By Medha de Alwis
The Kandy Esala Perahera 2019 started on 5 August and is to continue till 15 August. The world-famous Kandy Esala Perahera has a rich history spanning over centuries.
Initially started as a procession to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic by the royalty, the Kandy Perahera has evolved to include many vibrant aspects of aesthetics and artistry.
Much cultural and artistic revival centred on the perahera, and the solid impact it has had for centuries simply cannot be played down. The tooth relic was highly venerated to the extent that whoever possessed the tooth relic also possessed sovereignty over the island.
Given its holy nature, the tooth relic is paraded in the highest position, which at the time was the back of an elephant.
The elephant in times gone by was not a commercialised animal as now, and the very few caught from the wild were brought up in vast expanses of acres of land adjacent to the wild.
They were able to bathe in the natural streams that flowed through these lands owned by the aristocracy in the nearby areas to the ancient Kingdom of Kandy.
More importantly, when the elephants were brought to the perahera, they did not have to go through the process they do now – a gruelling process in this era of commercialisation and modernity. The perahera was initially a short procession comprising a handful of elephants; there were neither flash lights nor long processions of many hours with the endless beating of drums.
The roads were not tarred, decorative attire of the elephant was lighter and simpler, no electric lights to decorate the body of the elephant, and the relationship between the mahout and the elephant was more amicable, non-commercialised, and non-touristic.
Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera, Chief Prelate of the Ramanya Chapter of southern Sri Lanka and President of the Bodhiraja Foundation, raised concerns as to whether the use of elephants in procession embodies true values of Buddhism.
He stated that Buddhism is about kindness to all beings, and if any being is subjected to any form of harassment, it certainly goes against the doctrine of Lord Buddha.
Furthermore, processions are more of a cultural practice rather than a Buddhist practice; Buddha never preached to venerate him or his relics by means of any extravaganza, especially at the cost of the wellbeing of animals.
The situation at present
The situation has changed much at present. Elephant Owners’ Association (EOA) Secretary Damsiri Bandara Karunarathne stated that there are around 105 elephants in captivity in Sri Lanka.
However, leaving the old, young, sick, and those in musth, it comes down to only 70 elephants left for the procession.
When those of unsociable behaviour are also left out, the numbers falls to an even lower amount.
Hence, if one sees more than the stated number in the procession, it certainly is an exploitation of elephants belonging to the aforementioned categories because they are not fit for the procession, which results in the exploitation of elephant labour.
Currently, elephants are brought from other parts of the island to Kandy where the procession takes place.
They have to walk for hours – in some cases on searing asphalt roads under the blazing heat – to reach the destination.
If transported by a truck, the only luxury is that the animal does not have to walk, but the journey will nevertheless be under scorching sun – shackled and chained to the vehicle and terrified of the movement of the vehicle swaying back and forth without been able to maintain its balance.
A top official of the Veterinary Health branch of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, who wished to remain anonymous, revealed that when the elephant is being dressed for the procession, it suffers the discomfort of an alien-like thick robe with capes covering its large ears. An elephant’s ears facilitate ventilation for the animal, thus covering its ears blocks the process.
Then, battery-powered electric bulbs are placed all over its head and trunk.
The worst part is that some bulbs are so close to their eyes that we could only imagine the agony, especially because elephants despise white lights and flashing lights.
The small eye slits limit the elephant’s vision, creating a discomfort when the thick materials rub on the sensitive skin around its eye. As it walks, the costume keeps shifting and at times, it blocks the poor creature’s entire vision.
Elephants need to cool down its “heaty” body, which is the very reason for them to spend hours submerged in water or splashing water with its trunk in mud puddles.
Can we imaging the suffering when the animal is completely covered in a thick robe, especially its ears, leaving no room for ventilation?
Oppression by the humans
Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, former Lead Environmental Specialist for the South Asian Region of the World Bank, and an avid elephant researcher, shared that he would not categorise any elephant as suitable for domestication, irrespective of the friendly behaviour and discipline it would display.
The only animal that can be properly domesticated, he said, is the dog, and an elephant used for activities related to humans is an animal in captivity.
Would Buddha who preached love and kindness to all beings have approved venerating him through captive animals?Depending on the size of the elephant and the place it occupies at the procession, it has to carry one to four persons on its back closer to the neck. The elephant is an intelligent animal considered to be the undisputed king in the Asian jungle.
Can that animal tolerate this humiliation? The mahout or the so-called “caregiver” walks by its side, pulling the chains regularly to control its speed. The elephant has been chained in such a way that a single pull by the mahout could strangle the animal.
Novice and calf elephants are shackled to an extent they are hardly able to walk and have to struggle to maintain its balance with every agonising step it takes.
It resembles the shackled-walk of prisoners, but the difference between prisoners and these animals is that the elephants suffer for crimes they never committed, solely for the purpose of the safety of the crowd and to avoid any embarrassment to the procession.
Special attention should be given to the suffering of calf elephants. Some of them are baby elephants just a few years old.
The way they are shackled, how they are dragged by mahouts, and how they are kept for hours without a drop of water are serious concerns regarding their very survival in this country.
Ven. Dr. Sobhitha Thera opened curtains to see how many lives have been lost due to captive elephants. Many mahouts have been killed over the years, and if elephants can actually be “domesticated” as elephant owners claim, this would not have happened.
The thera further questioned whether we need to harass elephants to simply add glamor to the procession.
Could we not use highly decorated structures such as “ransivi geya” (elevated glamour embellishments) and “mangala ratha” (decorated chariots) to add glitz while being cruelty-free?
Plight of casket-carrying elephants
The so-called privileged elephants carry caskets, but no one would have realised the discomfort for the elephant due to the special harness used to hold the casket intact on its back.
This severely restricts its movements. The casket-bearing elephant has to be escorted by two elephants on either side, and two to four persons mount on them to shower the casket with flower petals.
Further, these three animals are made to walk in a row maintaining the same pace, which adds more pressure.
Their pace is controlled by mahouts by manoeuvring the chains around the elephants’ neck which are linked to their shackled legs.
The system of chain shackles are designed in such a manner that if the elephant makes any stubborn movement, the mahout can put the chain to choke the elephant.
Speaking to a senior wildlife veterinary surgeon who wished to remain anonymous, we learnt that elephants do not have a pleural cavity, meaning their lung is directly attached to the body wall.
Thus, any external pressure will affect respiration. To place the holy casket, a supportive system is attached to the elephant using high pressure. Can you imagine yourself in this disposition – literally fighting for your breath for hours?
Stressfully long working hours
The heat and light from the flame torches is another nightmare. Elephants are animals that naturally fear fire and flashing light, but at the procession, they are compelled to bear with the glowing, curling flames of fire torches and fireball dancers.
Us humans, of course, know that these flames may not harm, but can these elephants be certain of this? The only option for them is to bear the agony and parade for a long, stressful four to five hours knowing that they cannot make any apprehensive move due to the presence of their mahouts or “caregiver” because these intelligent animals don’t forget the consequences.
EOA Secretary Karunarathne, who owns the two tamed elephants Suranimala and Menika taken care of by mahouts Dharme and Herath, stated that all elephants are not as sociable as his. Although Menika is very much used to people and can be easily taken in the procession, some elephants get excited at the sight of large crowds.
Hence, the procession regulation notes that they be chained with double knotted chains, which means they can hardly move more just 12 inches.
Also, if the elephant has had the experience of being hit by an adult elephant while it was a calf, it would not sleep when surrounded by others. Some that do not have such bad experiences still would not sleep when their usual sleeping place changes – they would only have a nap when they lie down to bathe.
Such distress is not what even a single elephant should go through for the sake of the parade’s glamour.
The ears of elephants are sensitive to sound, which is why humans who encroach jungles use crackers and drum beats to chase them away from their habitat.
Therefore, imagine the suffering they undergo with the noise of whip crack, drum beats, trumpets, and all other noises associated with such a grand festival en masse.
The agony is not over yet – swarms of people flank the procession with flashing cameras to add to the torture.
After-effects of labour
These unfortunate and routine experiences continue for 10 days, making the life of these innocent, gentle giants miserable.
The restless long nights, approximately five hours of a controlled and shackled walk, dehydration due to heat emanating from tarred roads, flame torches, and thick robes and capes covering their entire body would only aggravate their misery.
This may lead to long-term repercussions such as psychological and physical ailments.
Protect Sri Lanka President Ven. Pahiyangala Anandasagara Thera raised concerns of how the government permit issued for the elephants is being misused.
Dr. Pilapitiya confirmed that the permit is used only for cultural purposes such as parading in the procession, and Ven. Anandasagara Thera stated that those elephants are exploited in the tourism sector.
Both said that that the matter has come to state where foreign tourists started boycotting elephant rides, empathising with the plight of the poor giant.
This is not the image we want for Sri Lanka, especially considering the present tourism-related crises. What is it to be known internationally as insensitive to animals in the name of “culture”?
To make things clear before we conclude, this is not an attack or offense against the Kandy Perahera. The rich culture of this procession is certainly to be acknowledged and further developed.
This is only a plea for the innocent animals to be taken care of and paid humane attention to.
It is also to be noted that the elephants initially paraded in these peraheras in their inception had not faced such torture they do now – at least not to this magnitude.
Let’s give it a thought from the side of this voiceless animals, and the Kandy Perahera too will be able to retain its grace, grandeur, and veneration for which it was originally world famous. Let us ask the questions from ourselves.
Yes, the Kandy procession is very important to us and we cannot certainly do without it.
But if the procession is an embodiment of Buddhism, is what the elephants go through reflect the true purpose of Buddhism? Isn’t Buddhism about kindness? If so, is what these elephants go through fall into the parameters of kindness? Are there ways to minimise this torture? Just like Dr. Pilapitiya emphasised, if we could at least not cover the ears of the elephant, it will be a great start. And a start is what we need right now.