Ayutthaya: Elephants with hearts and flowers painted on their bodies sprayed water at revellers celebrating Thailand’s traditional new year Thursday, in an annual event which has animal protection groups crying foul over animal cruelty. In Thailand’s former capital Ayutthaya, a tourist hotspot famed for its ancient temple ruins, more than a dozen elephants walked along the streets with their handlers on their backs, splashing and spraying water at locals and foreigners under a blistering sun. Also Read – Saudi Crown Prince ‘snubbed’ Pak PM, recalled jet from USThe soaking by the pachyderms kicks off a weekend of festivities for Songkran, the traditional Buddhist new year celebration which officially begins on April 13. Revellers “can come to pay respects to Buddha and offer alms to monks in the morning and in the afternoon play water with the elephants,” said Laithongren Meepan, owner of the Ayutthaya Elephant Camp. “(Using their trunks to spray water) is the elephants’ natural way of playing,” he added. Also Read – Record number of 35 candidates in fray for SL Presidential pollsTraditionally marked by paying respects to elders and sprinkling water over Buddha figures at local temples, the Songkran holiday has largely evolved into a raucous water fight. Locals and foreigners armed with water guns and protective googles engage in soggy street parties, bringing much of the country to a standstill. “In other provinces, they have foam parties. But in Ayutthaya, you can celebrate Songkran with the elephants,” Laithongren said. Their handlers, known as mahouts, have trained the giant mammals to do tricks like lifting their front foot in greeting or gyrating their bodies to music as if they were dancing — much to the delight of revellers. Such practices are “cruel”, said Tom Taylor of Wildlife Friend Foundation Thailand, which rescues and rehabilitates domesticated elephants. “Forcing the elephants to perform unnatural behaviours is normally done through fear using a sharp tool called a bull hook,” Taylor told AFP. His organisation allows 24 rescued elephants to roam, bathe and forage freely, while tourists can learn about how the mammals should be treated with respect — “not chained up, beaten or ridden”, he said.