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Remembering Raja

Elephants play a key role in the most colourful religious and cultural event in Sri Lanka. The Esala Perahera or the Kandy Perahera, without any doubt is much anxiously awaited event by every Sri Lankan.

In fact, between 100 and 125 elephants take part at this Perahera which starts on July 6.

The Sri Lankan elephant -Elephas maximus maximus is a sub species of the Asian elephant and is endangered due to increase in loss of habitats.

Without any doubt the elephant is the symbol of Sri Lanka, and its carved image appears everywhere in the island, especially on temple and kovil walls.

Sri Lanka was well known to ancient European and Asian scholars as the land of superior elephant specimens. It was once a prolific exporter of elephants to India and the rest of Asia, but there has now been a sudden decrease.

However, to date, Sri Lanka is home to nearly 6,000 wild elephants, according Environment and Natural Resources Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka. However, the numbers of tuskers are limited.

Tuskers are the preferred elephants for Peraheras, as well as for the elephant stables attached to both Buddhist temples and Hindu kovils around the island.

Leading the procession each evening is a particularly large elephant, which has been especially fattened for the occasion. It is the richly caparisoned Temple of the Tooth -Dalada Maligawa- tusker, Raja the younger. He emerges from the temple carrying the tooth relic in a gold and silver howdah, his blanket embroidered in gold and his long tusks encased in golden sheaths.

A narrow white cloth is repeatedly placed on the ground before him during the procession lest his feet touch the earth. Often he becomes so disdainful that he will not advance unless this is first performed.

Raja, the younger, is a Thai elephant imported to carry on a tradition after his predecessor died of old age in the processions in 1988.

Residents of Kandy recall Raja, on the 10th and final night of the parade in 1988, tears openly flowed from his eyes during his final appearance.

According to Jayantha Jayewardene, one of the elephant experts in Sri Lanka, Tikiri Banda Mampitiya, Dissawa of Yatinuwara, presented two baby tuskers to the Dalada Maligawa. Their names were Raja and Kanda.

Both babies were captured in Batticalao within days of each other.

They were not twins but babies of different mothers. The capture was made in early November 1925 by Umeru Lebbe of Eravur. The coastal Muslims were well known elephant trappers and were known as Pannikans.

The babies were brought by train to the Kadugannawa railway station. Arambegama Kirihamy was to be the mahout of the babies. He also attached the babies to the female elephant he was looking after. She became their foster mother.

When the elephants were 12 years old, they were ceremonially gifted to the Dalada Maligawa. A Deed of transfer was drawn up and gifted to the Diyawadana Nilame by Mampitiya Dissawa on August 22, 1937. Raja was eight feet tall and Kanda was seven feet.

Raja from the time it was small had a record of being mischievous. Most times Raja would carry the sacred tooth relic at the annual Perahera in Kandy flanked by Kanda and another elephant. Sometimes Kanda too would carry the tooth relic but not often.

On July 16, 1988 Raja died. For half a century Raja was at the Dalada Maligawa and its presence was a common sight at the magnificent perahera.

Upon its death, this massively revered elephant was preserved and is now on display in a museum on the grounds of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy.

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