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Elephants hold a special place in Kerala. A part of the ‘Indian’ species of the three sub-species of the endangered Asian elephants and according to the IUCN the population of wild Asian elephants is around 32,750 to 25,600 and has halved over time. The loss of Elephant habitat, poaching and their scattered populations are the prime concerns. Kerala has good wild elephant population apart from the tame ones, whose census is over 700, as it is the State Animal. The elephant has been incorporated in the official seal of the Kerala State Government. It is also featured in the Royal Coat of Arms of the Cochin and Travancore families.

Their religious importance in Kerala culture, leads to temples and wealthy individuals keeping them as pets. Mostly the elephants of Kerala are employed during the religious festival and rituals, with a very few of them used in the timber industry.

Elephants in Festivals

Almost all the Hindu temples keep elephants that they also receive as offerings from devotees. The popular ‘Elephant Palace’ is an enclosure that is home to over 60 elephants of the of the famous Guruvayur temple. This palace is located 3 kilometers from the temple in Punnattur Kotta, which once housed the legendary elephant named Guruvayur Kesavan.

Every Kerala festival features at least one elephant chariot. These elephants carry the original Hindu deity idols from the temples for their annual processions. The elephants are heavily decorated with gold ornaments like bells, especially ‘Nettipattam’ that is a gold caparison. The men riding beside in other elephants hold long sticks that hold the beautiful falgs and fans with the Coat of Arms high above the ground, like the silk ‘Muttukuda’, the white ‘Vencamaram’ and the ‘Alavattam’ made of peacock feathers.  A record number of 17 elephants make up the ritual processions in the Kudalmanikyam temple during the Pancari Melam. Seventeen elephants are engaged for the daily ceremonial rounds to the accomplishment of in. The ornamentation of the seven principal elephants is pure gold while that of the remaining, is made out of purest silver.

Caring For the Elephants

One elephants requires the care of three men call the ‘mahout’ or commonly known as a ’pappan’ in Malayalam. The primary duties of the mahouts involve the overall health and well being of the elephants. During the monsoons the elephants undergo Sukha Chikitsa that is an Ayurvedic treatment for rejuvenation. There are three types of mahouts:

  • Reghawan: The loving elephant tamer.
  • Yukthiman: The cunning elephant tamer.
  • Balwan: The brute elephant tamer.

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