Posted on October 5th, 2021


The elephant features prominently in the annual Perahera conducted by Buddhist temples all over the island. The biggest perahera is the Esala perahera conducted by the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. Well over a hundred elephants used to participate in this Perahera. . There are similar Peraheras in many provincial towns, during Esala. However, some have only one elephant participating, observed Jayantha Jayewardene. .

Peraheras other than the Kandy perahera are also gaining in popularity and length. There is the Duruthu Perahera   conducted by the Kelaniya Rajamaha vihara, and Bellanwila perahera at Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara in Boralesgamuwa. Bellanwila started as a small perahera in 1947 but has now developed into a major perahera.  In Colombo, Navam Perahera, of Gangaramaya Colombo, has enlarged in size and popularity since it started in the 1970s, and is now a tourist attraction as well.

Colombo also has Walukarama perahera which had started in 1967 apparently,   and the much younger Sri Sambodhi vihara perahera started in 2009. The Walukarama perahera of 2015 had 30 elephants, 500 dancers, performing Udarata, low country and Sabaragamuwa styles and a dance troupe of school children. The perahera went along Walukarama Road, Galle Road, Liberty Plaza roundabout and back through Duplication Road.

These peraheras have been deeply resented by the non-Buddhists from colonial times. The Buddhist –Catholic riots at Kotahena in 1883 and the Sinhala –Muslim riots of 1915 started by objecting to the noise of the drums as the Buddhist perahera passed a church and a mosque.

The modern day anti-perahera sentiments came out into the open during Yahapalana rule.  In 2016 Prasadini Nanayakkara, a journalist, wrote on the plight of the Perahera elephant in Sri Lanka. She said that these perahera elephants, grandly dressed, were actually captive elephants that silently underwent much stress during the perahera.

During the festive season, they are transported across long distances to pageant sites and are often deprived of rest or sleep, said Prasadini. They are kept tethered or confined for long periods of time, sometimes without adequate food and water in order to keep them from defecating or urinating on the streets during the pageant. They are subjected to massive crowds, loud noises, and sometimes even fire, all of which are very stressful for elephants. The repetitive head-bobbing that elephants often do during these festivals is a sign of trauma.

Prasadini quotes Dr. Deepani Jayantha, veterinarian and country representative of Elemotion Foundation, a US-based nonprofit that works to improve the life of Asian elephants. In a 2014 report titled, Responsible Elephant Tourism in Sri Lanka,” Deepani has said, elephants simply shouldn’t be held in captivity. Unlike domesticated pets, captive elephants are essentially wild elephants in chains, and are genetically and behaviorally predisposed to remain wild.

Elephants were draught animals in the past and their magnificent physique earned them royal recognition. Do we still need an elephant for the same purpose today, she asked. Continuing old-fashioned traditions is the only motivation for present day elephant owners.  There is a need to review our traditional thinking in order to have best management measures for captive elephants, said Deepani.

Deepani added that there is a well-organized, politically backed racket of smuggling baby elephants from the wild. [The media recently] said there are about 20 such abducted animals secretly kept in and around Colombo, she concluded.

Nothing will happen to Buddhism if there are no elephants in the perahera. The elephant is not an object of worship. Nothing will happen to the perahera either. The spectators do not come to see elephants. They come to support the perahera, worship relics, and enjoy the outing. The perahera has other attractions such as dancing, drumming, juggling, kasa karayas, the tubby nilames and so on to provide both entertainment and dignity.

The Tooth Relic can be taken in a chariot as it was done in the Anuradhapura period. The Mihindu Perahera at Poson, which takes place in many towns, big and small, does not have any elephants at all.  It consists mainly of children carrying flowers, flags.

In 2016, action was taken to damage the peraheras. The provisions of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance were used to keep adult elephants   out of the perahera. From 2009, all elephants had to be registered under the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Those who had elephants legally in their possession got their elephants registered but most didn’t, as they did not have the information needed. Also, there seems to have been some barrier to registration in the Act itself.

Using the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance the Wildlife Department started arresting non-registered elephants from temples.  They also arrested registered temple elephants used for other purposes such as tourism. Temples must ensure that elephants are only being used for religious purposes, the Department said.

Thanks to this in 2016 there were less elephants available for the peraheras.    Sambodhi Vihara, Colombo said it could not hold their perahera, in May 2016, because elephants trained for the perahera were in the custody of the Wildlife Department. They had been seized, because they did not have the necessary permits.. But these are not ‘hora ali’ the vihara said. These elephants have ownership permits and registration but the Wildlife Department had not issued permits for 2016.

The Diyawadana Nilame said in July 2016 that around 20 of the elephants used in the Esala Perahera in 2015 were now in court custody due to permit issues. There were 105 elephants in the Esala perahera in 2015, but there will only be 71 for 2016 perahera. Of the 132 domesticated elephants in the island, 52 cannot take part in the procession due to various reasons, such as, illness, musth, aggressiveness or other problems.

In 2017, Diyawadana Nilame again said that only about 65 tamed elephants and tuskers were available. They were with their owners.  But that was not sufficient to meet the requirements of the Esala Perahera in 2017. If this continues, the Kandy Perahera will have to be held without elephants.  The Kandy Perahera is a major tourist attraction as well.  If it goes down in standard, the whole tourist industry and its jobs will suffer.

Basnayake Nilame of Kataragama devale said in 2017 that around 45 perahera elephants were now in custody in elephant orphanages.  38 tamed elephants are at Pinnawela and Uda Walawe pending investigations by state authorities said another. The figures differ but the complaint is the same. There aren’t enough elephants for the perahera.

How is  there is a dearth of elephants for the peraheras  today, when  till now there have been sufficient elephants, brought from different parts of the country for the Esala Perahera in Kandy, Gangarama Perahera, the Bellanwila Perahera and so on, asked observers.  Usually each Perahera is held at a different time, but in 2017 the dates for Esala Perahera, Kataragama and Devundara coincide replied the authorities. 

In April 2017, the Basnayake Nilames of devales urged the government, to release 38 tamed elephants presently held in state orphanages, since this would affect the annual Esala Perahera of principal devales.  They pointed out that around 40 elephants each are needed for the Kandy and Kataragama peraheras, but only around 30 tamed elephants were available in 2017.

July 2017 lawyers presented to court, letters from the Diyawadana Nilame and the Basnayake Nilames of the four Devales, asking   that elephants in custody be temporarily released for the Esala Perahera. Colombo Magistrate ordered the release of 15 elephants for the Kandy Sri Dalada Perahera and several other peraheras.  The release order was from July 27 to August 15. Each elephant was to be released on a bond of Rs. 30 million. President Sirisena had also directed the Wild Life Department to release the elephants.

but there had been a delay in carrying out this order. Senior State Counsel, appearing on behalf of the Attorney General has raised objections to the release of the elephants on bond.  so did several civil society organizations. The elephants have not been released, complained Sambodhi vihara. Some officials and interest groups were objecting to the release, the temples said.

Then it was the turn of the baby elephants. From 2009, all elephant calves had to be registered with the Department of Wildlife Conservation under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance.    Elephant births had to be reported within seven days. Some had not followed these regulations.

Among those charged in 2017  with having un-registered  baby  elephants were  Mahinda,  Gotabhaya, Namal and Gaandhanee Rajapakse , Magistrate Thilina Gamage, Pradeep Mivanapalana who was the owner of the Sri Dalada Maligawa Tusker , Wasana Bakers of Horana and the   Basnayake Nilame of Kataragama  devale,   The monks charged with holding baby  elephants without permits included  Ven.Kolonnawe Siri Sumangala  of Dewram Vehera, Pannipitiya, Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera of Alan Methiniyaramaya, Polhengoda, Dharanagama Kusaladhamma Thera of Sri Sambodhi Vihara ,Colombo 7 and Ven. Bellanwila Wimalaratana of Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara.

The   baby elephant sold to Ven. Dharanagama Kusaladhamma  has not been properly registered. The previous owner had not submitted a sworn affidavit or Grama Niladhari’s letter. Also the elephant’s height does not tally with its age and the owner had not paid the registration fee either. The initial ownership and the subsequent ownership were also incorrectly mentioned in the registration file.

The Wildlife Department officials had taken into custody a two and half year-old elephant calf found inside the Alan Mathiniyaramaya Temple in Polhengoda in January 2016. Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka it is alleged had kept this calf in his temple knowing, that it had been stolen.  Uduwe Dhammaloka said the elephant calf had been left in the   temple by an unknown person.  it was probably introduced on purpose.

Uduwe Dhammaloka was arrested and remanded in March and released on bail in June 2016.  He was charged   under Fauna and Flora Protection (Amendment) Act, No.22 of 2009 and Public Property Act. .19 persons have been named as witnesses in the case and three documents will be presented as production items in the case, sources said.

Since Yahapalana came to power, bhikkhus have been taken into custody for possessing elephants, the Buddhists declared angrily. The     authorities are hunting any one owning an elephant on the pretext of animal welfare. Their agenda is to prevent elephants participating in Buddhist ceremonies.   (continued)

One Response to “THE ELEPHANT IN SRI LANKA Part 8”

  1. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    I don’t understand why the US has such a strong voice through the Elemotion foundation in Sri Lanka’s traditions. How did America achieve this level of participation in Sri Lankan Buddhist practices? It is very disconcerting

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2024 All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress