Kerala Temple and Elephant Festivals: Essential Guide

What You Need to Know About Kerala's Famous Festivals

Elephants at the Thrissur Pooram.
Kimberley Coole/Getty Images

Temple festivals in Kerala are elaborate and exotic. The main attraction at these festivals is the elephants. Most Hindu temples in Kerala own elephants, the majority of which are donated by devotees.

The festivals form part of each temple's annual rituals. They're commonly a tribute to the presiding god, who emerges from inside the temple once a year. Each festival has a different set of legends and myths behind it, depending on the temple god.

However, what's universal is that the presence of elephants at the festivals is believed to honor the god.

When and Where are the Festivals Held?

At temples throughout the state of Kerala, in south India, from February to May each year. Each temple festival runs for around 10 days. Shorter elephant pageants held at various temples typically last for one day.

Kerala Tourism has a handy event calendar showing the dates of temple festivals and elephant pageants in Kerala for the forthcoming year.

What Celebrations and Rituals Take Place?

While everyday temple rituals are modest, temple festivals take place on a grand scale and are a highlight on the social calendars of Kerala's population. The festivals feature large processions of bejeweled elephants, drummers and other musicians, colorful floats carrying gods and goddesses, and fireworks.

Detailed temple rituals are conducted by a tantri (the main temple priest) according to the temple god.

Rituals involving the god statue in a Pallivetta (Royal Hunt) and Arattu (Holy Bath) are the focus of the festivals of some Kerala's major temples. Gods from surroundings temples also make their annual visit on elephant back to pay their respects to the presiding temple god.

Which are the Largest Festivals?

There are so many temple festivals in Kerala, it can be difficult to know which ones are worth attending.

For the biggest spectacles, keep an eye out for pooram and gajamela events in Thrissur and Palakkad districts, in central to north Kerala. Pooram means "meeting" and denotes an annual temple festival, while gajamela literally means "festival of elephants". Vela festivals are also significant temple festivals worth seeing. The best one is the Nenmara Vallangi Vela, held in April in Palakkad district.

  • Thrissur Pooram (late April or May) -- Kerala's most famous pooram takes place at Vadakkumnathan temple in Thrissur during the Malayalam month of Medam. This grand festival has around 30 elephants and a percussion ensemble with about 250 artistes. A highlight is the kudamattom competition, which involves the rhythmic changing of an array of decorative umbrellas.
  • Arattupuzha Pooram (March or early April) -- Another notable festival not far from Thrissur, which has around 60 elephants in attendance. This pooram, held at Arattupuzha temple, is possibly the state's oldest temple festival and it's also extremely grand.
  • Peruvanam Pooram (March or early April) -- This legendary festival (considered to be nearly 1,500 years old) takes place at the ancient Peruvanam temple, in Cherpu in Thrissur district. There's a spectacular procession with elephants, and a four hour traditional Kerala percussion ensemble followed by fireworks.
  • Parippally Gajamela (March) -- This important elephant festival is held at Kodimoottil Bhagavathy temple at Parippally, in Kerala's Kollam district, and features about 50 caparisoned pachyderms. There are also cultural programs.
  • Chinakkathoor Pooram (March) -- A rural temple festival at Chinakkathoor Bhagavathy temple in Palappuram, in Palakkad district. It has 33 elephants, traditional percussion, processions of bull and horse effigies, and shadow puppetry.
  • Pariyanampetta Pooram (February) -- The seven-day festival at Pariyanampetta Bhagavathy Temple in Kattukulam, in Palakkad district, is known for its Kalamezhuthu Pattu ritual. Images of the goddesses are drawn on the ground with natural colored powder, and are accompanied by devotional singing. Many traditional art forms are also on display, and there's an impressive procession (with elephants) on the last day.
  • Uthralikkavu Pooram (February) -- The eight-day festival at rather isolated Rudhira Mahakali Kavu temple, in Thrissur district's Vadakkancherry, is dedicated to Goddess Kali and has a picturesque setting bordered by paddy fields. There are day and night elephant processions, and traditional musical ensembles. Three villages compete for the grandest displays. 

What to Expect at the Festivals

Plenty of crowds, elephants, noise, and processions. Music is an important part of the temple celebrations and the frenetic percussionists, of which there are plenty, manage to whip up quite a sound. Cultural programs, including classical music and dance performances, also take place. The celebrations continue throughout the night with fireworks.

Welfare of the Elephants

Those who are concerned about animal welfare may want to skip attending Kerala's elephant festivals. Unfortunately, the temple elephants are frequently mistreated. The decorated elephants are forced walk and stand for long periods during the heat, and they find the loud environment distressing. When they're not working, the elephants are chained up and often neglected. An award-winning documentary film, Gods in Shackles, aims raise awareness about the issue and bring about change to the elephants' living conditions.