So you think you know everything about perahera elephants?


by Arjuna Seneviratne


Humans know so much. They know what they think and they know what their fellow humans think. They even know what other creatures think. And feel. One perception is as good (or bad) as another. And all creatures, large and small, articulate in languages comprehended or otherwise, are accorded importance as per these subjectivities. It’s all said in languages of imperfection, though, but perhaps we should step back and at least give ear to other perception, flawed though they may be.

The Maligawa, the Kataragamadevale and a few other religious places are not cruel to elephants by any stretch of the imagination. They revere their pachyderms and bend over backwords to see that they are content and comfortable. A case in point is Nadungamuwe Raja, the majestic being who has carried the casket at the Perahara these many years. No one tries to load Nadungamuwe into a truck for transport. Instead, he walks from Nadungamuwa in the Colombo area all the way to Kandy to carry the casket. He stops when he wants to. He eats when he wants to and is more partial to the "alms food" given by the people on the way for whom his journey is a major cause for touching base with the Buddha each year. He bathes when he wants to and where he wants to and no one tries to stop him. If Nadungamuwe went on strike, that would be the end of the pageant since no one in their right minds would want to tell him what to do and what not to do. In fact he was the one who alerted the villages to the water contamination of Rathupaswala.

The relationship between the perahara elephants are no different to those of human beings. Rather that wanting to get out of the perahara, break free and run to the jungle where they have nothing much to do that they will really enjoy, the elephants relish the idea of being in the pageant. The elephants Hindi Raja and Singha Raja, for example, have always indicted that they’d rather carry the casket than Nadungamuwe perhaps because they are the elephants who live at the Maligawa itself. The Maligawa, not wishing to insult these beings assigns them important tasks although clearly not comparable to carrying the casket, for example, carrying the Diyawadana Nilame. This time around, both of these beings shared casket responsibilities with Nadungamuwe.

In terms of care, the Maligawa studies the mood of the elephants three times a day, looking for the slightest problem, issue or change in behavior and based on these and the mahouts own observations they decide which elephants go where in the pageant and the elephants are told of this and their acceptance is affirmed. No one tries to get them to do something they might find distasteful and this proves the lie that the elephants are being treated cruelly. Furthermore the people who line the streets as Nadungamuwe returns, giving him their choicest fruits and worshiping him as he heaves into view and the way he acknowledges the human beings belies the assertions that these beings are being made to do things with force.

Similarly no one attempts to control the Kataragamahastiya. That august being was practically uncontrollable back when I had dealings with him around 15 years ago. He only calmed down when he is in the presence of an ariyapurusha (one who is genuinely in observance of the 10 precepts). When I was first told of this, I didn’t believe it but when I went close to him he was quite ready to throw a few tree trunks in my general direction. There were a few gawking Buddhist monks there and he actually threw a couple of sticks at them. The next day, my friend and I were observing the ariyasila and after about six straight hours of meditation, at about 3 am we decided to walk down the lonely road which led past the spot where the hasthiya stayed. He took one look, then backed down two feet and went into the classic posture of worship and when I gave him the equally classic blessing he breathed a soft trumpet and remained in that position until we had passed. He controls what he does, where he does it, how he does it and to whom he does it.So no, whatever people say, those beings are treated with great, grave, respect and they treat their human neighbors as they should be treated – respecting respect, honoring honor and trusting trust.

Most people live their entire lives in some small geography of the world that is even smaller than that which is enjoyed by the elephants who live in the devales of the country. Those human beings have a small house to which they return every day after foraging in maybe half a square mile of urban jungle. They do this day in and day out and do not feel that they are in a prison. Imagine then, as Yann Martel wants us to, what would happen if you go to them, fling them out of their houses, kick them out of their jobs and say "get out, get out, you are FREE". Even when given the choice, they would rather murder the person who attempts to "rescue" them from a lifetime of socially validated imprisonment than take off like a rocket, with only their bodies and the bodies of their families to call their own shouting I AM FREE. Why? Because they enjoy a far better quality of life in their self-imposed prisons than they ever would get in any other clime. Good people? The Maligawa and other devala elephants are the same.


Pix by Krishan Kariyawasam

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