The huge tusker’s loose wrinkled hide chaffed against his gaudy illuminated carapace. Once he had been magnificent in the wild. Now, well trained, chastened, he was diminished. His chained feet plod-danced as he led the dazzling procession. Ahead of him a hundred virtually naked boys cartwheeled and gleefully cracked long whips announcing the mighty beast with his symbolic relic cargo. Constant firecrackers assaulted the crowd’s ears and torched kerosene rags burst from king coconut shells, emitting foul smoke and licking flames. So many other fettered elephants, acrobats, jugglers, drummers, dancers and masked mimers followed on.
Villagers, some with families, had travelled long distances to the lakeshore. Many had threaded their way down through the hills of tea. Now, the pilgrims pushed and jostled to get a better view of the ornate casket perched on an elaborate howdah on the tusker’s back. Darting eyes were bright with firelight and possible animal danger. Feral smells heightened the sense of excitement.
Suddenly the lumbering tusker stopped. A rogue flaming coconut shell rolled across the road and caught his foot. The foot began to burn. The elephant stamped his chains from side to side and bellowed. A mahout cruelly prodded and cursed. The tusker’s flesh began to sizzle, acrid and charred. Desperate with pain he grew fierce with a primal instinct to survive.
Who heard the gun shots above the cacophony of the ceremony? The mighty elephant crumpled, his blood seeping out across his magnificent awning.
The mesmeric dancing procession continued deep into the warm tropical night. It eventually reached the temple to be welcomed by saffron robed monks. Did anyone register the missing tusker? Did anyone notice the bulked heap of death by the roadside and the soaked cloth of temple glory?
A few days later, back at a village school, a young boy was asked to draw a picture of the exotic pageant that he’d been so privileged to witness. Did the elephants dance? With the stump of a wax crayon he tentatively drew a small red smudge at a bottom corner of his piece of paper.