Perahera elephants, wildlife?
Posted on August 11th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

Apropos ‘Perahera through the eyes of elephants’/Opinion/The Island/August 9, 2016, written by ‘Concerned Citizens of Sri Lanka’ on behalf of ‘Sentinels Against Wildlife Crime’ (SAWC). Their motto seems to be ‘Say No to Cruelty to Our Elephants of Sri Lanka’. A very laudable objective. The concern they show about cruelty to wildlife is praiseworthy, and could be genuine for all we know. If their motive is serious, the people whose historical cultural pageant the Kandy Esala Perahera is, will undoubtedly sympathize with them, but will also take care to convince them that, in this case, they are just barking up the wrong tree.  While thanking them for their civilized concern about human cruelty to wildlife in Sri Lanka, they will kindly request them, if possible, to draw the attention of other not so cultured animal rights agitators who obliquely attack this centuries old religious festival of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority of the country on the basis of an essential feature of the hallowed event, to the impropriety of such behavior.

Elephants used in peraheras are not wild animals. They are domesticated animals. Not any domesticated elephant can be used in a perahera either. Elephants must be trained for marching in peraheras. Tamed elephants are conditioned to distracting flashing lights, deafening sounds, and ‘madding’ crowds. Their suffering is considered to be minimal. Of these elephants, those trained for the ‘prerogative’ of carrying sacred objects in peraheras are special. The Maligawa elephant who carries the Tooth Relic casket (without the sacred relic) in the Kandy Perahera is honoured or almost revered as a national cultural icon. All elephants used in the peraheras are looked after very well by their owners and keepers. Naturally, the ‘perahera alis’ are even better cared for than the ‘kota alis’, work elephants, so called because they were commonly used for transporting logs (kota) in logging operations, and other similar work in the past, particularly in areas inaccessible to motor vehicles. Nowadays, domesticated elephants are kept more for prestige than for any useful work they can be made to do.

There is a lot of traditional elephant lore including veterinary treatment  among descendants of families who have been looking after and working with elephants for many generations.   The inconveniences caused to these animals before, during, and after perahera service are not ignored; those inconveniences are as minimized as humanly possible. They are washed and cleaned daily. Perahera elephants are fed with fruits and sweets (offered by spectators) even while they are marching. They are rewarded with special treats at the end the event.

During this time of the year (the month of Esala in the Sinhala calendar roughly equivalent to July-August), there are similar peraheras in many provincial towns, where elephants carrying relics, or just parading, are an indispensable feature. We who grew up with these traditions around us know that the animal abuse element is kept to a minimum. The writer of ‘Perahera through eyes of elephants’ doesn’t seem to have seen an actual perahera. His/Her bit about ‘hopeful devotees in fulfilment of vows with hooks piercing their skin’ as part of the Kandy perahera is misleading for want of a fuller description of the background. The rituals of pulling a cart by a devotee with cords hooked to the skin of his back, and of hanging horizontal from a scaffold in similar fashion are usually performed by Hindu Tamils in peraheras dedicated to God Skanda/ Kataragama. Actually, the grand Kandy Esala Perahera is a combination of five peraheras. The pride of place is given to the Dalada Maligawa perahera. The other four peraheras are each from a devale/temple dedicated to a Hindu deity. The said rituals are found in the perahera that honours God Skanda (the god of Kataragama) above mentioned. But in my time I never saw either of these ‘hooks piercing the skin’ rituals in Kandy. Whether it has been now added to it as a novelty, I don’t know.

Addressing an imaginary perahera elephant, the writer says: ‘As an elephant walking in procession you will be flanked by thronging crowds on either side of you, a sea of human beings who as your cellular DNA memory will remind you, have only caused you and your species much pain and suffering.’

This is not correct. The writer is not looking at the perahera through an elephant’s eyes; he is doing so through a foreign tourist’s eyes. If s/he is a local, s/he appears to be remarkably alienated from his/her country’s traditions. The rapport between domesticated elephants and humans in Sri Lanka is very close. This has been so for thousands of years. Even wild elephants  (who have been officially renamed ‘wana ali’ ‘forest elephants’ instead of ‘wal ali’, the word ‘wal’, though semantically similar, is pejorative) sometimes show the benign influence of occasional contact with humans. Tourists have the opportunity to meet Gemunu the wild elephant who sets up a one-elephant checkpoint in the jungle to demand gifts of food from passersby. Travellers are not allowed to go without giving him something. I read recently that another elephant has taken to begging for food by the roadside. A couple of days ago, there was a news story on TV about a wild she-elephant who lost her footing and fell into an irrigation well with her calf. The villagers, after a great struggle, helped her out of the well using a backhoe loader. But the calf was dead by that time. The grateful mother elephant, just out of the water, turned towards the people who saved her curled her trunk and put it on her forehead in a gesture of salutation as ordinary people believe. (The bereaved mother was seen lingering on around the place for more than two hours for her little one to return to her alive, and then slowly disappeared into the jungle.) Domesticated elephants are taught to perform the same gesture before a shrine, as these few days elephants taking part in the perahera are being made to do at the Maligawa. Isn’t the she-elephant’s signaling of her gratitude an incredible sign that even wild elephants experience humanlike moral feelings? Couldn’t it be due to the influence of their human neighbours?

Of course, there is a huge elephant man conflict, which has proved deadly for both sides. This is something Sri Lankans must work to resolve. That is a tragic elephantine problem that the government must fix somehow. But wild animals are free from the depravity of some humans. Recently, we heard about hunters setting traps to kill thirsty animals from drought stricken areas that come close to human habitations to drink  water. Sri Lankan media immediately started denouncing them as ‘masveddas’ (meat eating savages). It is wildlife like this we should do whatever possible to protect.

The elephant goad (ankus) that the mahout wields is for gesturing the animal, causing little or no actual pain. Causing severe pain with the ankus can be lethal for the mahout. Elephant minders know this, and they rarely treat their charges unkindly. Elephants are huge pachyderms. It is said that in some places their skin is about 4 centimeters thick. A mild ankus jab from a tiny human they hardly feel. An elephant can march with two, three or more riders on his back very easily. The much smaller horse is sometimes made to run with a human rider three quarters its weight in other countries. Incidentally, consider how other domesticated animals such as horses are used in countries which discovered human rights and animal rights only very recently. Are those animals allowed to open their mouths to eat a snack while doing whatever work they are made to do? Aren’t horses used in cultural pageants which those nations are not likely to consent to hold without them, in the interest of animal rights? What about bullfighting in countries like Spain, Portugal, and Mexico, where it is regarded as an important part of their culture? What about bear-baiting, cockfighting, foxhunting, and dog-fighting in some very civilized countries? Are the animals used in such sports events (sports are considered cultural events, despite these being blood sports) so well treated as our elephants? The paradox is that modern animal rights campaigns have had their origin in those countries. This is not a surprise. The search for answers begins where the problems are.

When  our people begin to understand that there is a problem with this matter of using elephants in their processions, they will find ways to remedy it. Right now they don’t think so. People of our culture have treated elephants and other animals with kindness. Raising awareness about how others look at the way we use elephants in processions is good. But other equally important things that affect human life must also be considered. After all, prevention of cruelty to animals is also a human concern, a matter of human culture.

One Response to “Perahera elephants, wildlife?”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Sorry to disagree with the article above.To start with the true Buddhism had nothing to do with gods and devales.So connecting Kandy devales and the Maligawa was initiated by the colonial British to give the rightful place to the Sinhalese and their main religion by way the first perahara performed in 1828 under the guidance of Governor Manning.It was a true sign of the Sinhalese taking their rightful place at the same time showing tolerance to the Hindus by allowing the devales to participate but the people who were put in charge was the Sinhalese Nilames.
    Sadly this happy event for our people are been distorted and exploited and is highly divisive.
    For generations we had the happy carnival at bogambara and is no more.Town is polluted with a set of loudspeakers serving no one where non of the people living in the town is is interested.
    Year after year we are proving to the world that we are utterly stupid where police officers are used to check the innocent pedestrians walking to the perahara while the people going pass in vehicles are not checked.
    Stupidity in the country is too sad to mention and all past regimes are responsible.One watches the daily parliamentary sessions with horror where the behavior of it’s elected members are less than honorable,thus create a bad precedence to the people.
    Sad to see onetime leaders and high ranking officers are hauled in to courts in handcuffs and there can’t a smoke without a fire.
    We patriots are highly concerned about the true well being of the country where the self seeking politicians have little care.
    I strongly oppose the yanks putting up bases in this island but if we are going to be a failed state that would expose us to our natural enemies of our northern neighbors then it could be a good idea to have then around.By that time our politicians and their cronies would have escaped to affluent Western countries with the loot.

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