Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Mirror

“These days are blazing, sapping heat and the late afternoons turn threatening but, when will the rains come? A question as ancient as the land is carried on every journey and reflected in dry riverbeds and settled in the dust that rises with every footfall…Man too, in his desperation, grasps beyond his rationale and reaches for the divine and dances, worships and implores the Gods to let the rains fall soon.” The Line of Lanka

It is in these months of Esala and Nikini, when the drought reaches its maxim that the first rain making festivals began. Rituals to appease the rain gods were initiated by the Yakkha, Rakusa and Naga, who were the ancient tribes of Lanka. It is they who have now evolved into the hybrid, modern races of the island and carried forward their ancient cultural practices. In time, framed by new philosophies and faiths, these ancient rituals were adapted from the practices of those ancient peoples. Yet, even a century ago, the rain-making festivals were numerous in the drought-affected lands of the dry zone and North Eastern slopes of the Central massif of Sri Lanka, which depend on the mighty North Eastern monsoon for water. What remains today of a rain making tradition that dates back to well more than 2,500 years are a few isolated festivals such as the Minneriya Deiyyange Mangalya, Dhodang keliya, Ankeliya, Porapol keliya, Mahiyangane perahera and the most famous Dalada perahera at Kandy. Of these festivals, the mangalya are ritual dances, keliya are the ritualistic games and in populated urban nuclei, are the processional perahera.

As old as the rituals of rain making, is the regional analogy of elephants resembling storm clouds. A perahera of the deep grey, ponderous animals, alluded to a procession of storm clouds sailing across the skies, as a harbinger of the much awaited monsoon rains. In addition, the lust of the bull elephant was projected as a symbol of fertility, like the life bringing rains. In his famous poem, Meghadhuta, the 14th Century poet Kalidasa, wrote,

“…a cloud came down so playfully to hug the summit mists

As an elephant in heat would butt the ground…”

And so the inclusion of elephants in perahera seems to have been inevitable. Its size and strength made it an obvious choice to fashion a tradition of bearing sacred or precious objects. This undeniably majestic animal, which has long been considered a culturally auspicious symbol, was sometimes even a symbolic representation of the monarch. This practice was already in place on this island, when the Dalada, the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, was first brought to Lanka 1,700 years ago. From the very first processions to transport the sacred relic, the Mahavamsa[1] describes a perahera, with an elephant assigned the honour of carrying the sacred object. Since then the Dalada perahera, the exposition of the sacred relic to the public, has been practiced annually and rarely interrupted. The longest interruption of this ancient ritual was in the years it was banned by British governors, who were unnerved by the 1818 rebellion. In 1828, after successive years of drought and looming famine, due to pressure from the Kandyan Chieftains, the perahera was revived. The floods following the perahera of that year, were referred to as the Tooth Relic Floods. It is evident that despite the prioritisation of Buddhism, the Dalada Perahera is a rain making festival, as its intricate rituals reveal.

It is unclear how the exposition of the sacred relic, borne on the back of an elephant, was incorporated in a rainmaking festival. But when a ritual is as old as the perahera of Sri Lanka, there are bound to be revisions and reversals. Historically, every little perahera did not parade elephants and neither did the other rain making festivals. At the perahera in the smaller temples, the common practice was to carry a portrait of the king and the royal elephant, as it was well understood that captive elephants were as precious as the monarch to whom they belonged. But in Sri Lanka today, with the privilege of owning an elephant diluted to mere power and money, every semblance of a procession from religious to school parades includes an elephant. With a surplus of domesticated elephants and an elephantine food bill, elephant owners dispatch their hapless animals as enthusiastically as pimps with their high maintenance harlots. In the rush to meet engagements, the law that bans elephants from being walked on roads between 5 am and 10 pm is no longer applied; to see an elephant plodding down a heated road surface at noon is, sadly, quite common.

I am not sure when it became the norm for all perahera elephants to be shackled. Perhaps it is with the failure to apply the traditional training methods that mahouts became incapable of controlling elephants without shackles. However the traditional Hasta shastraya, a comprehensive doctrine on the care and training of elephants, was closely adhered to in pre-colonial times. Then an elephant could only be captured under a detailed and specific directive from the king to whom it belonged. Reporting directly to the king, on par with the adigar, was another prime minister known as the gaja nayake. This chieftain for the elephants was responsible for capture, training and maintenance of the stable of state and war elephants. Colonialism changed this authority and short circuited the prolonged training procedure. This lack of protection plummeted further in the past two decades as the Rajapaksa siblings led the country and, together with their cronies, created a market for baby elephants to be kidnapped from the wild. This cruelty stemmed from their misplaced notion that respect and outdated aristocratic status could be acquired through the possession of an elephant. It had once been noted “elephants are an attribute of royalty”[2] but hard as the Rajapaksas tried, that time had ended with the kings of Lanka.

When was it that someone decided that electric lights on elephants was a brilliant idea? Although it is of no consequence to many, it must be torturous for a quiet being of the forests to be accompanied by a whirring apparatus blinking it to blindness for hours on end, evening after evening. The elephants are dressed in expensive fabrics, tasselled and studded for the perahera but of late the ear garments have devolved into an ear sheath. Now, instead of a frontispiece, a sheath is easily slipped on but inhibits the ear flapping and covers the backs of their ears, which is the main mechanism of an elephant’s cooling system. Thus from the time it is dressed up for the perahera, an elephant is overheating dangerously. In addition, a cacophony of blaring music, inane announcements, endless toy horns and squeaky toys and the spectre of fire with embers falling from flares, must make the procession a living hell for these terrified animals.

Elephants are distressed by the long hours of being subject to human made chaos while ignorant crowds and media happily believe the animals are as thrilled as they are and are swaying to the music. The majority of perahera elephants display stress behaviour of ceaseless swaying and the increasingly evident, frantic bobbing of their large heads. The initial swaying is an inbuilt calming mechanism, which releases endorphins and soothes the animal. However, when it accelerates to head bobbing, it indicates deep fear; this is often a precursor to hysteria and unpredictable behaviour. Yet last week in Kandy, when two elephants panicked and tried to escape the nightmarish perahera that they had been thrust into, not a single person did they injure. One ran, dropping the rider off its caparisoned back and then stopped in confusion at an intersection. The other ran up to the lake, stared at the night swimmers, unaware that they had jumped in to escape him, and then tried to scale the parapet and escape in to the shabby chic environs of the Queen’s Hotel. Here was a perfect display of what Sinhala culture and the gentle philosophy of Buddhism have been reduced to by egos and ignorance. The next time these giants are tortured and they panic, the outcome maybe more lethal. Before further disaster befalls innocent bystanders and terrified elephants, perhaps the erudite monks, the chief prelates of the Asgiriya and Malwatte chapters, who have absolute authority here, should review the use of elephants in peraheras.

This harassment of perahera elephants also stems from misplaced notions of honouring the Buddha and inspiring awe with a spectacle of a rich culture. This is despite the Buddha’s teachings that are underscored with the invocation siyalu sattvayo niduk veva – may all living beings be free from suffering. Yet carried on the ego of both monks and patrons of temples, elephants are forced into intense suffering. In the spectacle that is produced today, the suffering of these great beings is easily visible, displaying not a rich and ancient culture but cruelty and apathy. In this ego driven production that perpetuates the suffering of these sentient beings, what is being nurtured is a maladministration of Buddhism and the falsification of the Sinhala culture, which distresses the compassionate who sincerely adhere to the Buddha’s teachings.

There is no need to have a hundred elephants in procession to honour the sacred tooth relic. The faithful know that the rains will come, precipitated by the power of the Dalada, without a cloud parade of elephants. Only the magnificent temple tusker, Raja, is required to carry the relic and that would suffice to preserve an ancient cultural practice. He alone can embody the honour that a nation wants to accord the relic of the Buddha. Living in the radius of the most powerful icon of this Buddhist state, let all interactions with this grand elephant, reflect metta, muditha, karuna and upekka: compassion, empathy, kindness and equality as the Buddha extolled. Treat him like the prince he is.

Then the state can step in and revert to our pre-colonial traditions, letting all other captive elephants become the property of the state. Reparation by the state for the suffering captive elephants have undergone would be a spacious, natural habitat, where they no longer have to sway ceaselessly to soothe themselves. Since it is too late for them to return to the jungles that they were stolen from, let them live as a herd in a generous tract of land bordering a national park. Perhaps one of the loss making, state-owned tea estates bordering Horton Plains, where the distressed agricultural land will quickly grow into grasslands that elephants love, can become the home range of the domesticated herd. Thereby elephants can return to the montane country where the colonial writer, John Still, wrongly prophesied “would be the last refuge of the Ceylon elephant”. But that was before the montane forests were felled and the valleys acquired with the advent of the tea industry, forcing elephants to live throughout the year in the dry plains. Elephants should be excused hereafter from any lesser procession besides the most sacred Dalada perahera. This is not a compromise but a conscious progression to a modern era.

The Dalada perahera has to be revised and brought in to the current era. Today elephants are globally endangered, the density of modern urban nuclei has made a procession of elephants in its midst, untenable and human greed for power, money and social recognition has desecrated Buddhism. If the powerful monks can reference the Buddha’s teachings, revising the current use of elephants in the perahera can be expedited. The example set in Kandy will instantly be followed by all other temples.

The rains will still come with the exposition of the sacred relic and the egos of powerful monks and men will be soothed in time.

[1] Chronicle of the history of the Sinhala civilization, written by Buddhist monks since 500 CE

[2] Rhys Davids TW & Oldenberg H. 1882