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Elephants in Sri Lankan Culture

Fri09212018

Last update20:31:46 UTC 2018


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Elephants in Sri Lankan Culture

elephant.pic1.5.9A man hangs twig on a tree; his face is all but reverence for Pullayar. Then he cautiously treads his way on to the jungle path into a distant village or to the dreaded jungle itself, infested with wild beasts, including the much-feared big animal, the elephant. I believe that the reverence for elephant headed Pullayar has a direct link with the fear psyche of these villagers for elephants. To them Pullayar or the Hindu God Ganesh is not only the God of wisdom but their protector in the wild. Statues of God Ganesh, which is a common sight in many parts of North Eastern plain of Sri Lanka, are venerated by both Hindus and Buddhists.


Elephants too have a significant place in Buddhism. Mother of the Buddha, queen Mahamaya, dreamt of a milky-white elephant carrying a lotus flower, on the day she conceived her son. It was an elephant of Parileiyya Forest in ancient India that provided the Buddha with fruits to sustain him as he was meditating in the forest while a conflict between two fractions of his disciples raged. Further, the Buddhist Literature has it that the Buddha had been born as an elephant on seven occasions in his previous lives. Hence the animal’s religious significance is another reason, I believe why the Buddhists admire it with awe.


Elephants as a beast of war and labor were central to shape the cultural significance of the animal in the ancient Sri Lanka. As we move onto the 3rd century BC we find that King Kawantissa ruling one of the three kingdoms of the country Ruhuna, from Maagama. The King got a message that the fisher folk of the mangrove forests found an orphaned baby elephant and immediately he sent for the elephant trainers to bring it to the palace.


The legend has it that this baby elephant belonged to Chaddantha cast, the most noble of elephant clans. Later it was named Kadol meaning mangrove forest. According to the legends this mangrove forest can be seen in the village called Kapuhenwela off Tangalle in deep-South. A temple named as Sri Kadolana Maha Vihara remains to the date. Kadol was destined to be the royal elephant of King Dutu Gemunu, son of King Kawantissa, who played the key role in many battles fought with King Elara, a Drawidian King who conquered to rule the northern part of Sri Lanka. King Dutugemunu finally defeated his rival in the great battle of Vijithanagara, unifying the country with Kandula playing a crucial role written in the history, but unfortunately it was injured in the battle. According to the Mahawamsa’ the great chronicle “elephant physicians applied balm on Kandula, the elephant of Dutugemunu.” (Chapter 37 Verse 147) The chronicle also points out that King Buddadasa appointed an elephant physician.


Elephants were also made into laborers at tank buildings sites in ancient Sri Lanka. They were used to compact foundations of all the major stupas in the King’s country of Sri Lanka. They were an essential inclusion of the Four Fold Royal Army, which comprised of elephant, horse, chariot and infantry forces. Apart from those to-date elephants in captivity are employed in tree logging to move around and load logs into carriers.


Apart from Kandula there are few other elephants that rose to fame in Sri Lanka. Mahapabbatha was the royal elephant of King Elara, while Ramakula was the royal elephant of king Parakramabahu of Polonnaruwa. In the recent history the leading elephant of Panamure became a sensational household story during the 1930s at the Kraal of Panamure. Raja was the royal elephant of the temple of tooth relic in Kandy who served the temple for over a half a century. Dala puttuwa or the cross tusker of Yala national park was an elephant who won the heart and mind of many Sri Lankans in the recent years.


Stories of old folklore has it that “Irawana” is the sacred elephant of the Sakra, the Lord of Heaven while God Sumana Saman, a local deity of Adams peak and Sabaragamuwa rides an elephant as his divine conveyance.


Elephant moldings are found at the base of religious and non-religious buildings. In the moonstone of both Polonnaruwa and Anurdhapura regions elephant carvings prevailed. In many balustrades elephant trunk was depicted as well as in the paintings in ancient temples. One famous carving is of playful elephants in a water pond at Isurumuniya. Mahastupa of Anuradhapura, the Ruwanweli Seya has a sculptured fence of a perdurable line of elephants possibly to pay gratitude for assistance rendered.


In the Kandyan period the elephant receives the highest accolade of all animals, to carry the tooth relic of Buddha in a procession for the Temple of the Tooth Relic. In the modern days, all the regional processions such as Kelaniya, Gangarama, Katharagama etc follow the same ritual of an elephant carrying the relic casket.


Our cultural affiliation with elephant has gone to a level where some of us became heros of elephants; Gajaweera while some others ended as leaders of elephants; Gajanayakes. There are Gajasinghas the elephantine lions and Gajamans people with elephant size minds. Famous poet Gajaman nona has shown us the capability of an elephant size mind with her poetical skill which has been appreciate by Sri Lanka for generations.

Things began to change with the arrival of Europeans who arrived in the country in the late 1500. Though we had an elephant trade it was governed by strict regulations imposed by the kings and the traditional beliefs. These traditions were shattered by the commercial elephant trade of capturing and transporting elephants to other countries. Things became worse for the elephants when the British rulers embarked upon hunting elephants for game and for financial rewards to enable them to clear land for coffee, tea and rubber plantations.


As Sir Emmerson Tennent, Ceylonese colonial secretary to the British colonial administration in 1850s said, Major Roberts killed thousand four hundred elephants, while Captain Gallway is responsible for another seven hundred kills. “Between 1831 and end of 19th century over ten thousand elephants were slaughtered for game and financial rewards”.


The human population has grown up at the expense of diminishing of natural habitat for all other animals, creating man-elephant conflict. The interaction of the two great species is yet to shape their course in future. It is up to “us” of the present generation to protect this giant cultural heritage for our posterity.

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Sunil Gunathilake
 Polonnaruwa

Living and Travel


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