Posted on October 3rd, 2021


The elephants in the Esala Perahera got star billing in an entertaining piece published by two animal rights NGOs in August 2016.  The essay is full of howlers and is probably the silliest piece ever written on the subject.

Are you planning to go and see the Kandy Esala perahera, the NGOs wrote, if so, think of the poor elephants in it. They usually reside in the jungles and only come to Kandy once a year, to take part in the Esala perahera. They have to walk miles to get to Kandy on searing tar roads in the blazing heat, with crazed motorists coming at them all the time. Coming straight from the jungle, it was very unpleasant to be dressed up in robes and battery powered lights, for the perahera, especially with the ears covered.

 Taking part in the perahera year after year is an absolute night mare. The noise is awful with drums, whips, trumpets, loud speakers and ice cream vendors.  The mahouts either climb on and sit on the neck and spine (sic) poking and prodding or walk by the side jabbing away with their ankus. Sometimes three people get on an elephant’s back for a ride. ‘Even a horse only carries one.’ It is difficult for an elephant to like the crowds on the pavements because  they are the same ones who cultivate chenas in the jungles, chasing  elephants away from their homeland.

The tradition of including elephants in processions needs to be rethought, continued  the NGOs. Elephants must be wild and free (sic) not sent on parades to please watching crowds. Sri Lankans living in other countries have begun to celebrate such traditions using artificially constructed, beautifully decorated elephants on wheels. That is much better than real elephants. The NGO ended their song with a plea. When you go to the Perahera, please,  If you observe any cruel treatment of the elephants before, during, or after the Kandy Esala Perahera,  take photos and report such instances to  the Department of Wildlife Conservation and also tell us,  Concerned Citizens of Sri Lanka”  and the Sentinels Against Wildlife Crime” (Island 8.8.16)

Instead of sending  photos of cruelly treated elephants in the Esala perahera, as the NGOs hoped, readers offered to send photos of the slaughter of the pigs, cows and chickens. Why  are these animal rights people  not concerned about the daily slaughter of lambs, cattle, pigs, goats, chickens for food, they asked. This was said by every person who responded to this essay . They particularly noted that pig rearing for pork in Sri Lanka was not mentioned by these two NGOs. They    also drew attention to horse racing, greyhound racing, bull fighting, bear baiting, cockfighting,   fox hunting, deer hunting, and camel rides. They pointed out that in horse racing,  horses are made to run with a human rider three quarter its weight. The horses are whipped to make them run faster and  put down when they are  of no further use.

Rohana Wasala, Cecil Dharmasena and Palitha Kohona  responded to this NGO statement.  The elephants used in the perahera are not wild animals, they pointed out. They are tame elephants. Not every domesticated elephant can be used in a perahera either. They are trained for the task. The elephants are familiar with the perahera drill and they only need a few verbal commands. The mahout is rarely called on to use the ankus. The elephants are conditioned to flashing lights, deafening sounds, crowds and copra torches.  An elephant can march with two, three or more on his back very easily. Elephants walk over 20 to 30 km per day in the wild.  In a  perahera elephants only walk about 2 kilometers.

Elephants used in the perahera are looked after very well by their owners and keepers, they said. Perahera elephants are fed with fruits and sweets, offered by spectators,  even while they are marching. They are washed daily. The inconveniences caused to these animals before, during, and after perahera are minimized as far as possible. They are rewarded with special treats at the end the event. The temple elephant enjoyed an elevated status in Sri Lanka. Without the elephants the perahera will not be the same,   and  a decorated  elephant looking truck carrying the relic is absurd, they   said.

The difference between the ‘wild’ elephant and the  tame one,  were outlined by these writers,   so that these elephant loving NGOS could get it  right in their next essay. They pointed out that ‘wild’ elephants are ‘wana ali’ not ‘wal ali’. One ‘wild’ elephant , after being rescued from a water hole, turned toward the people who saved her, curled her trunk in salute, before leaving. Wild elephants find it difficult to find food in the jungle. The dry and hard jungle surfaces are worse than the tarred roads. ‘Idealists who think jungle life is romantic should try it for themselves’,  said Kohona. The three hour slow walk in the cool climate of  Kandy at  night is a cakewalk in comparison. And there are delicious eats at the end of it.

Domestic  elephants are prized possessions of their owners and are cared for meticulously, continued Kohona. Today domesticated elephants are kept more for prestige than for any useful work. The domestic elephants rarely do heavy work. Once tamed an elephant is as affectionate as a large dog.   Those who are familiar with elephants know how affectionate they can be.  They are well looked after. An elephant in captivity gets more opportunity to walk than a dog in a backyard.  They do not remain tied to trees all the time. They walk reasonable distance each day for the bath, and to collect half a ton of edible leaves for its food. They enjoy the bath and being scrubbed by the mahout..

We who grew up among these animals know that animal abuse is kept to a minimum, said Rohana Wasala.  The elephant goad(ankus)   is used by the mahout to apply strong, clear pressure to  particular control points to make the elephant respond  to commands, stop, turn left, turn right, kneel, stand still,  and so on. An ankus jab causes little or no actual pain. Elephants are huge pachyderms. In some places their skin is about 4 centimeters thick. They hardly feel a mild ankus jab from a tiny human. Causing pain can be lethal for the mahout. Elephant minders know this and rarely treat their charges unkindly.  Maintaining full control over elephants is a key part of the mahout’s job. Full control ensures the safety of the mahout, the safety of other humans nearby, and even the safety of the elephant itself.

The campaign against perahera elephants was not confined to mere utterances. There was action too. There were several incidents of elephants running amok at peraheras in 2016.  My recall of the last sixty years or so,  is that elephants rarely ran amok at perahera. Therefore this was most unusual. Rajakarunanayake said  that the elephant  at    Saman Devale perahera  ran amok because the drunken  mahout had hit the elephant with the goad. What we saw the elephant happily doing on TV to another elephant does not support this. Perhaps something had been given to the elephant instead.

Another anti-perahera   NGO  said  in August 2016 that the Diyawadana  Nilame, had  forcibly removed two  elephant calves from the Pinnawela elephant orphanage. They were still on their mother’s milk, and were removed  despite protest from the officials and veterinarians at  Pinnawela. This was a very wrong move,  said the NGO, the babies were too young to be separated from the mother. Mother was also grieving and put through an enormous amount of stress.  

‘As reasonable Sri Lankans’ we did what we could, said the NGO. We e-mailed the authorities, and we called people all over the island in hopes of putting an end to this cruelty and release the two calves. There is even a Supreme Court case filed by an organization in Sri Lanka called ‘Friends of Animals. ‘If you are visiting Sri Lanka,’  the NGO advised, ‘there is a lot more to do than the Kandy Perahera. It would grossly irresponsible of us to patronize that event’.

Sagarika Rajakarunanayake, President of ‘Sathva mithra’ wants mahouts to be tested for liquor. Most mahouts are drunk during perahera seasons, she said. Festival organizers gave them liquor since intoxicated mahouts ‘gave the best performances.’ This is unlikely. Peraheras, such as those in Kandy and Ratnapura are ritual events. It is unlikely that liquor will be consumed at the start. One Diyawadana Nilame in the 1950s   had  got drunk even  before the perahera started, but this is probably an exception.

Another  question asked was  whether  a  perahera was a requirement of Buddhism. Abeyratne  said that he learnt that Buddhist monks are requesting to allow domestication of more elephants in order to make Buddhist processions more attractive. Did the Buddha ask for this, he inquired. It is only a custom which started in the 14th century.  Also    do the monks know how to manage elephants. Don’t confuse Buddhism with the Perahera said a blogger. The Buddha never asked for perahera.  He never spoke of a Kandy Perahera, or [said to treat elephants cruelly] in his name.

The obvious reply to these rather rhetorical questions is that Buddhists   know the difference between the Dhamma and cultural practices like perahera. They do not confuse the two. Further, elephants are  looked after by the mahouts, not monks. Mahouts learnt their trade very young, as apprentices. Mahouts develop very strong bonds with their elephants, said Kohona and  elephants remain very attached to their mahouts. An  elephant from Ratnapura who saw his old mahout at the Esala perahera, remained without moving until the mahout came and told him to move on.

The  training and care of  elephants is a specialized art. Even today, there is a lot of traditional lore regarding   veterinary treatment of elephants among descendant of families who have been looking after and working with elephants for many generations observed Rohana Wasala.  Elephant training and elephant management were   respected professions in traditional times. Manuscripts such as Gajashastra and Nilashastra contain information on training elephants.

In 2018 too, foreign journalists, continue to be concerned about the sufferings of the perahera elephant.  Kelsey Ables, recently graduated from Colombia University, USA, is in Sri Lanka as a reporter. There is work to be done in Sri Lanka, she tweeted.”

That work included observing the perahera elephant. Kelsey went to Kandy in 2018 , to report on the Esala perahera. ’Spending the weekend in Kandy reporting on the elephants of the Perahera festival,’ she tweeted.  ‘Can’t exactly get a quote from the elephants, so I’m keeping an eye out for elephant distress signals and chatting with the mahouts’.  

Kelsey commented on the awful conditions perahera elephants face at the Esala Perahera in Kandy. To start with they were chained. She heard the loud, rhythmic sound of chains clashing together as the elephants joined the procession. The perahera is a nightmare for elephants, she said. They are tied up for 10 days with limited exercise and ridden by humans in a way that can cause irreparable damage to the spine. Also, the elephants ‘stopped sleeping’ for the full duration of the perahera. They usually sleep in water. 

Many elephant experts agree that for cultural reasons, it would be impossible to remove the elephants from festivals, she conceded. Instead, they argue, we should focus on improving conditions of elephants which participate in pageants. There should be daily health monitoring of the perahera elephant. Also the costume must be altered, so that the ears are free and ‘thereby enable the elephants to better regulate their temperature.’

Elephants recognize their owners and trainers, admitted Kelsey. At the Esala Perahera, one elephant seeing his owner, had stepped out of line.    The owner, standing by the side of the temple, reached out and touched his trunk in a fond greeting.

But elephants live in constant fear of mahouts,who scare them into obedience. There are videos of mahouts hitting elephants, footage of elephants storming the streets, images of elephants with wounds from being poked with the ankus. All this gives mahouts a reputation of being irresponsible and uneducated, said Kelsey. Such reports have led NGOs and animal rights groups to call for the removal of elephants from festivals. The cruelty, captivity, deprivation, restraint and regimentation suffered by these young animals cannot be justified in a Buddhist context.”

Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka  issued a statement condemning the mahouts’ treatment of elephants, said Kelsey. The mahouts have moved away from traditional practices. The centuries-old knowledge of caring for elephants has been largely lost.  Mahouts now base their methods of control on fear and cruelty towards their wards. Train the mahouts so that they are kinder to the elephants, you don’t have to frighten the animal to make it listen to you. If you are kind, it will respond to you kindly,” said an elephant expert to Kelsey.

In 2018 too, there were  several incidents of  perahera elephants running amok during the perahera. In July 2018 elephants had run amok at the Kahawatte Perahera, Ratnapura, with32 injured one seriously. Ven Magalkande Sudantha said these elephants are not perahera trained elephants in temples or privately owned elephants. They are from Pinnawela and the government says they are Perahera trained. They are sent with untrained mahouts.

In September 2018, television news showed the tusker carrying the relic at Galewela Budugehinna raja maha vihara, running amok at the annual perahera. Television news camera  showed, at some length, the elephant running down several streets. This was  also shown on social media.

The anti-Buddhist nature of this bogus concern for the perahera elephant is very clear. But the sangha are determined to continue with the peraheras. Temples which never held major peraheras are doing so now. The Esala perahera of the Walukarama temple on Duplication Road, Colombo is relatively new and still fairly small. it probably started in 2018.For the first time I saw a member of the Maha sangha go in the procession. There were three, four or five elephants, ( the perahera had started before I got there). They proceeded along Galle Road, Colombo and Duplication Road.  It is possible therefore, that one day we will see a doctored perahera elephant,  running amok  in  fashionable downtown Colombo. The story of the perahera elephant is not over. ( CONTNUED)

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