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Partying with the elephants

Leaving Varkala in style

sunny 35 °C
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It’s been a month, and India continues to confound and defy our expectations: so far, it’s been nothing but smooth sailing and fabulous experiences. I’m way behind on blog entries, so even though we’ve come a long way from Varkala by now, I’ll start there.

Shortly before we left Varkala, the Mummy Bamboo extended family invited us to attend the final evening of the Varkala Ulsavam Elephant Festival with them. The festival is an annual event that runs for about a week, maybe longer, before it culminates in a colourful, noisy, festive procession through the town towards the main temple.

Leaving from Mummy Bamboo House, we set off down the narrow dirt path with some of the family—a few of Rani’s sisters-in-law and their kids—all of whom were dressed in what looked to be their finest saris, salwar kameez and jewellery. One of the women offered Chloe and me some vermilion powder with which to decorate our foreheads for the occasion, and we each got a generous daub of it. It was about a 15-minute walk to the temple, all down small dirt paths winding through the village to the temple. When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the party atmosphere—plenty of loud music and decorations of all kinds in bold colors, a feast for the eyes, as well as a great variety of street foods and chai—huge, colourful piles of nuts and fried snacks. An ice cream man actually showed up. Rather than a truck, he drove a motorcycle, with the ice cream, the cones and other supplies all mounted on a rear cart (check out the photo below).

There were a few other tourists, but most attendees were festively dressed Indian families. The clanging bell from the ice cream motorcycle and the music blaring from the massive speakers all around us were nearly deafening, and poor Ciaran spent the first 20 minutes or so leaning into me with his hands pressed against his ears, hoping desperately that he wouldn’t need them to fend off the usual well-intentioned cheek pinchers who seem to be so drawn to him.

After a while, the Mummy Bamboo family indicated that we should follow them back out into the street. They were heading out to watch the procession make its way through the streets to the temple. Out on the roads, locals were lined up by the hundreds and crowding together on rooftops everywhere for the best possible view. It was a crush of people. Groups of drumming, bare-chested men, wearing dhotis and beating drums, led the way, working themselves and the crowd into a frenzied, hypnotic state with the rhythm and volume of the drumming. They were joined by other madly dancing, bare-chested festival-goers who seemed swept up by the intensity of it all.

The drummers were followed by Kathakali dancers in their wild costumes and make-up, as well as other dancers carrying giant, tree-shaped bundles of tinsel on their heads, twirling and swirling through the streets. (Kathakali is a uniquely Keralan classical form of dance-drama that presents stories derived from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Hindu epics, myths and legends.) Little girls in their finest saris, wearing jasmine flowers in their hair, carried plates with flowers, candles and coconuts as offerings.

All of this was followed by the grand finale, a procession of eight massive male elephants in leg chains, fully decorated for the occasion, with gleaming, ornate faceplates covering their heads and trunks. Most were ridden bareback by men twirling red parasols.

Twisting and dodging through the packed crowd in order to stay together, we followed the procession back to the temple, where the entire array paraded across the temple grounds several more times before dispersing. The final procession of the elephants marked the grand finale, which was followed by about 20 minutes of fireworks. We were told the Kathakali dancing and party would continue until dawn, but our hot, sweaty, hungry little gang had had enough by then, especially Ciaran, so we made our way back towards the beach for a late dinner. I suspect there was maybe a little too much India in this festival for the kids’ taste (as in, too much noise and too many people, the whirl of color, sound, smells and activity just all too much), but it was really a fantastic opportunity to participate in a temple festival.

Here are just a few photos from the festival, plus a few in there of Mummy Bamboo House itself, and the beach.

The ice cream man serving up scoops:

Ciaran and Mark on the beach at Varkala

Mummy Bamboo House

Playing with the boys

The milkman arrives at Mummy Bamboo--he's filling up those cups, although it's hard to see in the photo

Little girl carrying her plate of offerings at the temple festival

Elephant dressed for the occasion

Ciaran & some boys in front of Mummy Bamboo

Boarding on the beach at Kovalam

Chloe, ready for the festival

Waiting for the train from Varkala to Alleppey

Posted by The Rymans 09:29 Archived in India Tagged family_travel

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Sounds like a fabulous adventure. I'm happy to hear that India is agreeing with everyone. I'm starting to think that perhaps we can fit India into our next adventure...in a few years of course.

We are all doing well. Kiyoshi still mentions Chloe's name every once in a while completely out of the blue. And, Taro wondered why he couldn't see Ciaran while we were in Ottawa over the holidays. We are all looking forward to seeing you in the spring! Can't wait to read your next few postings!
Thinking of you,

by McNouye

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