This is the perahera season. Beautifully caparisoned elephants are among the best attractions of these peraheras or the Buddhist religious processions held annually in leading religious centers around the country. They carry the relic casket as well as the nilames or the chieftains in ceremonial dresses. The number of elephants in a perahera improves the ‘state’ of it among others. The elephants are featured well in almost all tourist guides as a key feature in these processions.

It’s apparent that this resistance arises from not being rooted in one’s culture, particularly Sinhala culture. Other vested interests cannot be totally ruled out. Humans and elephants peacefully coexisted in Sri Lankan culture for a long time

However, we can see that there are protests around the country against the use of elephants in these processions. This opposition is shown against any type of taming of wild elephants. There are two major causes for this uproar – the inhumane keeping and working conditions of the tamed elephants and the illegal capturing of the young calves reported recently. Some critics have gone so far as to demand a stop to taming of elephants all together.

It’s apparent that this resistance arises from not being rooted in one’s culture, particularly Sinhala culture. Other vested interests cannot be totally ruled out. Humans and elephants peacefully coexisted in Sri Lankan culture for a long time. They were used for various purposes since the beginnings of our recorded history. Elephants were a part of the four armies of our kings, a stately vehicle, used as a beast of burden, for religious purposes and a profitable trade item. This human-elephant relationship changed with time, and the socio-economic context of the country. It’s rooted in several characteristics of the elephant, of which a key fact is the consideration of the elephants as an auspicious animal that symbolizes good fortune.

Religious ceremonies
Allusions to the use of elephants for religious purposes such as peraheras are made in the records of the earliest parts of the country’s history. The first such incident dates back to the period of King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BCE), during whose time Arhant Mahinda, introduced Buddhism to the country. King Devanampiyatissa wanted the relics of the Buddha to be placed in the Thuparama Stupa built by him, the first stupa of Anuradhapura and the country. He organised a procession and the relic casket which was placed on the king’s head was then placed on the back of an elephant, and taken in procession to Thuparama, as described in the chronicles Mahavamsa and Thupavamsa. This is the first occasion where an elephant was used in a procession.

There are other important instances where elephants are mentioned in processions in the past, for instance elephants were used for the festival of enshrining of relics in the relic chamber of Ruvanveliseya of Anuradhapura during the reign of King Dutugemunu (167-137 BCE). There was a procession as described in Mahavamsa, where elephants, cavalry and vehicles were an integral part of the procession.

There are other references to use of elephants in processions throughout our history, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Kurunegala and Kandy periods, for example. It is obvious that each and every such procession held throughout history and the use of elephants in these is not mentioned in these chronicles which are essentially political histories of the country.

Meanwhile donation of elephants is also recorded in history. Several kings have donated elephants to temples and the oldest to do so was King Mahadathika Mahanaga (7-19 CE), whose donation was a symbolic one as he paid an equal value in money and released the animal thus signifying the tradition of a donation. There are other such elephant offerings by King Nissankamalla during the Polonnaruwa Period, and other kings to temples, including temples in Anuradhapura. Parakramabahu IV of early 14th century and the Kandyan kings of the 18th century Vijaya Rajasinghe and Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe offered elephants among other items to the Tooth Relic itself as mentioned in history.

Association of elephants with the Tooth Relic dates centuries back. Holding processions for the Tooth Relic was an ancient religious rite that possibly dates back to the Anuradhapura period, as suggested by researchers on this subject, based on historical records. Although the association of elephants in these processions is not mentioned specifically, since we have evidence of the use of elephants in early peraheras as mentioned above, we cannot exclude the possibility of elephant usage. A procession held during the reign of Vijayabahu IV of Dambadeniya Period mentions the use of elephants in a procession of the Tooth Relic, where elephants were also used. The 14th Century Sinhala book titled Daladasirita, mentions that the relic enshrined in a casket is taken out and placed on a decorated chariot and was pulled by a tusked elephant with auspicious marks yoked to it. Description states that this is a rule of a procession of public display of the tooth relic.

King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha ordered the procession of the Tooth Relic (Dalada Perahera) be given priority over other items of the annual Esala Maha Perahera festival to honour Lord Buddha. The use of elephants is mentioned in the vivid description of the procession in Culavamsa – the king had placed a canopy fastened on the back of the royal elephant beautifully ornamented with gold embroidery and the elephant was surrounded by other elephants. The king placed the splendid sparkling casket of gold in which the bodily relic of Lord Buddha was placed carefully under the canopy. As some mention this may be the first known instance where an elephant was used to carry the casket of the Tooth Relic, but we know that other relics were carried on elephants going in processions. However historical evidence supports the assumption that it is a continuation of a long tradition.
Finding a solution

The cultural links between humans and elephants in perahera processions are strong as evident in historical sources mentioned in above mentioned references. The use of tame elephants in Peraheras is given so much importance even at present. Hence, finding a sustainable method to ensure the use of elephants for cultural purposes while reducing the suffering of animals and ensuring their welfare is a need of the day.

These tamed elephants are usually kept chained with iron chains and caretakers are often blamed for handling these animals in a cruel manner.  Chaining elephants can cause serious leg injuries to these animals, especially to the calves. This can be solved by finding alternatives to chaining like using proper roping as in the past.

Some of these animals are engaged in hard work during other times of the year – the lifting of logs and recently used in safari rides etc. Both these activities can cause the animal to suffer from physical disorders – safaris can cause serious bone injuries to the animal. This is because during the safari animals are overcrowded with tourists.  With regard to such activities, elephants are used without a rest.  This type of usage of elephants clearly goes against the guidelines specified in raring these animals.

The ownership of private elephants brings the opportunity for the owners to earn money. They tend to generate more and more money from the elephants disregarding their welfare. This is a reason why elephants are seen engaging in safari rides.  When these animals are free from routine functions owners use them for activities which can make them rich. The new rich seem to follow this trend, as opposed to the elites of the past who thought having an elephant enhanced individual status of their respective clans. Hence efforts to find humane ways of keeping elephants in custody should be looked into.
One such solution, as pointed out some time back, is to maintain a reserve of elephants by a dedicated state body solely for religious and other cultural purposes. Properly trained mahouts should be engaged in the service of these centres. Traditional methods as well as modern scientific methods can be tried out at such places.  There could be more than one centre in the country. These centres could also serve as tourist attractions. The elephants owned by the temples can be kept in these centres.

(The writer compiled a paper titled ‘Religious use of elephants in ancient Sri Lanka’ for Gajah,the Journal of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group in 2012)