been bereaved. But his skillful troupe had the people in trance as they went through the vicissitudes of chenda, kombu and kuzhal. Pancharimelam is as unavoidable as caparisoned elephants in a festival in Kerala.

People gather to review and rate the tuskers. Each one has a personal favourite, a benchmark against which he evaluates all elephants. The height of the temple, length of the trunk, size of ears, number of nails…everything goes into the scrutiny. In a land that has developed sophisticated systems of medicine for elephant care, even boys can differentiate the tuskers by their distinct features. They call them their given names as if they were old friends.

K P Sivarama Menon watches as his big friends relieve themselves
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A fusion of drums, pipes and symbols build up a tower of rhythm - a prime attraction of any temple fest.
of the make-up. The retired school headmaster is considered to be an authority in elephant affairs. The natives have seen proof of the animals’ attachment to the master. The master was passing by a grazing elephant on the temple courtyard when the beast got whiff of him. He was surprised to feel the tip of a trunk caressing his head. He turned around calling the name of his long lost friend. The elephant had been an inmate of the temple many years ago.

Elephants’ memory stores enmity as well as affinity.

Nayarambalam Balakrishnan, who has been a temple property for 17 years, is to be honoured with the title Gajasri in the afternoon. But the elephant is not to be seen anywhere. Jayadevan, his son Amaldev and I go in search of it. Elephants laze around in a courtyard. Pambadi Rajan, one of the costliest elephants in Kerala, stands in attention. He is not tethered. A long rode with a hook is placed behind its right ear. The seemingly innocent rode has cruel memories attached to it. The elephant can't afford to let the rode fall. He has been tormented many times for it.

At last we
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An old woman feeds the tuskers during the temple festival performance.
found Balakrishnan, soon-to-be Gajasri. The elephant standing near the temple hall looked pathetic. His mouth was open as if in pain. His right rump, facing the wall, had a big wound from a road accident. The pain had made the elephant unruly. He is stupefied from a night of taming session and loads of painkillers. His wound is covered with kilos of cotton to make him presentable for the occasion.


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