Saturday, August 18, 2012


We were disappointed in our day in Fort Kochin because our expectations were excessive and also perhaps because our rickshaw driver was more interested in taking us to shops - where he would get a cut from our purchases - than in showing us the sights. We therefore decided on the 17th of January to go to Ernakulam. We thought it would be an adventure to go to a large city without having preconceived notions of what we would be likely to encounter. As it happened, we were to have a fascinating day. To begin our day we took the hotel boat to the main jetty.

 View of the Harbour from the Hotel Boat

Main Jetty, Ernakulam

When we arrived, we asked a rickshaw driver to take us to the durbar hall art gallery, somewhere to begin rather than something expected to be special. The gallery was closed for renovation, but when we began to explore the area we discovered that the famous annual week-long Shiva temple festival was ending this very day and that by chance the temple we happened upon was in fact the Shiva temple where in a few hours the elephant procession would begin. We wandered about for a while and looked into some shops. 

Ernakulam Food Vendor

As we passed what looked to be the open entrance to a small hotel, I asked two children if they would allow me to take their photo. They agreed, and one of the adults standing beside us told me that a Brahmin wedding was being celebrated there. Just then, people began to descend a staircase a few metres to our left.  As I watched them coming down, I saw that among them were a man and a woman wearing garlands of flowers around their necks. These were obviously the bride and groom. When I raised my camera, they paused, smiling, to allow me to take my photograph. I felt greatly privileged. They were gracious and welcoming as are so many in India.

Brahmin Wedding, Ernakulam

We inquired at the police assistance booth and discovered that the procession of elephants would begin at the temple and travel for its conclusion to a large field nearby. Though it would be a while before the procession began, we decided to go to the field to see what was happening. People were already gathering, and we were lucky to find two of the last available seats. Next to us was an interesting man with whom we spent the next two hours or so. He spoke, for example, about his job as an able seaman on cargo ships, including his last post on an oil tanker out of Panama. He described the big storms that had frightened him. He lived in Alleppey, spending ten months of the year away and the remainder at home with his wife and two children.

He was in Ernakulam to attend the annual seven-day Makaravilakku festival in the Periyar tiger preserve. He explained that pilgrims went there because every year on the same day a bright light was seen ascending three times up into the sky. He believed this was the work of the god Ayappa who resided in the temple there. Paul later read in the newspaper, however, that this was a hoax. Because the 200,000 devotees bring in a lot of revenue for the temple every year, the state of Kerala has allowed the festival to be held in the tiger preserve. To protect the tigers, however, no lighting ha been provided. This year, after a jeep overturned in the dark and rolled down a hill, the resulting  stampede caused 102 deaths. Without any lighting, the police were unable to locate and assist the injured. Although a similar though less serious accident had occurred some years previously, the state government had refused to deal with the conflict between the temple and the tiger reserve.

Our friend told us about pilgrimages and festivals.  Most pilgrims are men because women between the ages of ten and 50 women are not allowed in the temple. They will light a flame at home, but are considered unclean during their monthly period. Some will not even cook at this time. Pilgrims fast for 41 days during the pilgrimage he attended. They pray at 6:30 p.m., because this is when the god is believed to be most potent and capable of answering supplicants' prayers.

More and more people were coming into the large field where we were sitting. Finally, we heard what sounded like drums and bugles. I moved closer to the road where I could see ten or fifteen men begin to dance to the music dressed in elaborately decorated red and white outfits, each holding a cymbal. They were accompanied by drummers.

It sounded like martial music, with dancing that was stylized to resemble fighting. The hypnotic performance went on and on, the repetitions of the dance keeping time with the loud rhythms of the music.

Soon, six beautifully decorated elephants arrived, one behind the other. 

The atmosphere was incredibly intense: obviously this was an event of high significance.The elephants moved slowly down the field and lined up horizontally, each standing with his mahout beside him. 

Increasing numbers of people were arriving.

With so many people in an enclosed space with only one visible exit, we became uncomfortable and decided to leave.

Musicians We Passed on Our Way Out of the Field

When we reached the road, we found it had been closed. Army and police were in evidence, but there was no sign of aggressive behaviour.

 Musicians on the Road

We walked a few blocks to where the road was open and got a rickshaw. The driver had to use many detours before he finally found a way to get out of the area. Every street was crowded with people walking to join the elephants. Not being accustomed to large crowds, we were relieved to have made an exit; but what an experience!

Next day, January 18th, we took the train to Calicut (Kozhikode), arriving in the evening about nine o'clock, then going by rickshaw to our hotel, the Taj Gateway. This was a luxury hotel with a beautiful swimming pool.  We decided to have a lazy day on the 19th, reading and drinking diet Coke at the pool.

On January 20th we went to Coimbatore by train and then by taxi to Mettupalayan, arriving late afternoon. After a night in a hotel there, we would take the old steam train to Ooty.

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