Travel: Dances with elephants: Barbara Jeffery packs her trunk and comes down with a serious case of elephant fever at a festival in Kerala, India's southernmost state

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
The boat was due at 7am. At 7.10 the boatman was still slowly flicking a duster around the seats of the top deck of the battered vessel moored 50ft from the jetty. I waved; he waved back and went on dusting. Finally, he gently chugged over. The morning haze hadn't risen from the hills surrounding the lake. It never did. The haze became a Scotch mist, then a torrential downpour. I retired, soaked, after two hours for poached eggs, hot chocolate and a change of clothes.

By teatime the wind and the rain were worse, but another boat materialised through the mist and I jumped on. I got even wetter than before and was about to abandon the trip when the captain pointed ahead. There, in a clearing at the foot of a fell, stood three adult elephants and a baby one. The lookout, a large old cow, stared at us, picked up a trunkful of wet earth, threw it over her right shoulder and trumpeted. Then she swayed down to the water's edge and growled at us while the two other females closed ranks round the baby and swiftly escorted it into the bushes.

Periyar Lake in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, is 2,500ft up on the western ghats of Kerala, India's southernmost state. We sat in the boat and watched. After a few minutes the three elephants and the baby returned, plodded down to the water's edge and stared, as curious about us as we were about them. Then another trunk appeared from behind the grassy knoll that backed the beach. And another and another and another. Soon 21 elephants stood in a row, staring at us. Then, as one, they turned to the right and walked along the shore, passing about 15ft from our boat, plunged into the water and swam across the lake to a little island. Trunks held high, they barely ruffled the water and were as protective of the young as always. One mother wrapped her trunk round her baby and scooped him up on to the beach, to his mortified screeches.

Back to the Lake Palace hotel, on an island on the lake. It has gone down since the maharajah used it as a holiday home: beaten-up furniture, threadbare carpet and no fire to dry our clothes. But my guide, Babu Varghese of Tourindia, had booked me the best room (No 6) so I could lie in bed and watch the wildlife on the far shore. A herd of gaur came down to drink. These buffalo-like animals, often wrongly called the Indian bison, stand 6ft tall and measure between nine and 12ft long. There are deer, wild boar, langur, monkeys and panthers up here.

The vast Periyar reservoir was created in 1895 and the forests around it were declared reserves four years later. In 1978 Periyar became a tiger reserve under Project Tiger. There are now around 40, but you have to be lucky to see them.

Before bedtime I knew I had caught the Kerala disease: elephant fever. It is incurable. They are all elephant crazy in Kerala. When I went back a year later and Babu was still telling people about our elephant experience on the lake.

In Kerala the elephant is central to life, like the bull of Spain. The mahout has the same standing as a bullfighter, too.

There is always tension between elephant and mahout; the animal is anything up to 12ft tall and 700 stone; the mahout is about 5ft and weighs seven stone. He controls the beasts by keeping them hungry but they often run amok. If an elephant becomes really cross, it will knock the mahout over, put a foot on him and keep it there for three days. Mahouts sometimes die in this way. Elephants can also be understanding. The mahouts enjoy arrack, distilled from fermented coconut palm juice, and if a man has had a drop too much, his elephant will carry him home in his trunk. The elephant likes a drop, too, and will down three bottles for every one his master drinks.

The best thing a Keralian can say about a woman is that she walks like an elephant, with an elegant sway. And the best thing he can do is give an elephant to the temple, as a gift to the gods. A rich temple will have 40 or more. Their only work is to perform in temple festivals, when they are dressed with gold caparisons covering their foreheads and trunks. The dates of these festivals traditionally vary because they are fixed by the lunar calendar.

But Kerala's Department of Tourism came up with the idea of holding an Elephant Festival from 17-20 January each year, to simplify things for tour operators.

The festival I attended was an extraordinary affair. Garlands of jasmine, oleander and carnation petals made a scented archway to the football stadium in Trichur. In a row stood 101 caparisoned elephants, each bearing two mahouts; three or four more sat quietly in the shade under the animals' huge bodies, languidly passing up a banana or a bunch of coconut leaves to the ever-searching trunks.

The mahouts on the elephants performed a sort of semaphore dance with circular fans edged with peacock feathers to the hypnotic beat of a temple band. Some of them held silk umbrellas in purple, pink and orange that they kept swapping around - a routine copied from the traditional Pooram festival at Trichur in April, when two temples vie to produce the most colourful effects.

The thermometer said 100 F. It was very windy, and after 45 minutes of non-stop music and arm-waving, some dancers looked a little jaded. A few had fallen off, unbalanced by the breeze or the arrack.

We had lunch under vast open-sided awnings before driving six miles to Mathuvara, where the elephants should have been waiting for us. No sign of them. The whole village seemed to be lined up on the roots of a huge banyan tree and there was a carnival atmosphere, with stalls selling freshly squeezed mango and lime juice.

Finally, there was a glint of gold through the trees and the elephants came into view, two hours late. There were various explanations, the most likely being that they had all dropped into the arrack house for a snifter, for the animals swayed rather a lot and the mahouts smiled even more broadly than usual.

They had come to take us for a ride. We mounted by means of a rough wooden ramp. No howdah, no cushions, just a blanket. I held on to the mahout, who giggled hysterically, and off we went in a convoy along the main Trichur-Calicut highway in the rush hour. It was disconcerting to look down and see one's foot touching the load on a juggernaut. Then we left the road and climbed up through cool woods. The lane was lined with people having a jolly good laugh at the tourists. Below you could see the purple and crimson remnants of the sunset over the sea. A little boy waved; I bravely released the string I was hanging on to and waved back.

After nearly an hour we reached the top. There were cheering crowds as far as the eye could see and a little fair on the top of the hill to celebrate our arrival, with dancing, a pottery exhibition and cool drinks.

That's not all there is to the festival. There is a day of snake boat races at Allepeyin the backwaters. The snake boats with their sharply curved prows, each manned by more than 100 oarsmen, slice through the water like wind. It looks like an ancient tradition but it started in 1952 at the suggestion of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and normally takes place during the harvest festival in August or September. There is a 'cultural' event in Trivandrum with displays of Kalaripayattu, the Kerala martial art, and Kathakali, the ancient dance-drama, now enjoying a revival. And, of course, elephants; elephant races, elephant acrobatics and a tug-of-war with one elephant pitted against 100 soldiers.

It is a cocktail of local culture put together with the tourist in mind. But it is not over-packaged; this being India, the parcel tends to come apart a bit, which only adds to the charm. The nicest thing was that the locals got as much fun from it as the tourists. Keralians love a festival and one more can only be a good thing.

The four-day package with local transport, board and lodging and the services of a guide costs about pounds 500. More details from Tourindia, Post Box 163, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Trivandrum 1, Kerala, South India.

(Photograph omitted)