Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Susan Harper

We bustled along the busy highway in our air-conditioned taxi jostling for space between rusting buses and over laden auto-rickshaws whilst dodging potholes.  Our driver Manu fiercely honked the car horn each time we passed another vehicle.  Every so often Keralan Police traffic signs, flashed by declaring “Speed thrills but kills!” However the only rule that seemed to exist was that the biggest vehicle has right of way.  A fact rammed home when we were forced off the road onto a sandy verge by a speeding lorry whose driver decided to overtake despite there being no space. 

Two hours later as we neared Kollam city the traffic slowed. The cars bunched up on the main road leading into town and we were reduced to a crawling pace.  A motorbike carrying a whole family zipped by, not a crash helmet in sight.  A small boy sat on the fuel tank in front of his dad while his mum sat side-saddle behind with a baby balanced on her lap, her orange sari billowed in the wind behind her.

We arrived in Kollam just before the elephant parade began. I asked Manu how he managed to get us there at the perfect time and he replied in broken English “Sometimes on time. Sometimes too late, elephants already gone”. Maybe it was luck or perhaps it was down to Manu’s driving ritual.  On the road to Kollam there is a mosque and a temple very close to each other.  Every time he drives along that particular road Manu takes two small coins and waves each around the steering wheel then he taps each one once on the wheel.  He tosses a coin out of the window as we pass each place of worship as an offering.  He says “it is for the good journey”.

The elephants were lined up, three abreast in large open sheds beside the road.  They were enormous with thick, dark grey, leathery skin.  One had dappled pink frayed ears.  Most were large adult tuskers although there were a few smaller elephants.  I moved up close and patted one gently on its side and was surprised at how hairy it was.

The baby elephants were being ridden by teenage boys whilst the larger elephants carried one or two men holding red or yellow silk fringed umbrellas over their heads to shade them from the sun.  All the riders were dressed in white.  Loose trousers with gold edged white cotton shawls draped across their shoulders. The elephants were adorned with red trimmed golden headdresses while heavy chains bound their legs so they could not stampede. 

The keepers sat relaxing on the dirt floor beside their elephants holding their sticks. Topless men in white and brown trousers gathered, drums strung across their slim brown bodies.  Coloured dots painted on their foreheads.  They began to beat their drums with wooden sticks. The noise of the incessant drumming intensified and the elephants started to look agitated.

As the parade began, the drummers set off first followed by the elephants who were led out of the shed one by one.  We decided rather than follow them along the crowded streets; we would speed through the back roads and meet them at the temple.

Behind the temple we heard the drumming in the distance.  I was about to walk around to the front courtyard when a young couple grabbed my hand and beckoned me to join them in the temple.  I protested “I can’t.  I am not Hindu” but they insisted that for the festival I could enter, as long as I left my shoes outside.  I kicked off my shoes and followed them in.  We rushed inside to the front of the temple and arrived just as the elephant was entering through the front door.  The rider ducked so as not to bang his head.

The elephant that entered the temple was the first to arrive.  Outside the others entered the courtyard carrying palm leaves to form a circle in front of the temple.  More and more elephants came, filling the small dusty courtyard.  Keepers tapped them authoritatively with canes to control them as they displayed signs of anxiety.  The elephants lowered their front legs and knelt.  The riders dismounted.

The speeches began all in the local language of Malayalam and were broadcast on loud speakers so the crowds who could not fit in the courtyard could hear in the surrounding streets.  I didn’t understand a word.  The noise levels intensified.

I started to feel vulnerable. Barefoot amongst a crowd of sandaled and flip-flopped people and surrounded by agitated elephants.  The ground whilst sandy also had rough pebbles on it and I wished that I had carried my shoes rather than left them the other side of the temple.  My fear of distressed elephants was outweighed by my fear of being trodden on by the massed crowd and I ran between two particularly large male elephants into the temple to retrieve my shoes that lay amongst the hundreds of sandals on the sand behind it.

After the ceremony at the temple, the elephants were bedecked with even more ornate decorations.  So much was piled atop the first elephant, that the poor thing resembled a carnival float. The elephants were led again through the noisy crowds from the temple to the bathing pool.  There they were lined up four each side of the steps.  None went into the water as we had been led to believe.  This was not really surprising given the amount of chains wrapped around their legs and bodies.  This was the final part of the days’ ceremony.  The festival was going to last at least a week but we weren’t able to stay longer, we had a long drive ahead and a couple offerings to give on our journey home.