The Kandy Perehera through the eyes of another elephant
Posted on August 26th, 2016

By Dr Palitha Kohona Courtesy The Island

The Kandy Perehera is over. It will be another year before I get to undertake this slow regal march through the streets of historic Kandy as thousands watch in awe and undisguised reverence. As a being with above average intelligence and sensitivity, I love the discipline of the masses, thousands of them, as they patiently wait to feast their eyes as we regally tread our way past them for almost three hours each night. The atmosphere is magical.

Many have seen the article in The Island entitled “The Perehera Through the Eyes of an Elephant” and Rohan Wasala’s response. I agree with almost everything that Wasala says. To wring ones hands in agony and deploy loaded words designed to pull at your ear strings, without much apparent familiarity with Perehera elephants, is unfortunate and misguided.

As a tamed elephant, I spend most of my days on the land of my owner. It is very rarely that I am called upon to do any heavy duty work. Unlike the performing elephants in circuses in other countries, mostly in the West, the elephants displayed in cramped pens in zoos, those begging for sustenance in Thailand, or the working elephants of Myanmar, we hardly perform any hard work here in Sri Lanka. Our role as beasts of burden has been taken over largely by trucks and tractors. These days we travel mostly on specially constructed trucks. To compare our situation with elephants elsewhere is erroneous and simply mischievous.

Elephants like me perform Perehera duty for 10 days every year in Kandy and a few of us participate in smaller parades elsewhere. For us it is a time of honoured privilege. The programmed walk on the tarred road is so different to the long walks that wild elephants undertake in search of food and water over the bone dry and hard jungle surfaces in the dry zone of Lanka. During the annual drought in Lanka’s dry zone, an unforgiving environment, elephants have to wander for hours over hard surfaces in the burning hot sun in search of water and food. Some, especially the young, die during this thankless search for sustenance. Those idealists who think that this is romantic fun should try doing it themselves. The three hour slow walk in the cool night along the streets of Kandy is literally a cake walk for us and we can look forward to bundles of delicious edibles awaiting our arrival at the end of the parade.

The Sri Lankan elephants, being prized prestige possessions of the owners, are cared for meticulously during the rest of the year. Just as much as one would look after a Rolls. They DO NOT remain tied to trees all the time either. The average privately owned elephant walks reasonable distances with the mahout for the daily bath at a convenient river and to collect half a ton of edible fronds/leaves for food. An elephant in captivity gets more opportunity to walk than a dog in a suburban backyard or appartment. A tamed elephant does not lack either food or water I love the daily bath in the local river. Anyone will be hard pressed to find an elephant sprawled in the water with the mahout scrubbing it looking unhappy. Mahouts learn their trade young and usually stay with the same elephant developing very strong bonds in the process.

Once tamed, and a bond developed, an elephant could be as affectionate as a large, very large, dog. Those who are familiar with elephants know how affectionate an elephant can be.

The shackles on privately owned elephants walking along public roads are now mandatory, especially at Pereheras, for reasons of public safety as some isolated incidents have occurred in the past. The excessive shackles are used only for the duration of the Perehera. Most owners of elephants and mahouts would take extreme care to avoid injuring their prized possessions. Steel shackles, though used historically for practical purposes, could be replaced with more modern material that causes less harm to the skin.

Those who watched the Perehera would have noticed that a mahout is hardly ever called upon to use the ankus. We are familiar with the drill and a few verbal commands are all that is required to keep us doing what we have been trained to do. To say that the mahouts terrorise us with the ankus is a blatant dive in to the world of fantasy to generate sympathy. Furthermore, mahouts do NOT sit on our necks during the Perehera. They walk by our side. An elephant is quite capable of carrying more than one human on its back without suffering discomfort as they have done in ancient battles.

The naked copra fuelled torches carried by the hundreds of torch bearers, a practice going back to the pre electricity days of the Perehera, do not particularly bother us as we undertake our solemn march. No one has seen an elephant squint as they approach any of the torches which bears no comparison to the wild fires or chena fires that rage in the elephant range lands in Lanka’s dry season and from which many elephants, especially the young perish.

Similarly, the gorgeous accoutrements that we are decked in for the Perehera, or the flimsy strands of electric bulbs on our face covers, are not that much of an encumbrance. We can carry much more weight. Photographs taken during the building of the Trinity College Chapel in Kandy show elephants hauling three ton granite pillars used for the building.

To suggest that the drums and the dancers are a traumatic nightmare for us is sheer nonsense. As the strongest animal on land today, we are capable of expressing our displeasure forcefully to any affront. Perehera elephants do nothing of the sort. Our training stands us in good stead. As highly intelligent beings, we consider marching in the Perehera for ten days every year a solemn duty and a unique honour. Just as much as the thousand drummers and dancers eagerly await the invitation to participate in the Kandy Perehera.

Any suggestion that there are humans hanging from hooks is a distortion that could only be made by someone who has not witnessed the Kandy Perehera or one pursuing an agenda of their own. Buddhist parades do not have people suspended from hooks and there was no one in the Perehera this year with hooks through their skins.

Of course, while certain improvements can be made in the lives of the 130+ privately owned elephants in Sri Lanka, it is unfortunate to introduce external experiences to denigrate the millennia old bond with elephants in this country.

Many who wring their hands in agony about the imagined sufferings of our Perehera elephants have no solution to offer to this problem that seems to exist in their minds other than offer emotionally charged words. There could be no return of these gentle giants to the jungle. Once an elephant loses its fear of humans, it can not really reintegrate in to the wild without risking harm to itself or to humans. We will raid crops in search of the food that we are familiar with as we are used to the taste while constantly running the risk of being shot at by irate farmers.

The initiative undertaken by certain elephant friendly individuals and organisations to provide a secure area for tamed elephants to spend most of their time, could offer some of the facilities to make their lives better. I think that this is a practical, although very costly approach, rather than drifting in to the bandwagon which is slowly morphing into a group confronting a millennia old cultural tradition in this country. It is best to give effect to our captive elephant friendly intentions in a manner that does not result in an unmanageable confrontation with a much loved tradition.

In a realistic sense, without the elephants, the Kandy Perehera, will not be the same and will lose its medieval magnetic pull. It is impossible to imagine thousands of devotees and casual onlookers thronging the streets of Kandy to watch a Perehera where a decorated truck is used to carry the Sacred Relics.

The Kandy Perehera is one of the major, if not the major, tourist attractions, of Sri Lanka. This was clearly evident from the lack of any spare accommodation from Kandy all the way to Habarana, in the days before and following the Perehera. The tourist industry would be a prime casualty of any attempt to take the elephants away from the Perehera. The jobs of thousands of young people working in the industry would suffer.

The whole debate about Perehera elephants is being fuelled by people who have little idea of the age old relationship between humans and elephants in Sri Lanka. The ignorant interpolation of experiences with animals kept in certain zoos and circuses elsewhere is unfortunate, and, frankly, annoying. Temple elephants enjoy an elevated status in the eyes of the public of this country.

But what is curious about this whole debate is that those whose hearts bleed for Sri Lanka’s .privately owned and Perehera elephants, seem to conveniently adjust their consciences when confronted with barbaric bull fighting, racing bulls along crowded streets, rodeos where unspeakable things are done to male horses and bulls to make them jump around crazily in pain, horse racing where horses are constantly whipped to run faster and then put down when they are of no further use, dog racing, the daily slaughter of millions of cattle, pigs, lamb, goats, chicken etc, often under appalling conditions, for the table. If anyone is to be taken seriously about their concern for elephant welfare, their sympathy should not be selective.

6 Responses to “The Kandy Perehera through the eyes of another elephant”

  1. Nimal Says:

    I love this great event and keep coming with my friends and foreign relatives every year.I thank the colonials for giving us this event for the members of the public like us and the Maligawa and the devales for organizing,year after year.
    With respect to the elephants no individual should be allowed to own it and this great event should not be used by individuals to use it for personal publicity and other personal benefits derived from it.
    We humbly ask the authorities and the custodians of the Maligawa to open the roads by the Maligawa and allow much access as possible to the public and remove the extravagant police presence where that resources could be used elsewhere.It should not be sign of a suppressive state but a tolerant one which should be in line with the great teachings.
    All elephants should be own by the state or the Maligawaq and the devales.
    Out of the perahara they should be cared in a natural sanctuary,if that is possible to get the elephants to be with the public.

  2. Ananda-USA Says:

    As a tamed male White elephant myself, of royal lineage with my body touching the ground at seven points on occasion, I agree whole heatedly with Dr. Palitha Kohona, who is no doubt another tame eminently Sri Lankan elephant.

    We, Black, Green, Red, Blue and White elephants, are a very privileged lot, living much safer and infinitely more luxurious lives than the ragged human mahouts who serve us, but yet pretend to be our masters.

    My only complaint is the nagging deprivation I feel about the lack of free and unrestricted private access to our opposite sex. Not being as socially advanced as humans claim to be, we still value our privacy in such matters.

    After all, as an honored pachyderm citizen of Sri Lanka, should I not be permitted to enjoy every facet of LIFE, LIBERTY and the HAPPINESS of PURSUIT my own way??

  3. S.Gonsal Says:

    “Our role as beasts of burden has been taken over largely by trucks and tractors. ”

    However, we are not allowed to travel on trucks, as we are extremely happy to walk many miles on tar road surfaces without shoes and I specially love climbing Kadugannawa where even trucks struggle. I wonder why there is an mahout carrying a sharp metal hook to control us.

    One thing we dislike most is one political party use us as their symbol and do disgusting things and we therefore become the bad guys and a black short cunning guy pretending to working for poor people is called Red Elephant.

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    As a Lanka Elephant, one thing puzzles me :

    Why is it that We, the Elephants, have been given better treatment, attention to our needs (except perhaps the aspect of dating/mating, as mentioned by Ananda), and loving care, than the Voters who put the present Yahap govt into power ?

    If the Elephants population is too large for small island Lanka, gift some of us to other nations of the world.
    How about FREE birth control for us, and our care givers ?


    Also, We the Elephants note with great concern that Sri Lankans pay a lot of attention to RITUAL and have lost their great inherited Buddhist values such as Meditation, which ought to be taught in the schools.

    It is Dhana, Seela & BHAVANA – all the three Paths in Buddhism that makes the Path stable.

    Many outsiders will try to destabilise Lanka. DO NOT allow that.
    We the Elephants of Lanka, are with you, always.

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Our two legged WHITE ELEPHANT cousins in the Lanka Parliament are a lost cause at the moment.

    We are both Mammals, of course. But the similarities end there ….

  6. Fran Diaz Says:

    What about the WHALES in the seas of Lanka ?

    They are also Mammals, same as us Elephants & you White Elephant guys in the Parliament !

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