Visiting the Temple Elephants of Kerala, India

What’s the closest you’ve ever gotten to an elephant? Most likely, it’s at least a few hundred yards, whether it be on safari, at the zoo, or at a circus. But there is a place where you can stand mere steps away from these majestic animals.

The unique sanctuary in the state of Kerala, India, is called Anakotta (“Elephant Fort”) and houses 58 elephants. They make their home on the grounds of a former royal palace and belong, quite literally, to God. The sanctuary is managed by the Guruvayur Temple, one of the most prominent Hindu shrines in India. And each elephant is a devotional offering to its presiding deity, Lord Krishna.

The Guruvayur temple is a couple of miles from the sanctuary. Festivals are held from October through May, many involving brightly decorated elephants in stately procession. If you miss a temple festival, you can head to the Elephant Fort and walk near the animals — which are chained — and watch as they feed, are trained, and bathe. There are no enclosures, though signs caution visitors to keep a safe distance (as wild animilas, their behavior can be unpredictable). You may even find yourself on the same footpath as an elephant being led by his keepers.