Paradox Paradise

Would you still call it nonsense, if sense exchanges its meaning with nonsense?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Of Mice and Elephants

One of the oldest memories I have is of three majestic, caparisoned elephants stand solemnly, listening to a sermon. Now, all of you know old memories can be pretty tricky, only part of it is genuine, and the rest is what we construct with what learn later. (It was my brother who first pointed out this fact about memories to me a few years back, and a few weeks back I read a similar meaning statement in Greene’s autobiography, which my brother never had read)

This particular memory, or rather the image, was gathered standing on the windowsill of a hospital room, when I was five years old, and while I was admitted there with a fever. The small town I grew up had three important festivals in those days. Feasts of St. George, the patron saint of the parish, of St. Sebastian, an equally magnanimous saint, and the 16-day novena (it is called a novena, though it’s not 9, but 16 days) in the 150-year-old Carmelite monastery. These are of course, apart from Christmas and Easter. The predominantly Christian populated town had no temples, so these were the only festivals I get to see in those days. And this image I have mentioned is of the feast of St. George, celebrated in early May, not on his feast day, for reasons unknown to me.

Conversions to Christianity were done more by preaching than pressure in Kerala, and the early Christians thought of it as a social reform than a conversion. For that reason almost all the customs are adopted from the existing ones they used to practise before the conversion. To the extent that the Bible, or Koran for that matter, is called the new Vedam (the ancient most scriptures of Hinduism), in vernacular. And elephants, and Melams (traditional percussion ensemble) were integral parts of processions during feasts of Saints. The only difference was the caparisoned elephants carry icons of the saints, instead of the Thidambu or Kolam in a temple festival. The procession starts from the Church, and comes to the chapel that is in the centre of the town. There it stops for the sermon, and continues back to the Church. And it was this sermon that I had witnessed feeling sick and hospitalised. This chapel stands right on the main road, and the priest stood at the podium in front of it, and the elephants stood facing the altar of the chapel, leaving not much space between them and the priest. And while the elephants patiently stood there, shifting their weight on their legs, and waving their huge ears, the believers sat on the verandas of shut shops and talked about cows, next monsoon, and marriages.

Elephants are gradually moving out of churches these days; they don’t come to the feasts in our church anymore. And that’s the scene in most of the churches in Central Kerala, which once needed elephants for these processions. The reasons are more than obvious. Politics and religion have never been separated. Anywhere in the world, anytime in history. Whether religion controlled political motives, or politics controlled religious activities, doesn’t make a difference, but only asserts the drama co-scripted by both. Though Kerala is hailed for its religious harmony through out its history, under the skin the divides are well marked. It is not really new, and politicians have used it to their advantage from time to time. The communist victory was because it promised to end class and cast divides which were well guarded by religious institutions. The liberation struggle that followed soon after the first elected communist ministry was only to protect the ownership of schools that belong to the churches, and other upper class organizations. The rise of BJP in the early 90s didn’t create any new troubles in Kerala, but the self declared guardianship of the cultural traditions have definitely deepened the divides.

By tradition, the mahouts, and the accompanying people on elephants with parasols, peacock-feather fans, and white tufts used to wear white Mundus (single piece wraparound), which were replaced by saffron ones in the last ten years. The sandal paste on the foreheads is replaced with tilakams in red. And the praise to Lord Rama in Devanagiri script printed over the shawls they wear, look more than oxymoronic at festivals in Shiva or Devi Temples. Trissur Pooram is held at the thousand-year old Vadakkumnatha Temple, one of the oldest Shiva temples in South India. This temple, and most of the temples in south and central Kerala are governed by independent bodies called Devaswom Boards. And the dirty game by political parties to gain control over these boards by inducing party men into them have posed a threat, that could even bring an end to festivals like Trissur Pooram.

Trissur Pooram, celebrated last week, is one of the three must-watch events in Kerala. The other two are the snakeboat races in the south Kerala, and Theyyam performances in the north Kerala. Pooram is an annual temple festival, where deities of neighbouring temples come to pay obeisance to a main deity in a main temple. Trissur Pooram is not the oldest, nor the biggest of poorams, but of course, is the most popular for quite a few good reasons. If you want to see the best elephants, you go to Arattupuzha. If you want to hear the finest Melams you go to Thripunithura or Irinjalakkuda. If you want to witness the finest fireworks, you go to Nenmara or Maradu. You go to Trissur, only if you want to feel Trissur pooram. It was first celebrated in Trissur sometime in the late 18th century.

Trissur was the capital of tiny kingdom of Cochin, when the prodigious Raja Rama Verma, better known as the Saktan Thampuran (meaning the Mighty Lord), was the king. Those days, the biggest festival in Central Kerala was the pooram at Arattupuzha, near Trissur, where hundred and one deities came to pay homage, and 33,000 gods are believed to be coming down from heavens to witness the event. A few temples from Trissur were denied entry to that pooram one year, and the rebuked Saktan Thampuran decided to start a bigger festival in Trissur. Today, 61 temples participate in Arattupuzha festival, and 10 in Trissur pooram. Still, Trissur pooram is brighter and more colourful, in a way, with its popularity and the uniqueness of many events.

Arattupuzha will let you see 61 caparisoned elephants standing in a line with the deities atop. This single day grandeur is overwhelmed by the 3-day festivities of Trissur pooram, which brings about 90 elephants by 10 temples, about fifteen 3-hour long Melams , a competitive firework display by two of the main participating temples, and another unique competition of displaying unconventionally designed parasols sitting atop elephants. Though there are 10 temples participating in Trissur Pooram, it is overshadowed by the festivities that are brought in by two main temples, which compete each other in each step. From the selection of 15 elephants they would bring out for the processions, to the Melams, to the contest of changing parasols, to the fireworks.

Now, to understand the feverishness of this spirit of competition in which neither of them ever wins, one has to understand the Melam and Elephant aficionados. The crowd that comes to Trissur pooram counts over a hundred thousand. They can be classified into five. The ones that come to see the elephants, the ones that come to listen to the Melams, the locals – for whom it’s an integral part of their lives, the ones who come to witness the fireworks, and the rest – the tourists, the drunkards who love crowds, and the teetotallers who love crowds. The first four categories overlap each other almost completely, and the last category overlap one or more of others marginally.

An elephant aficionado knows each Elephant. They can recognise each elephant by its ears, or trunk, or tusks, or even the tail. They know the Elephant’s name, its mahouts’ name, its owner’s name, even its previous owner’s name. The beauty of an Elephant is judged mainly by ten parameters – Shape of its head, shape and size of its tusks, that of its trunk, that of its ears, colour of its eyes, length of its tail, number of its nails, shape of its forelegs and hind legs (Nada and Amaram), length and breadth of its torso, and Madagiri – the spots on an elephant’s face. And size of course matters, and is to be proportional. They know the differences between the local elephants, and that are bought from Sonepur Mela (the famous annual cattle fair in Sonepur, Bihar), and thus called Biharis. They even know the difference between local elephants that are caught from the northeastern parts of Kerala highlands, from the ones that are caught from the southern forests.

They are no animal lovers as such, they are aficionados. And they don’t understand the traditional animal lovers, who love seeing animals only on NGC, in their doctored programmes shot in their ‘natural’ habitat. And these most compassionate people are up in arms against torturing elephants by using them in festivals. This year, they even had a court order in their favour, not necessarily in elephants’ favour, but the temple authorities won a stay order, exempting the Trissur Pooram. Anyways, this hullabaloo of animal activists did some good of course. The elephants were sprinkled with water, to cool off the merciless summer sun’s flaring gaze, and were fed with watermelons and cucumbers more often than usual this year. It’s true that many of elephant owners are hardnosed businessmen, and care only about the profits their elephants can bring in. In the last festival season alone about 70 elephants ran amok during festivals, causing panic, and killing 10 mahouts.

An elephant needs about 200 kgs of food, and 200 litters of water a day, provided it’s idle. That means, a working one will need much more than that. An elephant would cost up to Rs. 25,000 to its owner as its monthly maintenance expenses. There are about 900 captive elephants in the state, and only about 100 of them has the beauty, name and thus the potential to earn profits for their owners. Or in another words, only about 100 of them earn their living. And the rest fall short in the rat race to starve.

If things won’t change in a sensible fashion, with the forest officials being more strict with the laws pertaining to captive elephants, with a new rule limiting the number of festivals one particular elephant can be participated in a season, and with a more compassionate attitude towards these animals by their owners, we will soon get to see stray elephants too on Kerala roads. And I don’t think, that would be the same as stray dogs and cows.

You can check pictures of Trissur Pooram here.

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