ELEPHANT FESTIVAL OF IYENGARS OF KARNATAKA (YAANAI PANDIGAI)
(DISCOURSE BY N.R.SRINIVASAN, NASHVILLE, TN, NOVEMBER 2013)
Hindus worship chosen animals which are also the mounts of Gods or Goddesses. These are serpent, horse, elephant, goat, bull, peacock, rat, buffalo, lion, swan, crocodile etc. Lakshmi is always associated with elephant which is also the mount of Vishnu in her company or alone sometimes. Animals are reverentially treated in Bhootayagna, a religious sacrificial act. There are many rituals and festivals symbolic of Hindus’ concern for wild life care, preservation of forests and religious sentiments to maintain the pristine beauty of flora and fauna. Today celebration of such festivals has acquired immediate significance because the world seems to be decaying, degenerating, drifting towards destruction…..the earth is being plundered, heritage is being ignored, culture is being eroded, all in the name of progress. It is strange coincidence that such festivals are associated with Vishnu, the Universal Preserver, like Tulasi Vivaah, Paalika Visarjan, Govardhan Puja, Elephant Festival etc.
Saivaites, celebrate it as Sivadeepam and offer worship to the lamps, whereas, some Vaishnavites, in Karnataka celebrate it also by offering pooja (worship) to clay models of elephants as Gajalakshmi pooja. This is celebrated by the women folk as a Vrata (ritual) - a fasting ritual for the well-being of their husbands. As we all know elephant is the longest living and strong animal. On this auspicious occasion, the entire house is lit with beautifully decorated lamps like Deepavali. The worship is conducted in the evenings and the daylight fast ends in feasting during night. This worship goes on for three days.
Legend has it that during the exile of the Kunti, mother of Pandavas , saw some Brahmins walking with plates full of fruits, gifts, and coins (dakshina), indicating they were just returning after conducting a special religious worship. On enquiry, she came to know that the queen, Gaandhaari, had performed Gajalakshmi pooja in secrecy without informing Kunti, in her palace and had offered them dakshina (religious money offering for conducting the ceremony). Kunti hadn’t been invited. So, she was sad, lamenting her inability to perform the pooja. On learning the cause of her despair, Arjuna consoled her, saying that he would bring Airavatha, the celestial white elephant from Indra, his father so that she could also perform the pooja. Arjuna requested Indra to lend Airavatha to him. Indra agreed and Arjuna built a ladder with arrows to Indra’s abode to bring Airavatha to the earth. Kunti performed the pooja, blessed her sons and thanked Indra for his kind gesture.
In some Iyengar families in Karnataka, it is a custom to give a bronze or silver elephant and a silver jug with a spout called guindy, to the daughter of the house during her wedding, to continue this tradition of worship every year. The festival is celebrated with fervor by newly married girls. Two elephant models, made of clay, along with metal elephant figurines are worshiped. They are decorated with ‘namams’ and adorned with rich silk cloth. A mirror is kept in front of them. Normally idol of crawling baby Krishna is kept over the elephants to make it seem as if Krishna is riding over them (a reminder of his boy-hood day visit to Hastinapura to kill Kamsa). The lady of the house usually wears her wedding sari (preferably nine yards) for the pooja. She fills a silver jug with raw milk and makes five pradakshinas (circumambulations) of the elephant, slowly dripping the milk from the jug as she goes around. Another family member accompanies her and holds a punctured coconut (tender cocoanut) with its water dripping slowly. Sweet stuffed Dosas and appams (special mouth-watering snacks of the South) are offered, along with sugarcane pieces, raw rice, bananas and Bengal gram Lentil). The second day is celebrated as Mari (little) Karthikai, the festival of the elephant calf. On the third day, four types of South Indian rice preparations (ksheeranna or sweet pongal, curd rice, puliogare and kadambam/ bisibelebhath) are prepared. In the evening, before sunset, the elephants are given a warm send off after worship. A little curd rice (without salt) is applied under their tummies and they are immersed in a pond, or river as prayers are offered urging them to come back the following year and bless the house with prosperity (a practice similar to Ganesh Visarjan Ceremony in Maharashtra). It is also customary to enjoy the outdoor dinner with family members in the garden and leave the elephant under a banana tree or bamboo grove.
Elephant festival is also celebrated as mini-Deepaavali with full lighting with mud oil wick lamps for three days. The worship of elephant and celebration of the festival for three days as above is observed to honor and celebrate the Avatar of Gajalakshmi who is believed born on this day of Vishnudeepam. Two elephants performed abhishekam (religious bathing ceremony) on Goddess Gajalakshmi when she was born. Hindus often worship portrait of Gajalakshmi, which shows the gorgeous Lakshmi sitting on lotus and two elephants by her side pouring milk form their raised trunks. Of the eight forms of Lakshmi (Ashta Lakshmis) Gajalakshmi is the most popular. She is usually figured on the lintels of door frames. She is seated on an eight-petal lotus, has four hands and is carrying a lotus, a pot of nectar, a bilva fruit and a conch. Behind her two elephants are shown pouring milk in the act of Abhishekam ritual (sacred bath) from pots held in their trunks. The protecting power of Vishnu has eight aspects which are pictured as eight goddesses (Ashtalakshmis). Gajalakshmi symbolizes wealth and prosperity. Two white elephants symbolize strength and wisdom.
It is worth mentioning here that Wild-life division of Karnataka, inspired by this Elephant festival of Iyengar community in Karnataka conducted Elephant Festival, parading trained elephants and entertaining children on 54th Wild Life Week in Dubare Elephant camp near Kushalnagar. This was to create awareness among the public, the need for conservation of wild life and forests. This is in contrast to the vast killing and pouching that is going on to hunt for much valued elephant tusks in Africa to quench the thirst of affluent Chinese and getting rich by this smuggling export trade illegally even though this is banned in many countries including Africa. Ivory jewels or art pieces are prohibited from being manufactured and sold. Karnataka is known for its ivory carving exhibits.
Hindu concluding prayers usually end with Shanti Mantra pleading for all, round tranquility calling for calmness in the animal and plant kingdoms showing their deep concern for indiscriminate disturbances of flora fauna: Om dyauh santih antariksham santih prithvee santih aapah santih oshadhayah santih vanaspatayah santih viswedevah santih brahma santih sarvam santih santireva santih daa maa santiredhi || [May there be peace in the heavenly region; may there be peace in the atmosphere (caring for birds); may there be peace on earth (flora and fauna); may there be calmness in the herbs ; may there be peace in the plant kingdom (Forest life);may there be harmony in the celestial objects and perfection in eternal knowledge; may there be universal peace; may peace pervade everywhere; may that peace come to me also; may there be peace from terrestrial disturbance; external disturbance and from internal disturbance from within me!]
My mother was a dedicated religious woman and very orthodox. She implicitly followed her equally religious and orthodox parents however wrong they may be? I always questioned blind beliefs and orthodoxy extended to the point of ridicule! She failed miserably to convert me to her line of thinking. She passed away peacefully in 1977 immediately after the ritual of Elephant Visarjan on the third day after Karthigai without any suffering chanting the name of God when the festival lights dimmed. Her formidable faith guided her all through her struggle in life. I left her at the age of eight in 1938and was not there also when she gave up her ghost. I thought of making her last days comfortable but He willed otherwise! This discourse is dedicated to her and to her firm belief in Hindu Festivals and Rituals whose deeper meaning I started realizing late in my life.