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The Anayottam or ‘Elephant Run’ at Guruvayur,

A run for a place in the sun

Guruvayur and Sabarimala are the two most famous temples of Kerala; of these Guruvayur temple is known for the some of the unique rituals annually performed there some of these are not found in any other temple in India. The ritualistic three ‘shradhas’ or holy meals dedicated to the deity, ‘Thrayodashi-oottu’ (held on the third day from Ekadashi (on this day a feast alone is held sans any pooja) etc are examples; but the most prominent among them is the once in a year held ‘Anayottam’ or the Elephant-Run in which all the acclaimed elephants run for a place in the sun; that no other animal can dream of; ten days stay inside a holy temple with all that it can wish like sumptuous food, respect from devotees etc as perquisites.

The matters of god

All rituals are performed in this temple are backed by some myths that are closely held by Keralites living all over the world. Myths are not just superstitions; they do the duty of keeping different people, cultures as well as the nation itself together as one unit. Come what may these performances are not broken at any case. If asked why these are so important; there is only one answer; these are all matters pertaining to god and belief upheld for generations; where there is no place for reasoning or rationality. Although all rituals and performances held before this Sri Krishna temple have some kind of relevance; the most enjoyable one definitely is the Elephant Run. The reason for its immense popularity can be measured by crowd that gathers and the thrills they enjoy.

A jumbo event

The Elephant Run is one of a combination of mythology that encircles rituals of unknown origin, desire of people to assemble, cheer and celebrate together. As gigantic elephants (especially the most famous pachyderms of the nearby area) are the competitors which run free for a place in the moon; the thrills associated with the events also grow to jumbo proportions. Of late seeing the extreme popularity of Guruvayur Anayottam (elephant run) various not so famous temples have begun to conduct similar ‘entertainments’ with the participation of elephants.


Guruvayur Temple Trust -an independent body- is one of the richest of its kind in Kerala. It owns a total of 68 elephants comprising 60 tuskers, six cow elephants and two young ones. Of all the temple trusts in India Guruvayur stands first in the quality and number of its elephant collection. The strange thing is that all these elephants were donated to the temple by devotees from all over India; that is the popularity of this great temple. People queue up to donate their most valued tuskers to the Sri Krishna deity that rules this temple. The process of donating of an elephant to the temple is also a ritual; known as ‘Nadayiruthal’.

The D day

Like all other rituals held in this temple; this ‘Elephant Run’ also has its own back support of a rich myth; any local person will only be glad to tell it to any visitor who enquires. As per history there was a time when this temple was in its incipient stage and did not own even a single elephant. Hence the ritualistic ‘three seeveli’s (a devotional ceremony) and the procession that followed it (with the deity’s image mounted on elephant) also did not exist. During festivals; elephants had to be hired from other temples or private parties. It is in such a circumstance an incidence took place; which happened to be the precursor of the present Elephant Run.

On tender-hooks

Years back; the date for the temple festival at Guruvayur arrived as usual; the ritual of ‘Kodiyettam’ (flag hoisting associated with the inauguration of temple-festival) has to be performed; the ritual procession of ‘kodippurathu vilakku’ (lamp on flag) requires elephants; even though it was all pre-arranged; not even a single elephant had reached the spot so far. All the responsible persons from ‘Melshandhi’ (chief priest) to temple employees were at their wits end; not knowing what to do; breaking a ritual for them was some thing unthinkable of.

No prayer goes unheard

Some of them broke in to tears and prayers; time was running fast and it was almost two o clock in the noon. One more hour passed in tender-hooks; at about 3 pm; as an answer to their prayers there heard the clanging sound of chains near ‘Manjula-althara’ (a banyan tree known by the name of a girl by name Manula) and a herd of elephants were seen fast raising to the temple gate. The crowd that witnessed this scene were dumb-founded (that included the famous King Samuthiri of Calicut along with devotees and temple-authorities). Those running elephants came and stopped before the temple as if paying tributes to the deity. No one did know which these elephants were and who had sent them there.

Mahout run!

Following the elephants at a distance found a group of mahouts –in their turn followed by curious public who happened to witness the first ‘anayottam pirake pappaanottam’ (elephant run followed by mahout run!) in the history. The mahouts were frightened to see their elephants running en masse as if directed by some spiritual power and they ran after them on hot pursuit; not knowing what else to do! After all these elephants were their livelihoods; they knew no other jobs but this.

Runs happily ever after!

Those elephants which arrived at the temple were all dressed-up (wearing caparisons bells etc) for a procession at Thrikkanna-mathilakam temple. At the time when function at Guruvayur Temple was held up for want of elephants; they ran to the spot to the horror of their mahouts. People of Guruvayur still assert that it was the power of the deity that pulled those elephants to the temple (it is believed that the deity of Guruvayur is fond of elephants). Ever since; the Elephant-Run is regularly performed at Guruvayur once in a year without break or they run happily ever after!

A total recall

The present rituals associated with Elephant-Run follows like this; All elephants are taken away and parked elsewhere to create a feel that the temple is devoid of any. That day’s ‘sheeveli’ and associated procession is performed without the presence of elephants. The ‘kizh-shanti’ (assistant priest of the temple) will hold the deity close to his chest with both of his hands and circumambulate the temple three times. His twelve assistants (known as kazhaka-kkar) will follow encircling him holding traditional oil lamps known as ‘kuthu-vilakku’ as if to protect him and the deity. This is the only day on which ‘sheeveli’ at Guruvayur temple is held without the presence of elephants. It is assumed that they all stand in the past when the Guruvayur temple was in its incipient stage and there were no elephants owned by it; a total recall of the past.

Tradition alone matters

The historical event of Elephant-Run begins on the day with flag hoisting at 3 pm (flag hoisting or ‘kodiyettam’ is the inaugural ceremony of a temple festival); a person who has the traditional right to perform the rituals (he is called ‘Pathukaran Warrier’) draws tantric signs with rice-powder on the floor of the flag-mast (at the eastern side of the temple). Beside the signs all paraphernalia of a pooja (religious ritual accompanied with chanting of mantras) like ‘Nira-para’, ‘Nila-vilakku’, rice-flakes (avil), plantain fruits (pazham), rice-pops (malar); molasses (sharkara) etc placed on plantain leaves. Mahouts and employees of the temple jointly place the bronze-bells to be worn on the neck of running elephants. There are certain families which traditionally enjoy the right to perform certain rituals at this temple; these ‘rights’ have reached to them from past generations.

A spectacle for all

Al the people including temple priests, employees, public; wait impatiently for the event (after all it is a once in a year event); the temple clock strike three; the crowd roars in ecstasy; Nambisan (person belonging to Kandiyoor Pattathu family) hand over the bronze-bells to Nambiar (representing Madompattu family); Nambiar receives the bells with ritual prayers; and in his turn hands over the same to the mahouts who are waiting in queue for receiving it. The mahouts (those who are strong and smart alone are allowed for the ceremony) run as if in a trance to the Manjula-althara (the historical banyan tree) ringing the bell and roaring in the pitch of their voice. Some active spectators on their part run after them roaring with over-flowing hysterical enthusiasm. Seeing all these most of the spectators like the old people, women and children cheer making the whole atmosphere surcharged with gravity.

What a thrill!

Lo elephants have started running towards the temple gate; wearing those bronze bells as if to revoke an incident that took place years back- far before the present participants were born. There are tuskers of all sizes along with mischievous youths among them who at times create pandemonium and even terror in the crowd. Elephants run with raised tails at all the speed they can attain; ringing the bronze bells, some of them blow trumpet with raised trunks; clanging the iron chains; swaying their massive bodies; the crowd already thrilled by the running hysteric mahouts and devotees; cheers and roars with all their vigor letting thrill to take-over the scene.

Nira-para and Nila-vilakku

The elephant that reaches temple gate first is greeted with respect by the rightful person (Pathukaran) in traditional ways with lighted nilavilakku (bronze-lamp with burning wicks dipped in vegetable oil) and para (a local measure made of wood covered with brass linings; with a capacity of five liters; nira-para is that filled with paddy); with the arrival of the first elephant ‘Pathukaran’ fills the para (to make it a nira-apara) with paddy and his assistant (known as Marar) blows the conch shell (shanku) while he is doing this job (blowing of conch-shell is considered most auspicious by Hindu believes.

The winner takes it all

The role of the elephants does not end with reaching within the temple gate they have to run seven times around the temple; for this they get the encouragement from their respective mahouts and cheers from surrounding devotees. The first elephant that completes the mandatory seven circumambulations around the temple (known as pradakshina) and touches the flag-mast is declared the winner. The winner elephant alone is eligible for the special privileges for the next ten days of festivals that follow after this.

God’s grace

He (the winner tusker can stay inside the temple compound for the next ten days that proceed that day; his favorite foods like palm leaves, cooked rice, molasses etc are served in plenty. His bathing and ablutions all can be performed in the temple compound itself! He becomes of the cynosure of the devotees who flock to the festivals. These facilities are considered perquisites offered to the winner by Lord Krishna himself– the beloved deity of Guruvayur temple.

‘Other runs’

There are two more elephant runs in Guruvayur temple in association with the festivals; one on ‘Pallivetta day’ (when deity is supposed to go hunting) and the other on ‘Arattu day’ (when the deity is supposed to go for royal bath); but these two are held in the temple compound itself with single elephant as participant. On Pallivetta day the elephant runs six circumambulations; and eleven on the ‘arattu day’. The count of circumambulations are fixed based on those of ‘Bhootha-bali’ and ‘Sheeveli’

Guruvayur Kesavan an exception

In the initial times when the temple owned just three or four elephants; all available elephants took part in the run. Gradually as the fame of the Guruvayur temple spread; number of elephants also swelled; the stock included old and invalid ones, young and mischievous ones, beauties who knew only cat or swan-walking and no running; some rebellious ones etc also came in to the stock making participation of all a nightmare. The most famous elephant that lived in India by name Guruvayur Kesavan was an exception; he was not retired and was allowed to take part in the run until his death (he is recipient of title called ‘Gaja-rajan’ or ‘king of elephants).

Bouquets and brick-bats

At present the number of elephants taking part in the run, clearance between crowd and track etc have been specified by the authorities; taking note the risks involved in this mega event. Free elephants running amidst huge cheering and noisy crowd (of late the size of the crowd also has swelled due to the increased mobility) raise the risk to great proportions. Those elephants which never run amok alone are allowed.

Those schools of thoughts

Along with the elephants; at times; mahouts also run amok fully absorbing the real spirit of the day and create law and order issues! There are also criticisms against these imposed restrictions; which to great extend steals the thrill out of the game. They argue that the elephant run is a traditional ritual and authorities are not entitled to impose restrictions. There is another school of thoughts that this run is imposed on elephants and amounts to cruelty to animals. Amidst all these ‘school of thoughts’ these beautiful elephants keep on running at Guruvayur making a rich tradition live and kicking.

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