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