Majestic tuskers of Sri Dalada Maligawa | Daily News

Majestic tuskers of Sri Dalada Maligawa

The Asian elephant is considered an auspicious animal and signifies good fortune. They were used as one of the four-fold armies (chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry) throughout history. The association of elephants with Buddhism dates back to the beginning of Buddhism. Elephants are associated with the stories of the life of Buddha such as the conception of Prince Siddhartha and featured in a number of Jataka tales. The taming of elephants in Asia dates back centuries.

Elephants used for religious purposes during the early periods were mostly State elephants belonging to the king and in some cases, the royal or Mangala elephant. However, a number of elephants were used in religious festivals later and that perhaps required more elephants from other sources. The first recorded donation of an elephant to a temple took place in the early First Century CE. This could be a continuation of a former tradition. The offering of elephants to temples is recorded in historical sources since the 14th Century CE. A number of elephants and a variety of dancers are often used as a measure of the excellence and quality of the procession. The Sacred Tooth Relic was guarded with veneration by Sri Lankan kings.

Elephants were often used to represent the Buddha and as a symbol of religion during King Ashoka’s time (272-232 BCE) in India. The association of elephants with Buddhism has been depicted in art and architecture since ancient times, in India and Sri Lanka. The origin of the use of elephants in Buddhist processions and festivals in Sri Lanka dates back to the period of the introduction of Buddhism to the country by Ven. Arahat Mahinda Thera, during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. There is an oral tradition that the use of elephants in processions commenced during the 18th century CE, when the Dalada Perahera, conducted in honour of the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, was connected with Esala Perahera, the annual procession held in Kandy. Elephants were also used for the festival of enshrining of the relics in the Relic Chamber of Mahathupa (Ruwanveli Seya) of Anuradhapura during the reign of King Dutugemunu (167–137 BCE).

The Dalada Sirita, compiled during the time of King Parakramabahu IV, is a manual of 38 statues regarding the Perahera of the Tooth Relic. Among the rules is a description of the procedure to be followed at a procession held during public displays of the Tooth Relic. The relic was enshrined in a bejewelled casket and taken out and placed on a decorated chariot, pulled by a tusked elephant with auspicious marks yoked to it.

We visited the Sri Dalada Maligawa on a Monday morning. Devotees were engaged in worship. We met up with Pradeep Miyanapalawa, who is attached to the administrative wing of the Perahera office. His grandfather and father were respected native physicians who treated elephants decades ago. Pradeep outlined the role and task of the “ath panthiya”. He said, “At present, we have nine tuskers and three bull elephants. The chief tusker who represents this Sacred Temple is Indi Raja who is 45-years-old. The tuskers are Sinha Raja, Thai Raja, Jana Raja, Migara, Kaveri Raja, Myan Raja, Buruma Raja and Pulasthi Raja. The other elephants are Kandula, Nalaka and Kadhira. Our chief tusker Indi Raja was donated to the Dalada Maligawa in 1989 aged seven years. He was assigned for Perahera duty when he reached 18 years of age”. Indi Raja was donated by the late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

All Sri Lankans are aware of the legendary tusker Raja, who during his lifetime served this temple carrying the Sacred karanduwa (Relics Casket)(1937–1987). After his demise, Nadungamuwe Raja rose to prominence continuing this tradition, until his recent demise. As the resident chief tusker of the Dalada Maligawa, Indi Raja has carried the karanduwa on many occasions. Carrying the Sacred karanduwa has also been bestowed on the Heyanthotuwa tusker, Wewaladeniya Raja and Bellanwila Raja on some occasions.

In keeping with tradition, the elephants at the annual Esala Perahera march in a predetermined order. The Peramune Rala (Officer of the Vanguard) takes the lead position riding his elephant. The incumbent Peramune Rala is H.M.P.S. Navaratne, who has faithfully served in this post for 20 years. He is followed by the Gajanayake Nilame, the chief in charge of all the participating elephants. This temple official is followed by the Kalugamuwa Vidane - the solemn bearer of the Buddhist flag, as he rides a tusker. The Kalugamuwa Vidane has an important task. He is the person in charge of the riders, who will sit atop the tuskers and elephants during the procession. As per ancient tradition, this grand procession must have 10 tuskers. In 2005, the Esala Perahera had 100 elephants, but in 2021, this number was reduced to 60.

The spotlight goes to the tusker, who is selected to carry the Sacred Casket flanked by two other tuskers. A row of three tuskers marches ahead of the main tusker - there is a reason for this formation. Pradeep explained in case the main casket bearing tusker shows any sign of sudden illness during the procession, one of the three tuskers (in the forward line) is quickly positioned in this place, and the karanduwa is safely transferred onto this tusker. The Gurudeniya Vidane is the official in charge of placing the karanduwa on the tusker. He has decades of experience and his team can do this transfer within 20 minutes, and the Perahera goes on flawlessly.

Completing this parade is the Diyawadene Nilame (the Chief Administrator of the Dalada Maligawa) who walks with dignified pomp amidst drummers and dancers. The incumbent Diyawadene Nilame, Pradeep Nilanga Dela has faithfully presided over all tasks of the Dalada Maligawa and the Esala Perahera. He has taken the initiative to enhance the quality of the tuskers’ costumes, by using the traditional motifs affiliated with Buddhist art. Before the 10-day Esala Perahera, all the tuskers and elephants are inspected for good health. Accommodation and meals have to be provided for the participating tuskers and mahouts.

One of the important routines of elephant care is their bath. Bathing an elephant looks like fun to a visitor, but the mahout has to be alert. He must observe the temperament of the animal in the water. Scrubbing down a large tusker and washing his tusks requires skill. One unexpected movement of the massive tusker in the water can cause serious injury to the mahout.

We visited the living area of the tuskers, which is complete with police security. The main tusker Indi Raja was enjoying a bath. His mahout is Susantha. This young man had come as a teenager to learn the art of being a mahout. Today, aged 35, Susantha is proud to be the man caring for Indi Raja. The tusker complies with every command of Susantha, and they have a strong understanding. Indi Raja was in a happy mood, and we had the privilege of petting him. A few metres away, the beautiful tusker Kandula (age 50 years) was getting ready to go for a bath. His mahout is 62-year-old Gunasiri, known by the staff as “Sekara ayya”. The bond between this man and his tusker is amazing and heartwarming. Gunasiri and his assistant mahout followed Kandula to the pond where the tusker enjoyed the cool water.

These devoted mahouts take good care of their tuskers. Bathing the elephant helps develop and sustain bonds between mahout and tusker. These mega herbivores drink 100 litres of water per day. They enjoy eating between 300 Kg–500 Kg of green fodder and sugarcane. Their favourite is kithul palms, coconut and jack leaves. They get an assortment of fruits,and enjoy bathing in the river. Some of the temple tuskers are kept in Pallekelle.

All the tuskers serving the Dalada Maligawa receive the professional inspection of Professor Dangolla and his prudent team attached to the Peradeniya Veterinary Science Faculty.

In keeping with their natural behaviour, the tuskers come into musth, which can last from three weeks to three months.

This is a dangerous period for the mahouts. They cannot approach the tuskers like during normal days, however, the tuskers are fed and watered. Even docile elephants display aggressive behaviour during this period. These tuskers and mahouts in Kandy are carrying on an important cultural and religious tradition that is so much part of Sri Lanka, and recognised by the whole world.

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