The onset of the 10-day annual festival of Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple in Thrissur district of Kerala is marked by the eye-catching Aanayottam or the elephant race. Popularly known as Guruvayur Anayottam, this unique race is conducted to select the elephant on which the ‘Thidambu‘, the replica of the idol of Lord Guruvayoorappan is carried during the annual temple festival as well as on all special occasions for one year. This event is often observed between the months of February and March.
The race which covers about half-a-kilometer distance starts from the premises of Manjulal at the eastern end of the Guruvayur Temple and ends at the eastern entrance of the Temple. The rituals of Aanayottam begins with the ancestral heir handing over the Kada bells to the temple Thanthri, below the flag post of the temple. The temple Thanthri, in turn, hands over the bells to the mahouts of the elephants that are participating in the race. Then, the mahouts adorn their elephant’s neck with the bells and the race starts when the conch shell is blown by the Marar. The elephant who completes seven rounds and crosses the eastern gate of the temple first will be declared as the winner. The winning elephant gets the privilege to carry the ‘Thidambu’ of Guruvayoorappan for all the special occasions of the temple that year and is treated royally. And the ten-day-long temple festival comes to an end with the Arattu ceremony.
The Fascinating Legend of Guruvayoor Aanayottam:
Guruvayoor Temple was once the sub-temple of Thrikkana Mathilakam Temple which was located in Thrissur and did not own any elephants. Usually, the festival at Thrikkana Mathilakam Temple used to end two days before the beginning of the Guruvayoor temple festival and the elephants will start their journey to Guruvayoor as soon as the festival at Thrikkana Mathilakam Temple is finished. Once they refused to send their elephants to Guruvayoor as the Guruvayoor temple authorities failed to make the payment. It is believed that on that night, all the elephants broke the chains on which they have tied and started running towards Guruvayoor on their own accord. The clanging sound of chains was heard at Manjula Althara at around 3 Pm and the Zamorin and priests were all dumbfounded to see the running elephants that stopped near the Temple as if paying tribute to Lord Guruvayoorappan. That was the first Aanayottam held at Guruvayoor. To commemorate this unusual event, Guruvayoor Aanayottam is conducted every year even today. Later, in the year 1755, the Thrikkana Mathilakam Temple was destroyed by the Dutch and it was no longer a rival to Guruvayoor which prospered by the day and now has more than 50 elephants of its own, protected in the majestic Punnathur Kotta.