I had no idea what to expect from Guruvayoor Aanaottam. Lonely Planet described it as an ‘elephant race’ festival, but even that meant little to me. Where were the elephants running to? Where were they coming from? Can elephants run? Regardless, the festival date coincided with my visit so I headed to the city of Guruvayoor to discover firsthand.
As soon as we got off the bus we could see the elephants lined up. Elephants are like celebrities in southern India. Months before festivals, the names of the attending elephants are often posted on signs and billboards.
Super excited, I raced to the front of where we were allowed. The elephants seemed to be divided into tiers. The fastest ones were already at the front, while the medium fast or slow ones arrived later.
The elephants run half a kilometer to the temple, do 7 laps around, and touch the flagstaff at the end. The first elephant gets special treatment in the temple and gets to carry a special thidambu.
At exactly 3 pm, a man at the front yelled and the elephants began moving. The ones at the front ran, the ones in the middle walked, and the ones near the end shuffled.
We weren’t allowed to walk along the main road until the very last elephant had passed. By that time, a mass of people had formed.