Kandula – ‘the king of elephants’
Posted on October 23rd, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

(Following is the entertaining story of Kandula, the battle elephant of king Dutugemunu, pieced together from incidental details found in the classic historical epic poem The Mahavamsa of the 5th CE, which I consider a rich source humour, humanity and wisdom. This article recently appeared in the Sri Lankan daily The Island in two parts.)

Kandula was the celebrated war elephant of the great warrior king Dutugemunu whose reign was from 161 to 137 BCE. Eleven chapters of the Mahavamsa or the Great Chronicle (Chapters 22 to 32) deal with the story of king Dutugemunu: his birth, childhood, rebellious youth, preparation for war against Elara, the South Indian invader who was occupying Anuradhapura at the time, the ten great warriors who served him and Kandula , his battle elephant and royal mount, with whom he had the closest rapport. As delineated in the Mahavamsa, Kandula’s exploits in battle were such that he even outshone the ten great warriors who were in the service of his master the king. He is the most famous war elephant in Lanka’s history. Since 1961 the Sri Lanka Light Infantry Regiment has had a young elephant as its mascot, which is traditionally named Kandula.

The Mahavamsa, written in Pali verse in the 5th century CE, is a work of literature (an epic poem with Dutugemunu as the epic hero) as much as it is a book of history; neither aspect diminishes the excellence of the other. Mostly, it is fictionalized history, rather than historicized fiction as has sometimes been claimed in certain quarters. The history is that of Buddhism as it related to the island and of the Sinhalese from the Parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha (543 BCE) to the end of king Mahasena’s rule (277-304 CE). According to the tradition recorded in the book, the arrival in the island of Prince Vijaya, the legendary founder of the Sinhalese race, from North India coincided with the Parinibbana of the Buddha. Incidentally, however, modern historians hold that king Pandukabhaya (474-367 BCE), the 6th in the Vijayan line, was the first truly indigenous (Sinhalese) monarch to rule at Anuradhapura exercising sovereignty over the whole of the island. The author of the Mahavamsa was the learned Buddhist monk Mahanama, uncle of king Dhatusena who ruled from 455 to 473 CE. The latter commissioned the historical treatise. The Mahavamsa records the succession of kings following Vijaya, the arrival from Dambadiva (India) of Buddhist missionaries headed by Thera Mahinda, son of Emperor Asoka, the establishment of Buddhism in the country under royal patronage, the services done by kings for promoting and protecting Buddhism, and the problems they faced, etc. In spite of liberal use of poetic license in embellishing the nuclear facts (something that is evident in the story of Kandula the elephant), the basic historical information recorded is supported by extant epigraphic evidence found throughout the island, and in other literary sources. Each of the 39 chapters of the Mahavamsa ends with the refrain: For the serene joy and emotion of the pious”. The book is effectively a Buddhist philosophical poem that deals with the history of the tri-aspectual unity that consists of the Sinhalese, Buddhism and the island.

At the beginning of his military struggle to drive away the Chola Elara, prince Gemunu declared that his struggle was not for the sake of the glory of kingship, but that his whole purpose was the advancement of the Buddhist dispensation. The young warrior thought of a strategy to win the loyalty and support of the people of the districts that he had to pass through during his march towards the main stronghold of king Elara at Anuradhapura. What he did was to have a group of Buddhist monks in the vanguard of his army, which needless to say, consisted of the four divisions of the ancient Sinhalese military forces: elephantry, cavalry, chariot borne, and infantry battalions.

Prince Gemunu was adept in riding both elephants and horses and using them in battle. Kandula being the close companion of the prince from birth enjoyed a privileged status before, during, and even after his master’s campaigns. In terms of the Mahavamsa narrative, Kandula was one of ‘the precious things’ that became available to king Kavantissa on the day of the prince’s birth ‘by the effect of his merit’. On that very day, there arrived (at the port) seven ships (launched) from various places and laden with many different jewels; and another ship ‘filled with gold and so forth’ had also arrived. Similarly, an elephant of the ‘chaddantha kula’ (six-tusked caste) brought its (new born) calf and left it in a jungle near the shore, where a fisherman named Kandula found it and directly informed the king about it. (The clairvoyant parent elephant must have been the father of the baby elephant, considering the importance of attesting the chaddantha ancestry of Kandula). The king ordered his men to go and bring the elephant calf to the palace. He named it Kandula because that was the name of the person who had found it. Though he was credited to be of the Chaddanta breed, he was actually two-tusked and created no problem for use in war. The king had his men bring to him the treasures from the ships, as well. These treasures including Kandula were, in effect, miraculous birthday presents for prince Gemunu.

As implied in the story, Kandula was the same age as the prince, and they grew up together. But Gemunu’s younger brother Tissa also liked Kandula. When prince Gemunu fled to Malayarata after quarrelling with his father over the latter’s reluctance to let him wage war against Elara, he left his elephant behind at Mahagama, the capital of the kingdom of Ruhunu. (Gamani/Gemunu came to be called Dutthagamani or Dutugemunu, ‘Gamani/Gemunu the Villainous’ because of this tiff with his father.) It was during his absence from Ruhuna that king Kavantissa died. Prince Tissa was also away at Dighavapi, where the deceased king had stationed him with soldiers and chariots ready for mobilization at any time. Dighavapi lay between the kingdom of his father and the part of the country occupied by Elara. The widowed queen took the king’s body to Tissamaharama, where prince Tissa arrived from Dighavapi. Having performed the funeral rites, Tissa went back to Dighavapi, taking with him his mother queen Viharadevi, and the elephant Kandula. Though Gamani/Gemunu, in his youthful impetuosity, had called his father a coward and earned his wrath, the latter had already been making all necessary preparations to fight the invader for he had been assured by an omen at the name-giving ceremony for the new born prince that he (who was later named Gamani) was destined to rule over the whole of the island kingdom after freeing it from foreign invaders and to make the doctrine of the Buddha shine forth in all its brilliance. King Kavantissa did not give in to the young prince’s reckless haste probably because he thought that an assault on the invader at that time was still premature.

Now, learning about king Kavantissa’s death, prince Gemunu returned to Mahagama and got himself consecrated king as was his right as the elder of the two princes. He then asked his brother to return to him their mother and the elephant Kandula. Though the request was repeated three times, Tissa turned it down. The dispute led to war between the two brothers, despite their having been made to swear solemnly in their childhood by their father not to make war on each other. In the confrontation that followed, Tissa seemed to have an advantage over his brother in riding to battle upon Kandula, while Gemunu had to fight on horseback. It was a mare named Dighathunika. Gemunu suffered a humiliating defeat, and many of his men were killed. He escaped on his horse, with Tissa in hot pursuit riding Kandula. But the king was not ready to give in to his brother. At Mahagama, he collected a large army and attacked his brother again. This time too, Gemunu was riding his mare Dighathunika, and Tissa the elephant Kandula. Gemunu on his mare circled his brother atop Kandula, looking for an unprotected place to attack, but found none (as presumably both Tissa and Kandula were covered with protective armour). So, Gemunu made Dighathunika leap over the elephant with him on her back, and launched a javelin over his brother (so as not to hurt him), which only grazed the skin of the elephant. Many men died on both sides. Kandula felt dishonoured and humiliated by a female jumping over his back, and was angry (He didn’t care if it was a horse or an elephant! What hurt him was that it was a female!). Obviously a male supremacist, he thought: A female has treated me with contempt because of the weakness of the rider”. Thus thinking, he rushed upon a tree in order to throw Tissa off his back. Tissa held on to a branch of the tree and Kandula went back to his true master, Gemunu, who then got on to his back and pursued the fleeing Tissa. The change of his mount, however, didn’t do him any good, because Tissa climbed down from the tree and made good his escape. He went and hid in a monastery. Had Gemunu ridden Dighathunika instead of Kandula, the result would have been different, though. This would have been further humiliation for Kandula.

After these two internecine battles between them, Gemunu and Tissa became reconciled through the intervention of the Sangha and their mother queen Viharadevi. Then they addressed themselves to the campaign against the Damilas. Gemunu, mounted upon the back of Kandula, led his army (consisting of troops under his ten great warriors), capturing a number of enemy outposts down along the Mahaveli river, on his march towards Anuradhapura. The Damilas who survived these battles escaped to a large fortress known as Vijithanagara. Clearly many battle elephants took part in this campaign besides Kandula. In fact, all the four divisions of the army contributed to these victorious operations, although the Mahavamsa author does not mention any extraordinary feats performed by Gemunu, Kandula, or the ten warriors at this stage.

The Sinhalese forces set up camp before the fortified Vijithanagara. Prior to launching his attack on the city’s fortifications, Gemunu wanted to make trial of the strength of one of his ten great warriors called Nandimitta. He caused Kandula to be let loose upon Nandimitta who was coming to him. But the undaunted Nandimitta seized the animal by his tusks and forced him onto his haunches. The elephant thus humiliated bore some ill will towards Nandimitta. But this was not going to be for long.

Kandula featured prominently in the operation that breached the defences at Vijithanagara after a four-month long siege, which was a decisive moment for the approaching victorious end to Dutugemunu’s campaign. In historical narratives including the Mahavamsa, Kandula is invested with human intelligence and human emotions. According to the Mahavamsa account, the fortress had five gates. Nandimitta, Suranimala, and Kandula assaulted the southern gate, while Velusumana the champion horseman led the attack on the eastern gate. Gothaimbara, Theraputta Abhaya, and Mahasona stormed the other three gates. Strangely, Kandula had been employed to batter down the gate without a rider, and without a protective covering. When he attacked the gate of iron with his tusks, the defenders upon the gate-tower hurled all kinds of weapons at him; but he didn’t budge. Then they poured molten pitch on his back. In excruciating pain, Kandula ran into a pool of water and dived there.

Gothaimbara chided him: Here is no sura-draught for thee, go forth to the destroying of the iron gate, destroy the gate. Then did the best of elephants proudly take heart, and trumpeting, he reared himself out of the water and stood defiantly on firm land”. Now, the elephant’s physician washed the pitch away and applied balm. They covered his back with a seven times folded buffalo hide, and fed him with the choicest fodder. Gemunu got onto his back, and stroked his temples, saying encouraging words: To thee I give, dear Kandula, the lordship over the whole island of Lanka”. He roared like thunder and attacked the gate. Nandimitta dashed aside with his mighty arm the huge chunks of masonry falling from the gate-tower just in time before they fell on Kandula’s back injuring him. Seeing this deed, the elephant put an end to the resentment he had been nursing against Nandimitta since the day the latter humiliated him by forcing him to sit on the ground. (Quotes in this paragraph, and phrases elsewhere marked off with inverted commas are from Geiger’s translation of the Mahavamsa.)

The heroes, however, did not want to be under obligation to the best of elephants” for breaching the wall for their entry into the enemy fort. It looked as if they wanted to keep Kandula in his place in spite of the royal patronage he enjoyed. When Kandula turned to Nandimitta wanting him to enter the fort through the breach he had made, the latter ignored Kandula’s cue, and made an opening in the wall with his arm and went in; similarly, Suranimala dashed forward and leapt over the wall into the city; Gothaimbara and Mahasona smashed the wall separately for themselves. Obviously, Kandula was a victim of peer rivalry.

After entering the city, Kandula and the other heroes, each by himself, wreaked havoc on the Damilas there. The weapons wielded by the human warriors, according to the Mahavamsa author, were as follows: the club that Theraputta used was thirty-eight inches thick and sixteen cubits long; Gothaimbara’s weapon was a coconut tree, while Mahasona’s was a palmyra tree; Suranimala (so called because he was a toddy guzzler, (his real name was Nimala or Nirmalaya – See Rajavaliya),   brandished a sword (we are not told how big) which had to match the dimensions of what were in his friends’ hands. Nandimitta, not to be outmatched in the choice of weapons, swung about the frame of a chariot, crushing the enemies with it. Only Kandula is depicted as wielding something more realistic and more plausible: his weapon was a chariot-wheel held in his trunk.

The duel between Gemunu and Elara, each mounted on his elephant, decided the final outcome of the war. It took place near the south gate (the gate that Kandula brought down). Elara hurled his spear at Gamani, but the latter evaded it adroitly; while making Kandula stab with his tusks Elara’s elephant (Mahapabbata or Mighty Mountain), Gamani attacked Elara with his spear. Both Elara and his elephant fell down, dead or mortally wounded. Thus, in the war waged to wrest their homeland from foreign Damila domination for the Sinhalese and for Buddhism, Dutugemunu shared the glory of his final victory over the Damila invader with Kandula, the noble beast which became his lifelong possession on the very day of his birth by the effect of his merit”, though the other heroes were still in the background making their own mighty contributions to the final victory. But Kandula’s war elephant role did not end here.

Dutugemunu treated the dead enemy with magnanimity. Elara himself, who had ruled over the Sinhalese of the occupied territory for forty-four years (205-161 BCE), was reputed as a righteous ruler, and his memory is honoured to this day by the Sinhalese. (Where else do racist chauvinists honour their enemy from a different race like that?)

After the fall of Vijithanagara, but before this encounter between Gamani and Elara, Dighajantu, Elara’s general, had advised the king to send for his (Elara’s) nephew Bhalluka in India to come with reinforcements for defending the capital, Anuradhapura. However, when Bhalluka landed at Mahatittha (Mahatota, Tamilized as Mantottam now)with 60,000 troops, it was already six days after the funeral of Elara. Dutugemunu, mounted upon Kandula, led his four-fold army consisting of foot soldiers and troops riding on elephants, horses, and chariots. Bhalluka went straight for the king, but Kandula slowly gave ground. Phussadeva, the master archer was with the king. The king asked Phussadeva why Kandula, who didn’t retreat in the previous twenty-eight battles, was doing this now. The archer answered: Victory lies behind us, o king; looking to the field of victory he will halt”. Kandula retreated until he reached the shrine of the guardian deity of the city, which was within the precincts of the Mahavihara, and stood firm. The Damila Bhalluka came there and mocked Dutugemunu. The latter covered his mouth with his sword and returned insult for insult. Bhalluka let fly an arrow at the king’s mouth. The arrow struck the sword blade and fell on the ground. Bhalluka, thinking that the king was struck in the mouth shouted for joy He’s struck in the mouth”. But Phussadeva, seated behind the king, shot an arrow straight into Bhalluka’s mouth. Phussadeva saw Bhalluka falling back with his feet towards the king, and he immediately let fly another arrow at the man’s knee making him fall with his head towards the king. With the defeat of Bhalluka, Dutugemunu’s military campaign against the invader for the unity of the state and for the protection of Buddhism came to an end.

And peace began to reign in the island. Kandula continued to receive the affection and the loving care of the king as his mangalahaththi (Elephant the Auspicious). Deeply remorseful for having caused the death of many human beings during his campaigns (which, though, he carried out, not for the joy of soreignty, but for the efflorescence of the doctrine of Buddhism) he engaged in meritorious work. The largest Buddhist edifice that he undertook to build was the Maha Stupa (the Ruwanmelisaya). The Mahavamsa says that the inauguration ceremony of the cetiya (the stupa) was attended even by foreign including Greek monks from Alisanda (Alexandria in Afghanistan).

Just as the moment of glory of Kandula’s military past was when he battered down the southern gate of the Vijithanagara fortress and when he later engaged Mahapabbata, Elara’s war elephant, during the duel between the two royal combatants that brought victory to his master, his most illustrious peacetime occasion of his life was when the king had him lead the procession in which sacred relics from the World of the Nagas were received for enshrining in the Maha Stupa. Following is how the Mahavamsa (Geiger translation) begins to describe the latter scene:

On the fifteenth uposatha-day in the evening, (the king) glad at heart, well versed in the duties of kings, arrayed in all his ornaments, surrounded on all sides by his dancing women and his warriors in complete armour, by a great body of troops, as well as by variously adorned elephants, horses and chariots, mounted his car of state that was drawn by four pure white Sindhu-horses and stood there, making the (sumptuously) adorned and beautiful elephant Kandula pace before him, holding a golden casket under the white parasol……”

The Mahavamsa doesn’t say if Kandula survived his master. But if he did, Tissa would have looked after him with the same love and affection as his brother.

(The main source for this article is the Mahavamsa – Geiger translation. But I have also drawn upon Professor Merlin Peris’s KANDULA – The Elephant at War (Godage International Publishers (Pvt) Ltd, Colombo. 2005)for some idea about how elephants were used in battle in ancient Sri Lanka. However, the perceptions and opinions expressed here are entirely mine.)

One Response to “Kandula – ‘the king of elephants’”

  1. Charles Says:

    Thank you Rohana for this beautiful story.

    I thought if there was Yahapalaana they would have got the FCID to arrest King Kavantissa for bringing Kandula to the Royal palace(without a permit) instead of leaving the animal in the forest.

    If the TNA Tamils read this they will call for an Investigation by the UN Homan Rights Commissioner and take King Dututgemuna and the ten Yodayas before the hybrid court for war crimes.

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