It is worth it to wake up early when visiting Hampi in Central India and make your way down to the Tungabhadra River. Some time between 7:30 and 8:30 you will catch the morning ritual of bathing Lakshmi, the temple elephant.
We found out about it from a young boy selling chai (sweet tea) at sunset. He told us to come to the bath tomorrow. He sells post cards in the morning. I asked him what he does a better business at and he said both are good. I can see why he does a good business, he is very charming.
We set our alarms for 7:00 and make our way down to the water. Many local people are out having their baths, but no elephant yet. But we come across a school group visiting Hampi from Gadag. They are here for the festival Hampi’s 500th anniversary and are excited to speak with us. We walk with them back to the main bazaar where Dave chats with the teacher and I talk with the girls as they ask my my name, my fathers name, my mothers name and try to teach me a few Hindi phrases.
Hindi is one of those languages that I just cannot get a grasp of. I repeat what I think that they are saying, but I seem to have it all wrong. They laugh and smile and are very patient with me. Each girl runs up to me and asks me my name and then they repeat it making sure that it is stuck in their minds. It is the most fun I have had walking in all of our time in India. We take a picture with them at the temple and let them get on with their tour, promising to send them a copy once we make it to Mumbai.
We didn't see the elephant, but we are so happy for the chance to meet these adorable students and their proud teacher.
But wait a minute!
Just as we accept that we will not be seeing Lakshmi’s bath, she appears. We arrive just as this sacred elephants makes her way to the bottom of the steps leading to the river. (Known as Ghats in India). The bath goes on for at least half an hour. She lies in the river content to be scrubbed by here handler (mahout). Flopping her ears and closing her eyes, she wakes up only to stand and turn over to have the other side bathed.
I wonder if they scrub her raw, but an elephants hide is tough and I imagine that she lives for these moments of pampering. We have heard the life for a temple elephant is very dreary. They spend their days chained to the ground accepting offerings from pilgrims. They are paraded around for ceremonies and they are given very little freedom to roam. I assume that this is the highlight of her day.
Children swim and play nearby and yell at us to take their picture. When I turn my camera there way, ham it up and put on a great show. Adults bathe right beside the elephant's as a small crowd watches the events from the ghats.
It is a strange moment to watch. Lakshmi poohs in the water and it floats down river to where the people are bathing. We are sitting on the steps watching them during an intimate moment of their day, their baths, and they seem oblivious to us.
Lakshmi just seems sad and tired.
After the bath, you can be blessed yourself by Lakshmi. Put a coin into the snout of her trunk and after she hands it to her master, she gives you a tap on your head. She is trained well.
As I receive my blessing, a young boy helping the elephant handler whispers to me to ask if I would like a ride on Lakshmi.
How could I refuse to ride on the temple elephant?
- They tell me to follow once she is finished her bath. I follow orders well and we go up the steps to a wall where I can hop on easily. I have ridden elephants before, but while sitting on a chair or bench. In Hampi, they ride Lakshmi bareback and I am a little nervous being so high without reign or even an ear to hang onto. The Mahout is so tiny that I know if I lose my balance, I am taking him with me. It's impossible to squeeze my legs to hold on as she is too wide, so I balance on her back and look down at the ground that seems so far away.
- All turned out well though and we had a special experience walking along the waterfront. My ride kept her outside for a little while longer.
I can see why royalty rode elephants, they certainly make on feel regal. Others ask for a ride, but once I am dropped off, they head for the temple where Lakshmi will perform her blessing duties. I don't know what made me so lucky today, but it was a privilege to ride on Lakshmi.
We hear that the washing happens every evening as well. Sometime around sunset. We just may have to have one last visit with Lakshmi before we leave magical Hampi to explore the rest of India.