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Church in Kerala, India, celebrates feast with elephants in Hindu tradition
Catholic News Service

KOTTEKAD, India — In the Christian heartland of Kerala, India, feisty church festivals are commonplace, but the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Fatima at St. Mary's Assumption Church in Kottekad remains unique.

Emulating a typical Hindu pooram, or festival, when the deities are carried in procession to the temples on elephants to the accompaniment of traditional bands called "panchavadyam," a portrait of Our Lady of Fatima was carried to the Syro-Malabar Catholic church on elephants Oct. 20.

Wearing golden headgear, two groups of three elephants each strolled elegantly for three hours at the back of the procession, swinging their broad ears as if enjoying the frantic traditional temple drum beat along the main roads of the parish.

Other bands moved ahead of the procession with rows of colorful umbrellas adding to the glitter, while families vied with one another to burst firecrackers as the procession passed their gates. Each household was packed with family members invited for the parish feast.

By the time two lines of the procession with the elephants met in front of the church, thousands had occupied every inch of space to watch the concluding "kudamattam," or change of umbrellas.

This was an imitation of the famous Thrissur pooram for which more than a million people gather from all over the world to watch the change of the umbrellas with intricate designs and colors. Participants hold the umbrellas atop 31 elephants, to the accompaniment of hundreds of drums.

Instead of the display of umbrellas of dazzling colors, the hallmark of "kudamattam" at the temples, people at the church stood atop the elephants and hoisted umbrellas with designs of crosses, angels, the Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Fatima, and other Christian symbols.

The cheers of the crowd grew louder as innovative designs were held aloft by the volunteers perched on top of the elephants, while mahouts kept watchful eyes on their legs chained together to prevent them from moving.

At the end of the hourlong change of umbrellas, the crowds cheered as the elephants moved across the ground to the chapel front to salute the statue of Our Lady of Fatima inside. They raised their trunks and spread their ears, while the announcer animatedly declared: "Devotees, you are witnessing a spectacle that you can never see at a church in Kerala -- elephants bowing before the Mother."

"This is a unique feast celebration. No (other) church in Kerala has adopted the Hindu tradition in such an elaborate manner," Father Davis Chiramel, parish vicar, told Catholic News Service.

A statue of Our Lady of Fatima was brought to nearby Thrissur in 1952 and was installed at the Kottekad church. Now, each year, the feast at the chapel is celebrated on the Sunday after Oct. 13, feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

Father Chiramel said the celebration is "not focused on the elephant show, but it just concludes with it." The preparation begins 10 days earlier with a parish retreat, eucharistic procession and novena, attended by hundreds of people, including Hindus.

"I was in the parish council that decided (in 1980) to use an elephant in the feast celebration for the first time. There was no opposition to that proposal," recalled 77-year old P.P. Ouseph. "The intention was that it would lead to greater bond with the Hindu community."

"Later, the number of elephants was increased .... I am very happy that the Hindus are taking a big interest in celebrating our feast," he added.

N.K. Sivan, a Hindu who works in a jewelry store about 50 miles from Kottekad, said he never misses the feast. All of his siblings -- two brothers and eight married sisters with 16 grandchildren -- travel to the family home near the chapel days ahead of the feast.

Sivan said family members love making decorations for the church.

"Mother (Our Lady of Fatima) has seen us through all our troubles in life," said Sivan's 72-year old widowed mother, Meenakshi.

"We have great faith in the Mother, and I have no doubt that it was due to this intercession my eight daughters could be married off despite my penury," she added.

K. Radha Krishnan, a Hindu manual laborer standing near the umbrella of Our Lady of Fatima he had designed with coconut leaves, told CNS: "I made this umbrella. I am sure Mother will give a special blessing for me and my family."

Many Hindus participated in the decoration of the chapel and preparation of the floats that were lifted up on top of the elephants, and they reported blessings and healings, said Praveen Chandy, one of the leaders of the feast celebration committee.

"The Christian community in Kerala has a long tradition of inculturation from the Hindu practices," said Father Paul Thelakat, spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which is based in Kerala.

"The decorated elephant is a very usual practice for Hindu festivals, which has been used for Christian processions also. There is a commonality of language between the Hindus and Christians in Kerala, which is cultural. So it is a welcome act," said Father Thelakat.

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