THRISSUR, KERALA // The phalanx of elephants emerged from the shadow of the trees yesterday morning and ambled towards the crowd that rushed to meet them.
Adorned with gold armour and each attended by a cabal of handlers holding ornate parasols and waving fans, the giant animals took up formation side-by-side. Musicians and drummers serenaded them, as police strained to keep the swarming crowds from getting trampled.
The crowd, with hands in the air, some clutching home-made pompoms made from shredded newspaper, chanted, "Pooram! Pooram!"
Kerala's festival of all festivals, the Thrissur Pooram, had begun.
Inaugurated in 1798 by the local Raja to end infighting between two major Hindu temples, the annual celebration is today the main event in the Kerala's cultural calendar, drawing tens of thousands of Indians and foreign tourists to Thrissur, once the capital of the Kingdom of Cochin.
The 36-hour gala, which concluded today, is a riot of music and fireworks. It is, however, the pachyderm that steals the show. As always.
In Hinduism, the elephant represents royalty, power, wisdom, fertility and longevity. Indeed, one of the five main Hindu deities is Lord Ganesha, the Elephant God, who is said to represent perfect wisdom.
Little wonder, then, that up to a 100 elephants are gathered for the festival, the number varying each year according to the money available to rent them for the occasion from surrounding villages.
Leasing an elephant is not cheap. This year, the going rate was up to 55,000 rupees (Dh3,813) a day.
"Those who can afford it have pet elephants," said K Pramod, 38, who runs a cable-connection business and lives in the town of Guruvayur, 30 kilometres north-west of Thrissur.
An elephant is a steady source of income throughout the year with owners renting them out to weddings, temples and of course, festivals.
On Tuesday, Mr Pramod, an aficionado of elephasmaximus, nudged closer to one of the beasts to get a good look.
He likes to identify the elephants when they are not decorated by the bronze tags hanging from their necks, and plays a guessing game with his friends to identify them when they saunter down the street.
"Sometimes we'll see them around the temples or walking down the road. After some time, like people, you can start telling them apart," Mr Pramod noted sagely.
With his well-honed eye, he called out to Parasuram, standing stately at the end of a row of 15 elephants.
"I think I am a little crazy, but every year I look forward to challenging myself and identifying the elephants correctly, especially when they are decorated and the markings are harder to find."
As evening fell, about 30 elephants, accompanied by dancing revellers, slowly marched to a tune played by hundreds of musicians on drums, pipes and cymbals.
Later, 15 elephants faced off in the grounds of the Vadakumnathan temple for the "kudamattam" - a ballet of elephant handlers mounting and dismounting their beasts while twirling brightly coloured parasols.
"This is unlike anything I have every seen in my life before," said Terence Smith, 35, from Pretoria, South Africa.
To keep the crowds safe, the ankles of the elephants are shackled to prevent them from stampeding, and a water lorry is deployed to keep the ground cool, in order to avoid their padded feet from becoming irritated.
Still, despite a coterie of feeders laden with a ready supply of fresh palm and coconut leaves, there is little an elephant handler, or mahout, can do when an adult animal - a male can weigh up to 5,000kg - decides it has had enough.
As this year's Thrissur Pooram drew to a close on Wednesday afternoon and the elephants were gathered for a final salute, one of the lumbering animals bolted.
The wayward elephant marched out of the temple and headed towards a mango tree on the grounds, where thousands had gathered.
When the elephant - name unknown - tried to pull down the mango tree, people panicked and stampeded, leaving 15 injured, most with cuts and bruises.
Nevertheless, no one really blames the star of Thrissur Pooram.
"Elephants in this part of the country are revered," said Sivananda Nair, 67, a retired school teacher from Thrissur. "But sometimes people get carried away."
& Surya Bhattacharya on