The gentle magnificence of elephants has long held a special place in Indian society. One of the most recognized gods in the Hindu pantheon is, after all, Ganesh – a deity with an elephant’s head – and Hindu mythology also includes the divine elephant Airavata (sometimes depicted with five heads) who carried Indra, king of the gods. It’s hardly surprising, then, that elephants became symbols of royalty in Indian culture and that the animal is associated with a number of different festivals.
Such is the importance of the elephant in India that it has even been awarded its own annual festival. Held in Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan, the Elephant Festival is scheduled for March26, 2013 at Rambagh Polo Ground is a favorite among locals and tourists alike.
It’s a vibrant occasion full of pomp and circumstance, with elephants bejeweled and decorated – as well as taking part in other events to entertain the crowds.
Interestingly, all the elephants that participate in the festival are female. Do the organizers perhaps assume that lady elephants will be more comfortable in makeup? Whatever the reason, it’s no holds barred when it comes to bedecking them with all the trappings of female ornament, including scarves, anklets – even the pachyderm equivalent of toenail polish.
History has it that Rajput kings would use their best elephant to be the flag bearer and lead processions in times of war, as well as during festivities. More elephant-based entertainment would often follow these processions, including fights and games. These would often be laid on for royal guests, including British colonial personalities and visiting Maharajahs. The same elephant who had led the procession would then ride up to Jaipur’s opulent Amber Fort – a tradition that still happens to this day.
For this annual extravaganza, the elephants arrive at the stadium adorned with precious jewels, draped with velvets and decorated with body paint. Who will be the fairest of them all? It’s not a throwaway question – there is, after all, a prize for best-dressed elephant. Winning this accolade is an immense source of pride for the mahawat, or elephant owner – which must make for a rather stressful time in the run-up to the festival. That said, the elephants here seem to be taking it all in their considerable stride!
Much like a catwalk show or pageant, the elephants competing for the ‘Best Decorated’ gong parade past the judges, some of whom are tourists. The animals have also been known to offer the panel garlands, showing that even elephantine beauty contests aren’t immune to bribery…
Almost every part of this highly-decorated creature has been accounted for, with intricate and vibrant floral patterns covering its face, golden scarves hanging from its tusks, and a gorgeous embroidered throw adorning its back. We wonder how many bottles of nail varnish it took to paint those toes…
As well as the beauty contest, these jumbo-sized beasts also entertain the crowds with races, and even a game of elephant polo (played using a plastic football and long sticks). There is also the tug of war between the elephants and the humans. We know who our money’s on…
One of the unique aspects of the Elephant Festival is that visitors are actively encouraged to take part – not just in the beauty pageant judging but also, should they feel the urge, in the polo. The guests also have an opportunity to mount the elephants and play Holi. Participants dance with great vigor-the excitement rising to a crescendo.
Sounds like a blast!