Once again our India serendipity brought us up to unimaginable heights. Kerala is a heaven on earth. Why anyone would retire to Florida is beyond me. Come to the Marigold Hotel in Kerala and live like royalty.
I don’t know why I’ve always loved elephants so much. Maybe it’s because they are the largest land mammals, generally docile, somewhat funny looking with their large trunks, and very intelligent. With people, they seem to have created quite a connection – there have been so many stories.
Maybe it’s because my mother had always told me that elephants are good luck, and when someone graduates from school or has a significant birthday, you always give a small elephant statue. I always wanted good luck.
We had an Indian family friend back then, Manjit Singh. I thought he was so exotic, with his turban and distinguished accent. Once, after a trip back to India, he brought my mother a small ivory carving of an elephant. It was beautiful and my mother immediately had it made into a pendant, to wear on a gold necklace. I mentioned at the time that I thought it was ironic that the piece was made from an elephant’s tusk – that perhaps the elephant had to give up its life for this little carving. We argued. After she passed away, I took the necklace and wear it sometimes, trying to focus on her love for the pendant, rather than my guilt for wearing ivory. We had a similar argument over a South African gold Krugerrand. But that’s another story
The Kettu Kazhcha festival in Kerala is an annual event where elephants from various temples are gathered and in the evening, walked from one temple to another, about a three km walk. We happened to be there during this remarkable festival, famous throughout India. Yet another “ZT serendipitous moment.” If everything is “meant to be,” then the Hindu Gods are giving us an extraordinary gift.
In the daylight, the festival is jaw-dropping – with animated floats, male dancers representing various female deities in flamboyant costumes, hundreds of drummers, hundreds of young men dancing, high on either some kind of substance or on life itself. And then come the elephants. Majestic creatures, themselves also adorned in vibrant hues of all kinds, shimmering in gold and sparkles, becoming brighter as dusk falls, the lead elephant being the most adorned. The young men perched on his neck, holding high the gold discs, make him appear even larger than his already enormous bulk. I wonder if he knows how absolutely magnificent he is. Priya is convinced that the lead elephant knows his position within the procession. She tells of one that was placed second one year and became so ornery and aggressive, sulking in a corner, that they had to place him first the following year. I guess he knew his ranking in society.
The drumming picked up tempo as the sky darkened, the people absorbing the excitement that the darkness brought on. I started walking next to an elephant; I felt my heart pounding as I got closer. I looked up at him, enthralled. I couldn’t believe we could walk this close to each other. I was not afraid as I drew closer and closer. I heard the shuffling of chains as they scraped the concrete road. The shackles made me very sad, but then I imagined a five ton animal getting spooked by a sudden noise and a stampede starting. We chain and collar and rope our animals to make them do what we want. Maybe that’s where “chain of command” originated. I suppose the chains are necessary here. Do the elephants have a choice? Priya says that he is strong enough to break through the chains, but doesn’t. How many years did to take to tame these creatures to submission? Does a docile temple elephant transmit its “obedience gene” to its offspring I wonder?
The parade stopped for a moment. I was very close now. I think Kala asked the mahout if I could touch the elephant. He said yes. I touched the elephant’s trunk. He’s beautiful. I was surprised at the softness of his skin, so very warm to the touch. I talked to him, tols him how remarkable he was. I looked up at his eyes. They are so small and look so sad with their two long tear stains shining on the wrinkled skin. Am I reading too much into these eyes? Does he see me – does he know I’m here? Can he feel me stroking him? Can he feel my deep affection for him?
I touched the enormous tusk and followed its graceful curve. How beautiful and smooth it was. I thought of the ivory pendant that was hanging on my neck, and silently apologized to him. It’s not my fault I say. Not my mother’s either – she just loved beautiful things.
The parade started moving. I quickly kissed my hand and touched him as far up as I could reach and then reluctantly dropped my hand. There have been moments in my life where I’d wish time would just stand still. This was one of those moments.