Elephants celebrate Ganesha’s birthday.

Two male elephants playing/fighting, with a third following



Surakoti samabrabah

Nirvighnamkurume deva

Sarvakaryeshu sarvada

Lord Ganesha, big-bodied, with a curved trunk, and the brilliance of a million suns, remove all obstacles from all my endeavors, always.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna has written the Sanskrit words, at my request, and explained them, on the occasion of Ganesha’s birthday.

Ganesha, the elephant God, is a being much loved in India.  He is the bestower of knowledge, wealth, good fortune, and as mentioned in the prayer above, he removes all obstacles.

Ganesha removes all obstacles just as the elephant himself does in the forest.  He clears the way for other animals.  He even digs water holes, into which the rain can collect so that all the animals can have water to drink.  He is kind and beneficent, and, as we all know, a highly intelligent and sensitive being too.

Normally, all Hindu prayers and rituals, begin with a prayer to Ganesha.

Ganesha Chaturthi is a ten-day festival that falls between August 20 and September 22, culminating on the fourteenth day of the waxing moon. Chaturthi means fourteen.

In the Samburu National Park, in Kenya, where several of us were traveling after attending the Africa Animal Welfare Action Conference in Nairobi, I had no knowledge of this festival, until I first heard of it on Saturday, September 11.

Elephants in the river, Vulturine Guineafowl on the bank

On a drive through the park  — they are called “game drives” (though that seems an unfortunate name since it reminds one of hunting and doesn’t seem like a respectful way to refer to animals) – we came again, as we had the day before—to the beautiful river that runs along Samburu –the Ewaso Ng’iro.  The name of the river can be spelled in a number of different ways; it means muddy water, and is a good-sized river for this arid area, providing all the birds and animals with water.

There are many bushes and acacia trees here, some with weaver birds’ nests dangling from them, some covered in vines, some with just the skeletons of tall branches or trunks reaching up to the sky.  The foot-high grass in between the trees is yellow, and it seems to rain rarely, so the river is essential, originating on the heights of Mt. Kenya which, at 17,000 feet high, is the second tallest mountain in Africa (after Mt. Kilimanjaro).

Kenya takes its name from Mt. Kenya.  Located in the center of Kenya, it is covered in glaciers and provides water for the entire area.  From the road to Samburu, it can be seen in the distance, encircled in clouds.

The Ewaso Ng’iro river is perhaps 100 feet wide, with a swift current.  It appears shallow, but really there is no way to tell.  There are crocodiles, and the first day, we watched two Marabou Storks chasing one of the crocodiles from the bank into the water.  Obviously, they didn’t like him much.

The Ewaso Ng’iro River

The first day also, we watched a whole parade of elephants making their way down to the river, including some young males that seemed to spend most of their time fighting or playing (or both at the same time) with each other.  There were baby elephants too, who were adorable.

They paused before going down to the water’s edge, and it seemed that the matriarch elephant had sensed some sort of danger, because there was a bit of a delay.  Then the coast was clear, and they all trooped down to the water.

The next day, on the morning of Ganesha Chaturthi, as we drove down near the river, there across the water on the other side, we were greeted by a most amazing sight.  27 elephants, all ages and sizes were lined up in a row on the opposite bank, with just their toes in the water, all exactly in a row, facing pretty much straight ahead—though one little baby was facing in the opposite direction.

Twenty-seven elephants all lined up.

Clearly, this was a special, formal occasion for the elephants, and we concluded that they must have been lined up to celebrate Ganesha Chaturthi!

Though these are African, not Asian elephants (there are some differences—African elephants ears are huge and tend to go out sideways from their head–also both the males and females have tusks in Africa), still an elephant is an elephant, whether African or Asian. Clearly, all have an affinity with Ganesha.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, an authority and an author who has written many books on Indian culture and tradition, tells us that on this festival, traditionally, Indian people make a statue of wet clay of Ganesha, using two bright red seeds to make his eyes.

Ganesha is a God who is much loved.  The elephants are remarkable, and in this land, in Africa, so far removed from the hustles of modern civilization, they seem to have a profound connection with the peace and innocence of the original earth.

Photos: Sharon St Joan

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