Seeveli, Kerala temples' popular ritual and elephants

Elephant carrying the idol, temple premises, Kerala

Poornathrayeesa Temple Festival

Kerala  is one of the states in India with a large population of elephants  and  they are  part of  the culture of Kerala. Among the Asian subspecies, the Indian elephants  belong to  sub species Elephas maximus indicus. In the last three decades since 1986, the population of elephants has dramatically come down because of various reasons such as habitat loss, degradation of forest and fragmentation of forest land, etc.  Wild elephant attacks on humans  as well as their death on the railroad tracks are on the increase  correspondingly. IUCN reports say there has been 50% reduction and  Asian Elephant is listed as endangered  animal.  In this state the trained elephants are used for various purposes such as  temple festivals,  public functions, etc., besides  churches and mosques also use them for some religious activities. It is estimated that there are more than  700 trained elephants in captivity owned by individuals and temples. In the lumber industries located in wooded areas elephants play a vital role.  

Pooram festival, Thirissur, Kerala.

Above image: Elephants stand face-to-face for Kudamattam in Thrissur Pooram.

Elephants lined up, Vadukanathan temple, Kerala

Most of the temples in Kerala own an elephant or more than that, depending on the size, popularity and  the number of  temple rituals being followed by them. Most of them are donated by  devotees to the temples in fulfillment of their vow.  No other states in India use  such a large number of  trained elephants for temple rituals and activities almost on a regular basis as  in  Kerala . The cost factor is way high, considering the  present inflation index. Kerala temples' festivals are  exotic, fascinating and pompous.  The Kerala  temple rituals  portray a unique culture which will bring out  myths, legends and a unique native lifestyle. For the devotees and participants, it is time to relax and be free from mundane existence  and engage in rituals or festivities with religious  fervor.

The procession of deity or deities on the caparisoned elephants is the most captivating sight in  Kerala temples, be they dedicated to Lord Vishnu or  Lord Shiva or Goddess Sakthi.  Such a procession of elephants is not followed in neighboring state Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. This tradition has been there for decades. No doubt, elephants are deeply immortalized and glorified  in the literature and lore of ancient Kerala.  Kottarathil Sankunni’s work on  the foundational myths of elephants has mentioned some legendary status in the temples in the1900s. Though temples take special care of the jumbos, unfortunately there  are  several reports of poor treatment of   elephants such as prolonged chaining, lack of adequate rest and lack of understanding  the problem of  elephants in musth  that might cause threats to the people.

The Thiruvanmbadi procession

Poornathrayeesa Temple Festival 2012 (vrishika ulsavam)

Seeveli  (Sri Bhutha Bali; ''Sri'' is mother goddess. ''Bali'' means offering), the most popular daily ritual,  is nothing but a temple procession of deity held on the temple premises  in the morning and in the  late evening.  Tradition has it before and during any big festival, offering bali is an important ritual as per Agama Sastras. 

This daily ritual  is a colorful  procession of  elephants, wearing gold-plated caparison (nettipattam), bells, necklaces, etc. The sight will hold the spectators  in awe.  One of the elephants is carrying the  small decorated  idol (utshava moorthy or simply utchavar) replica of the presiding deity (Moolavar) with temple priest behind it, followed by other elephants to the accompaniments of rhythmic beating of drums and playing of wind instrument - Nadaswaram. The procession will move slowly around the temple clock wise after regular puja. In popular temples, it is done three times in 7 am. 5.30 pm and 8.30 pm.  Seeveli procession at night is a spectacular one, involving  more than three elephants. Oil lamps in thousands are lit around the outer temple walls in the evening. The most amazing things are, this daily ritual is done with utter commitment and religious fervor. The entire atmosphere is charged with spiritual exhilaration and blissful ecstasy.

Festival ornaments worn by jumbos,

Above image:  Various ornaments worn by elephants  are specifically designed and  made  by experienced  artisans to suit the elephants' face and body. The elephant that carries the  Uttchavar idol  is normally  flanked by other decorated elephants, forming a  small pageant. Procession in the front is always accompanied by music - mostly  percussion instruments  such as the panchavadyam ( five instruments out of which  three are percussion, one is wind, and the other a pair of cymbals) and  nadaswaram (a wind instrument)...... .

Seeveli  ritual is famous at temples like Guruvayur - dedicated to Lord Krishna in Thrissur district, Vaikom Mahadev temple - dedicated to Lord Shiva, etc.  Both are popular shrines in Kerala. Seeveli is a daily ritual procession  In Guruvayur  temple and  in the  procession of caparisoned elephants mostly three in number one of them carrying the idol of Lord Krishna.

Guruvayur Seeveli

Varkala, Kerala Elephant procession in the temple under the

In some temples more than 10 elephants are used for the ceremonial functions in front of the temple. For example at  Kudalmanikyam temple,  seventeen elephants are used for the daily ceremony to the accomplishment of Pancari Melam  Seven elephants wear caparison made of pure gold and the rest wear nettipattam  made of silver.

In some places there will be a procession of caparisoned elephants from other temples that gather at a particular place. The number may vary wary and the elephants carry the small idol of the temple 


they are representing. A good  example is Vaikkaththu Ashtami festival, Vaikom.  The elephants from the surrounding temples too join here; during the long festival days several elephants are engaged  in the procession.

Mentioned below  are some of Hindu festivals of Kerala where participation of elephants is important and they attract very large crowd. Some of the festivals last whole night as well; sound and noise will be fairly high.

Thrissur Pooram (late April or May): Kerala's most famous pooram festival takes place at Vadakkumnathan temple in Thrissur;  30 elephants participate and a percussion ensemble with about 250 artistes.

Arattupuzha Pooram (March or early April): Yet another festival not far from Thrissur;  about  60 elephants are displayed with decorations.This pooram, festival, is said to be oldest in the state.

Peruvanam Pooram (March or early April): Elephants participate It is considered to be  1,500 years old. Venue: at the ancient Peruvanam temple, in Cherpu in Thrissur district.

Parippally Gajamela (March): It is held at  Kodimoottil Bhagavathy temple at Parippally, in Kerala's Kollam district; an important elephant festival; 50 caparisoned elephants participate.

Chinakkathoor Pooram (March): It is held at  rural temple festival at Chinakkathoor Bhagavathy temple in Palappuram, Palakkad district;  33 elephants Participate, a whooping number.

Pariyanampetta Pooram (February): It is  a seven-day festival at Pariyanampetta Bhagavathy Temple in Kattukulam,  Palakkad district. It is called Kalamezhuthu Pattu ritual. It includes a procession of elephants, in particular, on the last day.

Uthralikkavu Pooram (February) : A eight-day festival at  Rudhira Mahakali Kavu temple, in Thrissur district's Vadakkancherry.  It includes  day and night elephant processions, and traditional musical ensembles.  The temple is in a remote place, dedicated to Kali.


 Elephants are deeply enshrined in the literature and lore of ancient Kerala.  Aithihyamala, Kottarathil Sankunni’s compilation of the foundational myths.

01. Occasionally  trained elephants go wild,  run amuck and attack people, it is said that threats occur once in a while and  the odds are 20 to one. The main reason is when the male elephants experience musth, a sort of sexual excitement (over secretion of testosterone). And to reduce such threats, the temple authorities allow two female elephants walk on both sides of the male elephant.

02. Though temples take special care of the jumbos, unfortunately there  are  several incisive reports on the  poor treatment of  temple elephants such as prolonged chaining, lack of adequate rest and recognizing the problem of male elephants in musth in the winter season that might cause threats to the people. Further, the temple elephants have to stand for a pronged time in the midst of din, causing additional stress; sometimes they have to walk on the asphalt road for a long time. They need 350 kg of food and at least 150 liters of water a day. The animal welfare committee is also keeping an eye on them.