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What makes temple elephants so popular in India


Bengaluru, Sep 18: Decorated elephants have become the identity of India whenever Indian traditions comes to mind for foreigners. They are an integral part of temple festivals and most temples in the country own several elephants.

Representational Image

The tradition of Indian elephants decorated in all their finery is a long-standing custom on revered on the stone carvings in the ancient temples of India.

Religious significace

Hindus regard elephants as sacred animals. This has something got to do with Lord Ganesha who is depicted as an elephant headed deity with a pot belly. It is believed that worshipping elephants and feeding them is a great way to win the favor of Ganesh.

Elephants are important in Indian mythology too. Lord Ganesha, one of the most popular Indian deities and the Lord of Wisdom - bears an elephant head. The elephant head symbolizes great intellect and wisdom. The God of Gods Indra is believed to have a white elephant named Airavata as his vehicle.

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Elephants are also a symbol of royalty - Maharajas and kings used to ride during processions and in war on elephants. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya reported the use of war elephants during warfare. The white elephant is also a religious symbol of the Buddha).

In Islamic tradition, Abraha, ruler of Yemen (most likely a viceroy for the Axumite Empire of Ethiopia), sought to conquer Mecca and demolish the Kaaba, reportedly in retaliation for the previous Meccan defilement of a cathedral Abraha had constructed in Sana'a. He launched an expedition of forty thousand men, led by a white elephant named Mahmoud (and possibly with other elephants - some accounts state there were several elephants, or even as many as eight).

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There were many elephants in his army; he himself rode a huge elephant. It was an animal which the Arabs had not seen before, thus the year came to be known as 'Amul-Fil (the year of the elephant), and it started an era for reckoning the years in Arabia.

Mysore Dasara

One of the highlights of the grand Dasara celebration in Mysore is the Jamboo Savari, a procession that covers 5.5 kilometers through the streets of what was once the capital of the erstwhile royal kingdom of Mysore.

The lead elephant carries the Golden Howdah (Chinnada Ambari) with the Goddess Chamundeshwari in it.

They arrive to Mysore a month or so before the start of the actual festivities and they undergo practice for their march on the final day. The elephants are accompanied by their respective keepers or Mahouts.

The elephants are usually brought in trucks and are occasionally walked the 70-km distance from their home base in the Nagarahole National Park to Mysore.

Started in the year 1610 by Raja Wodeyar l of the erstwhile kingdom, the Jamboo Savari is an integral part of the extravagance which marks the culmination of the festivities in the culture capital.

The Dasara procession has faced increasing pressure from activists and campaigners to end its controversial use of elephants. Procession elephants, as well as their handlers known as 'mahouts', have died from several shocking incidents over the years.

Kerala temple festival

The event is known as Pooram Gajamela which translates to "Festival of Elephants." The elephant processions gather the largest crowds with music, percussion, and classical dance performances accompanied by lots of frenzy. Some of these celebrations continue through the night and even last a few days. One can cherish the sight of elephants dressed up in gold and red silks.

There are nearly 30 elephants accompanied with 250 artistes beating rhythmic drums. This is a festival or celebration where a competition is organized called Kudamattom. It involves movement of decorated umbrellas in a step- by- step timely manner.

Jagannath rath yatra

The King of Puri, the first servitor of Lord Jagannath, is known as the Gajapati, which means "master of elephants".

Traditionally, as a mark of respect to the Gajapati, an elephant leads his ceremonial procession on the occasion of rath yatra. Led by the pachyderm, the king reaches the three chariots of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, ready for their journey.

The king sweeps the chariots with a golden broom. Only after the Gajapati performs this ritual and returns to his palace do the chariots start rolling and mark the beginning of the nine-day sojourn of the deities.

The tradition of engaging an elephant is associated with the car festival since time immemorial. However, it was discontinued about nine years ago after an elephant succumbed to injuries while returning from the yatra.

Jaipur traditions

About 100 elephants carry tourists along the kilometre-long path up the hill to the fort. It is a steep climb on hard cobbled stones. The combined weight on the elephant's back of two tourists, the mahout (elephant keeper) and the clunky wooden seat that holds passengers can be up to 300kg.

It is high time that there should be a rethink on the parading of elephants in large numbers in temples and other religions institutions.

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