Posted on September 27th, 2021


REVISED 12.10.21

There was a strong elephant culture in ancient Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has had a long association with elephants and as a result a lasting affinity has developed between the two, observed Jayantha Jayewardene .  Knowledge of elephants” was one of the skills listed in the medieval Sinhala literature. . The variations in physical appearance amongst elephants were noticed and recorded in ancient Sinhala manuscripts. There are ten such groups or ‘castes’ noted Jayantha Jayawardene.

Elephants are mentioned in the Sinhala literature. D.V. Seneviratne has written on Elephants in Sinhala Literature. (Sri Lanka Wildlife Bulletin No. 27-30. 1973.) Dhanesh Wisumperuma has written on Elephants in “Sandēśa Kāvyas”. (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka New Series, Vol. 57 (2011), pp. 71-94.) Due to Covid restrictions I have not been able to look at these two items and convey their contents.

The elephants lived in the forests of Sri Lanka. There were special forest reserves for them. Ptolemy identifies the area between Sri Pada that includes the Walawe Ganga basin and the Rakwana hills to the sea, as being ‘Elephantorum Hic Sunt’, an elephant feeding ground.  Merlin Peiris, former Professor of Western classics, had brought this to the attention of Ashley de Vos. The first description of the capture of elephants is by Pliny in 40 AD. The information   was provided by the Sinhalese ambassador to the court of the Emperor Claudius.

.In the ancient period Sri Lanka had an extensive area under forest cover and elephants were widely distributed from sea level to the highest mountain ranges.  They were found in all parts of the country except in the southwestern coastal belt from Chilaw to Matara, and in the Jaffna Peninsula in the north. They were in the dry zone, in the lowland wet zone as well as in the cold damp Montane forests.  Elephants were captured when they ventured into the forests in the lower plains. 

Elephants were very important in ancient Sri Lanka. They were used in a variety of ways and were greatly valued and protected. D’Oyly writing in 1809 said that All elephants are considered the property of the Crown. There were laws designed to protect these animals. Killing an elephant, specially tuskers and large elephants was considered a despicable crime.

The elephant was a royal animal. The king rode on an elephant, presumably in processions. The elephant on which the king rode was known Mangalahasthi. This elephant was always a tusker and had a special stable called the Hasthisala. The post to which it was tethered was called Atheka (Seneviratne, 1973). 

There were elephant stables in the palace during the Anuradhapura period. The Mahavamsa speaks of the ‘chief elephant of the king’s stable’ in the time of King Devanampiya Tissa. An inscription at Navalar Kulam in Panama Pattu in the Eastern Province, dated to 1 BC refers to Ath Arcaria or Master of the Elephant establishment. The Elephant establishment was called the Ath panthiya.

The tradition continued. The palace of the Udarata king had an elephant stable. In 1706 king Narendrasinha had over 300 tuskers in his stables.  The elephant stable in the   Palace was under the Gajanayake Nilame. This was a high ranking position. 

Some of the chieftains who helped the Sinhala kings to capture elephants were allowed to keep an elephant or two for themselves. The Portuguese and the Dutch continued this practice. This is how the long Sri Lankan tradition of private ownership of elephants started, observed Jayewardene.

Elephant fights called Gaja Keliya were staged for the entertainment of nobles.  An inscription on a stone seat at Polonnaruwa records that King Nissanka Malla sat upon it while watching elephant fights.

Elephants were given as gifts to the kings of countries that had friendly relations with the Sinhala kings and with whom they traded. Elephants were used on all important ceremonial occasions, especially where pomp and pageantry were required. Gaily caparisoned elephants went in temple peraheras.

The Ceylon elephant was an important item of trade in ancient Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka elephant was highly regarded abroad. Onesicritus (360- 290 BC) said the elephants in Sri Lanka    were bigger and more warlike, than those found in India. Aelian (175 – 235 AD) records that the elephants in Sri Lanka were physically stronger and bigger in appearance than those in India, also more intelligent.

Cosmos Indicopleustes (d.550 AD) said that the elephant from Sri Lanka was highly priced in India for its excellence in war. The Ceylon elephant was highly prized in India for its special docile qualities, said another commentator.   Aelian   said that they were exported to India in special boats. Ptolemy said Mantota was the main port for the export of elephants.

The Russian traveler Athanasius Nikitin (1470) who visited India in 1466 and Add-er-Razzak (1442) Persian ambassador in India also spoke of the trade in elephants between Calicut and Ceylon.

Elephants were used in building construction. The Mahavamsa records the use of elephants to stamp down large stones for the foundation of the Mahāthūpa. The elephant’s feet were covered with leather to prevent injury from the stones. Elephants transported materials to construction sites. The giant stones used in the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa consecutions would have been moved into place by elephants.

Elephants were also used for the construction of the large reservoirs. They were used for transport and haulage, too and for logging operations and to clear jungles. They were also sometimes used for ploughing the land. 

Elephants were also used in battle. Being built like a tank, elephants were used in war not only as a means of transport but also as a war weapon. Ives observed “in time of war, they now and then fix a heavy iron chain to the end of their trunks, which they whirl around with such agility, as to make it impossible for an enemy to approach them at that time”.

Elephants were used to ram barricades.  Dutugemunu used the elephant Kandula to break down the wall around Vijitapura.   Initially he was not put into protective gear and the enemy poured boiling tar on him. Then the Sinhala forces put armor on Kandula, with a well softened buffalo hide underneath the armor and sent him back. Kandula broke down the wall. In the final battle Dutugemunu and Elara faced each other on elephants, Dutugemunu on Kandula.

The use of elephants in battle did not end there. In 1586, Rajasingha I led an army which included a force of 2,200 highly trained elephants for fighting and for other services, and laid siege on the Portuguese fort in Colombo. This number may not be accurate, but the records confirm that elephants were used in this battle.

 The elephant was used for capital punishment In the Udarata kingdom. Robert Knox (1681) said that “that the King makes use of elephants as executioners: they will run their teeth


through the body, and then tear it in pieces, and throw it limb for limb. They have a sharp iron with a socket with three edges, which they put on their teeth at such times. Henry Charles Sirr (1850) also said that elephants were used as executioners of criminals in the Udarata kingdom.

Sri Lanka had a reputation for skilled elephant management.The Sinhala kings had special elephant trainers. In the Udarata kingdom the capture and training of elephants   came under the supervision of the Kuruwe Lekam. The Kuruwe trained elephants both for   peace time purposes and also for war. They trained the mahouts too.  Kuruwe clan had their own Muhandiram. Kuruwe was not a high caste group. In the 20th century, the Kuruwe were living in Kegalle. A brass model of an elephant with a number of movable joints was used in the training of the mahouts.

 There was also the ‘Ath-bandina-vidane’, master of the hunt, ‘Ath- Panthiya-Aratchies’, Overseers, the ‘Ath-Bandina Rala’, who supervised the ‘Badinno’, noosers ‘Vel-Kareya’, cutters of lianas, ‘Vaga-kareyo’, scouts who located the herds, ‘Panikkayo’, officers over the  Kurunayake’ mahouts, ‘Dureyo’, who assist in tying the tamed animals, ‘Pannayo’, foragers, ‘Diyakum- kareyo’, suppliers of water, ‘Gaja-Pattiya’ or elephant veterinary officer, ‘Oli’, who collect ingredients for medicines, ‘Thundugattene Hulavalliyo’, Headmen of the Rodi caste who were the rope makers or ‘Thondugattene Hulavalliyo’, Headmen of the Rodi caste who were the rope makers or ‘Thondu-gattene-karayo.

There was a specific body of knowledge relating to elephant care. Status of elephant medicine in ancient Sri Lanka was very high due to the value placed on elephants.   King Buddhadasa appointed medical practitioners to attend to his elephants, his horses and his army”. Physicians for elephants, horses as well as humans, accompanied the king and his convoy to war.

Ancient Sinhala palm leaf manuscripts describing the veterinary aspects of elephant management are preserved in the Colombo Museum. The National Museum of Ceylon has placed on permanent record, a national science, which had reached a high level of development under the Sinhala kings, although it is but little known today even among the mahouts, said P.E.P. Deraniyagala (1952)

The manuscripts held in the National Museum included

i Hasti Yoga Satakaya” and Hasti Silpaya” (a Sanskrit work with a verbatim translation in to Sinhala), describes the medicines, their preparations and the diseases they cure; remedies for eye diseases, gastric, bowel and bilious disorders, skin diseases, ointments, conditioning medicines and cautery; prescriptions for oils, ointments, pastes, powders, pills, etc.; sores and ulcers; a glossary of medical terms.

ii The Ath Veda Pota”, a Sanskrit work with a verbatim translation in to Sinhala, describes medicines for adults as well as calves.

iii Thun Alinta Vedakam” and Gaja Yoga Ratnaya” describes medicines administered to ensure affection and fidelity.

iv Ali Torana Pota” describes ophthalmic medicines.

v Sri Yoga Sataka” describes diseases, their symptoms and treatment.

vi Hasti Cikitsava” describes various medicines, drugs, pills used in the treatment of elephants.

According to these manuscripts, the type of diseases and conditions that existed in elephants in ancient Sri Lanka include, skin and foot conditions (wounds, ulcers, abscesses), wounds on genital organs, worm eating” of tusks, worms in ulcers, eczema, gunshot wounds, eye diseases, gastric, bowel and bilious disorders, said Asoka Dangolla and Indira Silva. (Continued)

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