Elephants are a part of Sri Lankan culture, over the years, this majestic animal has become a symbol of Sri Lanka’s traditional values.
Elephants are considered one of the species that has the longest association with people in their cultural and religious activities.
The religious processions, namely the Buddhist peraheras, are never complete without the elephants adorned in majestic outfits.
But today, there is a shortage of elephants. The shortage is felt because this year most of the main processions are being held during the same time period according to the Buddhist calendar.
Chief Incumbent, Somawati Rjamahavihara, Malwatte Chapter Working Committee, Acting Secretary, Prof. Ven. Pahamune Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera said that using elephants for processions is ingrained in our culture and tradition. He explained that when the tooth relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka during the ninth year of the reign of King Kitsirimevan around 309 CE, and was accepted with great veneration, the king had ordered to convey the relic to Abhayagiri Temple in procession with tuskers. This indicates the origin of the perahera tradition for the Tooth Relic.
Since then elephants and tuskers adorned with lavish garments have been a vital part of the perahera culture in addition to many other traditional dance segments.
Shortage of elephants]
According to secretary, Elephant Owners’ Association of Sri Lanka, Damsiri Bandara Karunaratna, 80 to 100 elephants are used in Kandy Esala perahera while 40 elephants are used in the perahera of the Maligawa.
Elephant are placed in processions in a manner that has been in practice for many ages. First, there is a single file of elephants in between the dance troops. Then there are rows of two elephants and finally three elephants abreast. The casket is carried on the back of the tusker in the middle of the final triplet.
“When seen from above the perahera takes the shape of the letter ‘V’. After the perahera of the Maligawa there are four peraheras of the four dewala, Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and Paththini, which require 10-12 elephants each,” said Karunaratna, explaining the reasons for requiring such a huge number of elephants for the perahera.
According to Pradeep Miyanpalawa, the officer in charge of elephants and tuskers at the Dalada Maligawa, this year there is a shortage of elephants and tuskers for the peraheras.
Karunaratna pointed out that there are only 115 tamed elephants left in Sri Lanka out of which only 75 could be selected for the peraheras as the others cannot take part due to old age and illness. Some are still just after musth.
Karunaratna said even though there were 75 elephants, it was inadequate as all the peraheras including the Kandy Esala perahera, Ruhunu Maha Kataragama perahera and Dewundara Uthpalawanna Sri Maha Vishnu dewala perahera falls during the same period this year.
Accordingly, tusker Wasana from Kataragama that usually carries the casket in Kandy perahera along with Nadungamuwe Raja, won’t participate in Kandy perahera this year as it has to take part in the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama perahera.
“In addition, the other tusker, Indiraja that carries the casket with Raja alternately is sickly. Though a programme to get the service of Indian vets to cure Indiraja is in the pipeline, his condition is not satisfactory enough to carry the casket. Consequently, this year Nadungamuwa Raja has to carry the casket by itself throughout the perahera period,” Karunaratna added.
He said that though some can argue that there are other tuskers like Sinharaja, tusker Thai and some others from Miyanmar, they are not large enough to carry the ranwisigeya, the house which holds the casket.
“Not every tusker can carry the casket. The tusker should be mature and disciplined with a steady gait, patient enough to walk on the carpets and not fight with the two attendant tuskers that walk abreast,” Karunaratna said.
Miyanpalawa, however, said that the peraheras would go ahead as planned, but the scarcity of elephants would be visible.
Reasons for the shortage
The recent incident of taking 40 elephants into custody and keeping them at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, citing license issues, is considered a major reason for this shortage.
Miyanpalawa pointed out that elephants that are kept at Pinnawala have previously participated in peraheras for over six years.
Another major reason mentioned by Karunaratna is that no new elephant or tusker has been incorporated into the population of captive elephants since 1975.
“1974 and 1975 are reported as the years that the most number of elephants have been captured, due to licenses being issued by former minister, P.B.G. Kalugalla. At that time around 100 elephants were captured,” Karunaratna explained.
He said that no one showed interest in increasing the number of elephants, as they were in abundance at the time. However, he said that the existing elephants were aging.
“The number of tuskers is less than 20 and more than half of them are from foreign countries. Sri Lankan tuskers are very few,” he added.
“We are not suggesting that the authorities capture wild elephants. We have other methods through which we can increase the number. For instance some male elephants in Pinnawala, which is in excess of male elephants can be released,” Karunaratna suggested.
According to him, in certain cases there are three generations of elephants in Pinnawela. “When they breed calves from the same family over and over there is a risk of inbreeding and could cause birth defects,” he added.
Karunaratna pointed out that there are about 10-12 male elephants at the Temple of the Tooth kraal. But if there are two or three she elephants breeding becomes possible.
Another viable option for the government is to give some elephants to temples and kovils and to elephant owners who have been training and looking after elephants for ages, while keeping the ownership with the government.
Discussing with foreign countries at state level to import elephants is another step that can be taken.
Rights of Elephants
Animal rights activists protesting against the use of elephants in perahera, is no new phenomenon.
According to Prof. Ven. Pahamune Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera a perahera is held in honour of the Buddha and sacred Relics. When an elephant is used in such veneration it is well honoured.
“Even the elephant senses this. The tusker who carries the casket containing the tooth relic, never moves forward without a carpet,” he said.
“It is not a sin to use an elephant in perahera, in fact it’s a merit for the animal.”
As Professor in veterinary clinical science, Prof. Asoka Dangolla pointed out that we have inherited a rich culture and tradition. “Elephants are a part of our culture and it has to be maintained. It is our culture that makes us Sri Lankan.”
Prof. Ven. Pahamune Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera explained there is enough evidence of miracles captured on camera at Somawathi which indicate that to carry the casket, a tusker is necessary.
“Between 2006 and 2009 we had to conduct the Somawathi perahera without elephants and tuskers. We had to use a vehicle. But in the photographs taken of the perahera there is a shadow of a casket above the actual one,” said the Thera, explaining the necessity of a tusker.
Karunaratna pointed out that animal rights activists complain just by seeing the chain under the dress.
“It is easy to complain but it’s not practical to unchain them,” he added. The main reason to chain elephants is because there are not enough elephants.
“Among the 75 elephants there are those elephants who are just after musth and who have previous records of misbehaviour. So they cannot be taken in perahera without any restrains,” Karunaratna pointed out.
According to Karunaratna the elephants are let free just after the perahera. They are chained only for the duration of the procession.