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Elephants in Indian Culture

This is the first in a series of articles on elephants: Elephants in Indian Culture, Elephants as Intelligent Creatures, Capturing and Training of Elephants and Man-elephant Conflicts and Their Solutions.

In ancient times, the mighty elephants were sometimes used to crush condemned people to death. Domesticated male elephants were extensively used in warfare and in hunting in India, China and Persia. Female elephants were employed for logging heavy objects. Royalty would ride them in a procession, just like gods and goddesses in temple ceremonies. For many tourists to South Asian countries, safari-ride on an elephant back is a must.

Decorated elephant in Jaipur, Rajasthan; Source

Elephants carrying deities during Thrissur Pooram festival in Kerala, India; Source

In olden days when kings ruled the land, elephants were widely employed to carry deites in a procession on special days. This has but disappeared in most places. One of the places where it still survives is Mysore in Karnataka state where the annual 10-day Dussera or Navratri festival concludes with a procession in which Goddess Chamundeswari is carried on elephants in a royal procession that starts from the Mysore palace.

Elephants ready for procession at Mysore palace;  Source

Elephants enjoy prestigious positions in Kerala temples too. The following is a rare video of Seeveli of Guruvayoor temple in Kerala. Seeveli is a ceremonial procession with caparisoned elephants, usually done towards the end of morning and evening pooja.

Guruvayoor Seeveli procession; Source

Unlike many temples where elephants feature in Seeveli only during festive occasions, Guruvayoor temples conduct Seeveli processions every day. The temple employees breed and train elephants at “Anakotta” which is about 3 kms from Guruvayur. The procession is led by people playing panchavadyams (an orchestra played with five instruments). 

Grateful politicians, businessmen, film stars and other devotees make offerings of elephants to the temple when their prayers are answered. The Guruvayoor temple management maintains these elephants in a sanctuary 3 kms away from the temple at Punnathur Kotta, a palace gifted by the Punnathur kings to the temple.

The elephants of Guruvayur are not considered as mere animals. They are revered for their devotion to the Lord Krishna, Guruvayoor’s presiding deity. Kesavan, Padmanabhan, Lakshmi – all these are names of elephants that have become household names in Kerala. In particular, Kesavan was very attached to God’s service. Many tales are narrated of his devotion, intelligence and nobility that have endeared him to all and was conferred upon the honour of “Gajarajan” (king of elephants ). Hindus consider death on Ekadasi on eleventh lunar day as auspicious and 72-year-old Kesavan died on Ekadasi in front of the Lord with his trunk stretched in front.

The day of the death of Guruvayoor Kesavan is commemorated and on that day all the Guruvayoor elephants move in a procession and garland the statue of Kesavan. His tusks are displayed in front of the Guruvayoor Temple.

Statue of Kesavan; Source

Read Also

Elephants As Intelligent Creatures

Man-Elephant Conflict

Threat To Elephant Survival: The Illegal Ivory Trade

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User Comments

    On November 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    a very well researched article based on Indian Culture. i also enjoyed the photographs and the videos. i look forward to reading more in this series. superb work. i enjoyed it immensely.

  2. Guy Hogan

    On November 23, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    I have no doubt that elephants are highly intelligent creaures. I see why they are so highly respected in cultures like India’s.

  3. Christine Ramsay

    On November 23, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    A really interesting look at elephants in the Indian culture. I also enjoyed the videos.


  4. lillyrose

    On November 23, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    another fascinating article on the lives of these beautiful creatures.

  5. The Quail 1957

    On November 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Another fascinating article! Be sure to check out my new one on plant medicine too.

  6. albert1jemi

    On November 23, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    i agree to it that great

  7. Analyst

    On November 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Great pictures and nice story! Elephants are always supreme!

  8. giritharanj

    On November 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    nice share – gj

  9. sloanie

    On November 23, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    I enjoy finding out new things on triond and this article has been very enjoyable. Elephants are magnificent creatures, thanks for the read.

  10. Ramalingam

    On November 23, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    nice article.

  11. Anj M

    On November 24, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Nice back to back articles on elephants.. :)

  12. SimplyShash

    On November 24, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Wonderful piece of work. Congrats again.

  13. Val Mills

    On November 24, 2010 at 2:00 am

    An informative article. It is hard to imagine elephants carrying out these roles now, but they obviously still do.

  14. Likha

    On November 24, 2010 at 4:35 am

    Unique and lovely culture.

  15. Kaye TM

    On November 27, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    nice share! =p

  16. Parag Harish Shah

    On May 23, 2011 at 1:32 am

    Elephants form an important part of Indian Culture, specially in southern India. As we can see in the photos, the are decorated with colorful wearings and look stunning.


    On October 20, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Most beautiful about elephants well pointed out

  18. FX777222999

    On October 20, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Interesting to know this subject and really great to see those multi-colored elephants.

  19. Margaret Boseroy

    On October 20, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Very enjoyable read with beautiful pictures.

  20. Meghana Subramanian

    On October 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    lovely write up Uma.. looking forwd to the next in the series

  21. deedaG50

    On October 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Now I see why elephants are such revered animals in asian culture. Thanks for sharing.

  22. geetarao07

    On October 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Hi Uma, Wish u n ur fly a happy Deepavali. Thanx 4 the elephant darshan amazing photos i went 2 Guruvayur 4 a moment.

  23. Uma Shankari

    On October 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    Meghna, the links for the next in the series is given at the end of the article under READ ALSO.

    Thanks to every one for the kind support.

  24. iva75cpb

    On October 20, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Amazing post, Uma. So well written and I am sure you did a lot of work on it. The devotion in your style just emanates from your article. I’m looking forward to the next part.

  25. jayababy

    On October 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Very well done and beautiful pics too…

  26. yes me

    On October 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    A very interesting one this cheers liked it

  27. AliAhmad

    On October 21, 2011 at 1:17 am

    Yes this is true…

  28. juny423

    On October 21, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Nice and education share..keep sharing :)

  29. Ashwath Komath

    On October 21, 2011 at 2:03 am

    Indian elephants have always been revered. Very interesting share.

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