Peraheras and Elephants


The months of July and August when the Esala tree – Cassia Fistula of the family Caesalpiniaceae, aka Golden Shower Tree - bursts forth in its splendor of bright yellow flowers trailing down and nodding in the breeze, is also the month of peraheras. And now peraheras seem to be equated to elephants. We heard that the Diyawadana Nilame of the Dalada Maligawa and Nilames of other temples and devales had complained to the President about the dearth of elephants to parade the streets in their peraheras. There surely must be a pool of elephants to draw from and those who have been parading in years past. What I suspect and fear is that they want a hundred at least of elephants for the final nights’ processions and this number is hard to come by. We heard further about this meeting but make no comment. My strong contention is that each perahera has around twenty elephants; alright, the Kandy Perahera double that amount on the final night. We do not want competition, unhealthy here as peraheras are half or quarter religious. We do not want the said or unsaid remark: that temple had eighty elephants and so we have to have a hundred; prestige must be maintained.



The moot point in demanding elephants being made available is that peraheras are traditional and traditions have to be maintained. We will not even whisper that peraheras are money spinners to hotels and the temples themselves, mostly from tourists. Yes, loud and clear we affirm that traditions have to be continued but, and here’s the crunch, does our cultural heritage of which we are so proud pronounce that a hundred elephants have to parade the streets?


A know-it woman’s

point of view

I asked this woman who married into a family that owned elephants for generations and her husband, and she after him, have been very concerned about elephants and have done much for their own and even offer space, food and care for animals owned by others who need ‘elephant parking lots’. I was surprised at how vehement she was that peraheras had to have elephants and that the tradition of temples having their peraheras was not to be interfered with in the slightest. I came up with my suggestion of just making do with a few animals. She agreed. She asked me whether I was concerned about the welfare of animals made to parade which seemed to be a new idea among westerners. I said no. She said that contrary to elephants being cruelly treated when parading in peraheras, they were usually very well looked after and that they, the elephants, enjoyed being the cynosure of all eyes and being important for the day, and night. She said she was positive, after studying for long elephant behavior and being sensitive to their emotional moods, that they were very human-like, (albeit admittedly nobler), and took pleasure from being with their own kind, so meeting at peraheras was a pleasant diversion to them. Maybe they meet and greet their friends from the previous year when they are brought together to be caparisoned for the night’s festival. Remember they have phenomenal memories.

Some complain of cruelty to them because they have chains binding their ankles and a long chain on their necks. The person I asked my questions from said the former is necessary since the public gather in hordes to watch the procession. The latter, she said, is no burden to the elephant; he hardly feels the weight of the chain around his neck. It however is vital to control him if he runs berserk or playfully gets restless. The mahout gets hold of the chain and controls the animal. This is not cruelty but safety for spectators and also the elephants themselves if they try capricious capers.


Elephants at any cost for


The talk going around was that the DN and Basnayake Nilames wanted elephants from the transit home in Uda Walawe. This was refused by Wildlife authorities and rightly so. Those elephants, most baby orphans were to be nourished, cared for and sent back to their jungle habitat when they were ready to fend for themselves. Elephants from Pinnawela could be commandeered for peraheras as they are permanent residents of the orphanage. We the people still clearly remember how tortured two baby elephants and their mothers were when a VVIP about four years ago wanted to gift two elephants to the Dalada Maligawa to probably pray for his wellbeing. The DN assisted the merciless transfer of suckling babes, until one ran amok. Where did they end up? At home with their mothers in Pinnawela or now trained Maligawa athas to parade the streets of Kandy at the Esala Perahera?


Don’t touch Uda Walawe babies

Consider the elephant orphanage at Uda Walawe. What a merciful act of the Wildlife Department assisted by Dilmah Tea to run this transit elephant nursery. I will never forget watching their mid-morning break. About twenty little fellows of varying age but all very young, docilely queued up for their turn to be each fed a huge bottle of milk. They had it and moved away, ready to be led to their ‘quarters’. One chappie, very cunningly roamed around apparently nonchalant but deliberate, and rejoined the queue. He was recognized by the keepers. No extra bottle for him; only a reprimanding smack on his trunk and a shove from behind. And these orphaned creatures being groomed to return to their forest habitats are looked upon greedily by people whether perahera organizers, politicians or those who believe that owning an elephant is the new prestige symbol. Elephants occupy a special place in people’s hearts, hence the heartburn as we read of them being shot by villagers or their young mercilessly pilfered to be owned by mercenary politicians and even Buddhist monks.


World-wide concern

The world in general is far different from our inaction and blasé attitude to elephants. The highest have got involved. President Obama is interested and has taken action. The White House recently announced a near total ban on the sale of ivory in the US. Opponents there are, mainly the N R A, which is worried about the resale value of guns with ivory components. Also considerable guns are bought to shoot elephants, to the satisfaction of the gun lobby. However, in certain countries of Africa poisoned arrows are now used because gunshots betray the hunter’s location. In 2011 alone, an estimated 25,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory, on average seventy a day, three every hour.


Our concerns

We fear for the welfare of elephants both in the wild (approximately 5,000 to 6,000) and captive (about 125, barring those at the elephant orphanages we presume). Additionally we are deeply concerned at this moment of temples holding annual peraheras wanting more elephants. The Kandy, Kataragama and a few other temples had this tradition from long ago. We find new entrants to the prestigious annual event. We don’t need more peraheras and the demand for elephants increasing. Those deeply concerned about elephants say they do not censure the use of elephants in peraheras as long as mahouts look after them diligently. We were not only shocked and saddened but mightily perturbed when our euphoric joy at an elephant expert being made Director General of the Wildlife Dept. was short lived by his handing in his resignation.

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, a leading environmental specialist in the South Asia Environment, Water Resources and Climate Change Unit at the World Bank office who was appointed as the Director General of the Wild Life Conservation Department (WLCD) in April made a promise:

"As an environmental professional, during my tenure as director general I will not violate the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance or do anything detrimental to wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka. I would rather resign than be instrumental in causing a negative impact on wildlife conservation." Yes, he kept his word to the country’s detriment and the death knell of dealing with our pachyderm population knowledgeably and kindly. And the reason for his resignation: short sighted politicians with their sights trained on benefit to themselves. He was branded a ‘stubborn officer’ and stuck to his principles. (Ref. Why did the Wildlife Dept Chief resign? 7 June 2016 Daily Mirror).

Our cry, maybe one in the wilderness, to the President is: Have mercy on the elephants and let the big shots of perahera holding temples be told small is beautiful, the less the better!

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