SANTA MONICA, Calif., April 18, 2012 — I am walking down Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, California, with the Pacific Ocean surging nearby, when this bejeweled , richly caparisoned elephant adorned with silks, brocades, flowers and henna, walks nonchalantly down the street.
Calmly he placed one bedecked foot circled by anklets in front of the other, undeterred by the hypnotic pounding beat of the dhol (Indian drum) the frenzied dancers and the jubilant, boisterous crowds .
His mission was to deliver the resplendent attired bridegroom perched on his back to the temple where a wedding would take place.
Yes, this is the big Fat Indian wedding and the elephant procession was the auspicious beginning to a blessed union between bridegroom, bride and two families. Tradition is integral to Indian weddings and the elephant plays an important role in the ceremonies. in the olden days in India, kings, nawabs, and princes rode on elephants to symbolize their power and majesty.
Today it is not so much about pomp and power as it is about pageantry and ancient rituals. A booming Indian marriage industry among Indians in the US, and there are two million of them, has spawned hundreds of marriage planners, exotic venues and elephants .
However, it is this magnificent elephant attired in ceremonial clothes that intrigues me at this wedding I am attending. I track down the owners Kari and Gary Johnson. The company, based in Perris, California, cleverly called Have Trunk will Travel inc. owns seven elephants, with five of them adult females. Each of them has a name: Tai, Dixie, Kitty, Becky and Rosie. there is the only one adult male Tusko, who is currently on loan to the Oregon Zoo for its breeding program.
Kari tells me that they participate in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan. ”We work with other elephant holding facilities to preserve and protect this endangered species,” she says.
She and her husband Gary have been training elephants for over 35 years. The staff includes three trainers and two apprentice trainers, who have experience from other zoos. Members of the family are also involved with the training with some of the staff, working with them for 21 years.
Didn’t the music, noise and crowds annoy the elephant? Kari says that “the elephants are used to the dancing, music, people, crowds, and events. They know that they are safe with us and are not startled by the noise or any unusual things that may happen.”
”Indian weddings are special,” Kari adds. “We have learned about the traditions, love the outfits, and really enjoy the festivities. some of the weddings are over the top, but amazingly well planned. One of the most memorable weddings was the one where an elephant was given by the bride as a surprise gift to the groom. It is challenging to try to keep an elephant a secret until it’s time to start the procession and fun to see the reaction when the groom sets eyes on the elephant and realizes he will be riding on top!”
The elephant saddles, anklets and howdahs are specially built on the ranch and fitted to each individual elephant. Kari’s mother even made some of them. some of the ostentatious, decorative cloths come from India. Kari adds that the specially embellished umbrellas, which are placed over the heads of the bridegrooms also come from India.
“My favorite part,” says Kari, “is wearing the Indian outfits. We order the clothing from India or buy it online or in the Indian shops in Cerritos, California. I used to be concerned that we might wear something inappropriate because we are not familiar with all the different religions and customs from various regions in India. but the families are always very helpful and work with us.”
The cost? “It varies, according to how much travel is involved and which decorations are chosen. Weddings close to home may cost as much as $ 5,000 while weddings across the country can run as much as $ 40,000.” Kari said.
And what movies did the elephants star in? “Zookeeper,” “Evan Almighty,” “George of the Jungle,” “Operation Dumbo Drop,” and “Larger than Life” are some of the films featuring their elephants, but there have been many commercials and television shows where the elephants have had leading roles.
But if a 9000 lb. elephant is not within your budget, you might settle for a mare. A romantic 12th century legend, spun out of a medieval romance, tells us that the Indian Rajput ruler Prithviraj Chauhan kidnapped his beautiful lover Samyukta, daughter of a rival ruler, and galloped away on his horse.
Since that time in India, many marriage processions herald the bridegroom riding a mare(a horse is inauspicious) to the wedding reception, accompanied by bands playing Bollywood hits with the family and friends of the groom dancing euphorically while traffic grinds to a halt.
Whether riding on an elephant or a mare, the bridegroom’s fantasies come true on his marriage day and he feels like a prince as he rides forth regally to claim his bride.
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