Painted Elephants

I have painted on many surfaces over the years: clay, canvas, wood, buildings, streets, sidewalks, fabric, faces. None of this prepared me for painting on elephants. This is definitely something I never even dreamed of doing. I had mixed feelings going into it. I always awed at the beauty of the photographs of painted elephants in magazines and online, but was worried about what all that meant for the elephants. Weren’t they meant to be in the wild? Would these elephants be treated well?

I read all about Elefun before we went. It had good reviews and people had good things to say about how they treated the elephants. Our amazing trip planner, Gouthami, checked in with some of her local connections who also had good things to say about Elefun. Elefun is an elephant village dedicated to creating a safe and natural environment in order to conserve elephants. In Indian culture, elephants are revered, loved, respected and protected.

My first impression was that the elephants were MASSIVE. Being an animal nerd I knew that Indian elephants are one of the smaller varieties, these were anything but small. They introduced us to the elephants, had us pet their trunks. Showed us how to feed them bananas. They ate entire bunches of bananas at once, in what seemed like one giant bite.

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Then we got started. They use the same pigments you see being thrown around in pictures of Holi festival. The pigments are just mixed with water and applied with a broad stick.

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I was scared of hurting the elephants and probably far too gentle because I had a really hard time getting any of the pigment to show up. My elephant kept lifting her trunk, which I assumed meant she was not enjoying the experience. The Mahouts kept assuring me that they could not even feel it because their skin was so thick. I basically ended up feeding her more bananas and just petting her trunk, which meant my elephant’s trunk looked like a smeared chalky rainbow mess.


I went over to visit Margie, assuming she would be having the same troubles with her elephant. Margie had already painted a masterpiece on her elephants trunk.  We ended up using her painted elephant design in one of tees.

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We also learned a little more about the Mahouts & their relationship with their elephants. We drooled at their plaid outfits. Mahouts have very special relationships with their elephants and also start working with them as young boys and develop a life long bond. Many Mahouts use love and this bond to work with and control their elephants.


Painting elephants is a major part of the Hindu celebration of Holi. The day before the celebration, people take time to wash and decorate the elephants with paint, jewelry and fabric, all with hopes of winning a prize. The elephants have been an important part of India’s economy and culture for centuries.


Since we missed the popular Holi festival. We took this opportunity to throw some of the unmixed pigments at our photographer, Josh.