Selection of tuskers to carry the relic casket
The majestic giant of the jungles, the largest animal to walk the
Earth today since the extinction of dinosaurs is indeed a sight to
behold and one any person would never tire of seeing. It brings to my
mind the popular Sinhala saying that ali (elephants) and bali (a
religious ritual invoking blessings) are two things people enjoy seeing
over and over again.
The beautifully caparisoned Maligawa tusker carrying the golden
casket bearing the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha at the world famous
Esala Perahera is indeed a breathtaking sight; one that would never fail
to mesmerise you no matter how often you see it.
the Maligawa tusker plays a significant role in the Kandy Esala Perahera
which is steeped in culture and tradition, we thought of enlightening
you briefly as to how an elephant is selected and trained to carry out
this honoured task, and also give you some interesting information about
the famous tusker named Raja.
According to the Secretary of the Elephant Owners’ Association,
Dhamsiri Bandara, selecting and training an elephant for this
responsible task is a complex process.
Let’s check out how an elephant is selected initially.
Some of you may be aware of a caste system that exists among both
Sinhala and Tamil communities. What you will be surprised to learn is
that there is a caste system among elephants too.
It is something that comes down from ancient times. In the past our
ancestors categorised elephants into 10 specific castes according to
their physical features. (See box for details). Out of these 10 castes,
only the elephants that belonged to the top castes, namely Mangala, Hema,
Uposatha and Chadhantha are selected to be trained to play the role of
the Maligawa tusker that carries the Sacred Relic Casket.
There are certain traditionally accepted features that an elephant
should have, not only to be placed in a particular caste, but also to be
suitable to be trained as the Maligawa tusker to carry the sacred
Apart from the broad ‘seat-like’ back, which would enable the casket
to be placed on its back securely, the elephant should have tusks which
are either straight or in alignment, and an upright head.
And, of course, the elephant must be a strong, healthy animal. It is
also imperative(necessary) that seven points of the body such as legs,
tail and trunk touch the ground for an elephant to be placed in the top
ranks of the caste system.
So, now you are aware as to how elephants are selected based on
physical features. However, it is not only the physical features that
make an elephant an ideal ‘casket bearer.’ Parading the streets for for
long hours with a huge casket tied to its body can be irksome(tiresome)
to any wild animal, however tame it may be.
So, it is important that the elephant has tons of patience, along
with a calm disposition(temperament). And the elephant should also be
obedient because otherwise, it would not be easy to train. Experienced
mahouts are entrusted with the responsibility of training such elephants
according to tradition.
“The time an elephant takes to be trained depends on its level of
intelligence and obedient nature,” explained Bandara.
It is in this context that Raja, the famous Maligawa tusker who
carried the Sacred Tooth Relic for 37 long years takes pride of place
among other elephants entrusted with this hallowed task.
According to officials of the Sri Dalada Maligawa, to date no
elephant has displayed the qualities Raja had shown when it carried the
Sacred Tooth Relic until its death in 1987.
Many of you must have viewed the imposing stuffed body of this
exceptional elephant at the Maligawa premises. As a tribute to the
service rendered by Raja, it was declared a national treasure while it
was still alive.
The tales surrounding Raja the legend, are numerous, but first let’s
go back in time to find out as to how this great ‘national treasure’ was
It was yet another small elephant trapped by Umeru Lebbey, the
experienced wild elephant hunter way back in 1925 in Eravur, in the
Batticaloa district, but the little jumbo was fortunate enough to become
world famous and go down in history.
The baby elephant had been bought by Tikiribanda - Mampitiya Disawe
of Giragama Walauwa in Kandy for 3300 rupees a huge sum at that time,
along with another baby elephant brought there. With a permit issued by
the government, they were brought to Giragama Walauwa on December 11,
The first elephant which was ten years old was named Raja and the
other named Skanda. In 1937, Raja who was a high caste elephant was
offered to the Sri Dalada Maligawa. The Diyawadana Nilame at that time
was T. B. Ratwatte.By this time the baby elephant Raja was already eight
According to Dhamsiri Bandara, “The Maligawa authorities who still
follow sacred traditions were happy about this new elephant who not only
had all the physical requirements, but also showed much promise. They
soon began to train it for this religious task.
It took about 12 years to train Raja and during that time it had to
be taught many things. For instance he had to learn to walk slowly
beside the sacred casket,” he said. In 1950, the Sacred Tooth Relic was
first placed on Raja, who by then, had been fully trained and satisfied
the authorities about its capabilities.
Bandara pointed that since Raja took over the honoured task of
carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic casket in 1950, no other elephant has
been able to fit this role. Raja is a legend. For 37 years it walked the
streets of Senkadagala, carrying the sacred casket at the Esala Perahera
amidst the chants of “sadu, sadu” calmly and quietly - almost as if in
“Raja never had any problems with the mahouts and was very obedient
to them,” Bandara explained. He always respected Buddhist priests and
liked to be in the premises of the Dalada Maligawa. You will be amazed
to learn that Raja detested people who consumed liquor, and once even
attacked a lorry carrying liquor,explained Bandara.
The biggest recorded elephant rampage at a Dalada Perahera took place
in 1959, but even then Raja was as calm as ever and continued to carry
the casket gently. He never did anything to harm the Sacred Relic
casket, added Bandara.
There are records of Raja stopping in front of the Queen’s Hotel,
Kandy and refusing to budge an inch no matter how hard the mahout tried.
The Nilames and mahouts had then all got together to investigate and
discovered that the reason Raja wouldn’t move was because the belt which
secured the casket to its body was loose. So, the belt had been properly
secured and immediately Raja had begun to move again.
It was a very common sight to see Raja awaiting, the placing of the
white cloth-pavada with its front leg raised.Raja’s great service was
applauded and greatly appreciated in all corners of the world. In 1982
Raja was declared a national treasure, by the first Executive President
of Sri Lanka J. R. Jayewardene.
Raja was the first animal ever to be so named.The other elephant who
was caught along with Raja named Skanda also offered to the Maligawa by
Mampitiya Disawe died in 1986 and a year later in 1987 Raja too passed
away after a brief illness, bringing tears to many Sri Lankans.
Classified according to their physical features, the elephants belong
to 10 different castes of which the Chaddhantha caste is considered to
be the highest.
The 10 castes as given in the Sri Lankawe ali-ethun book are:
3. Pandara - low castes
8. Hema - high castes
Some physical features of different castes
Kalawaka caste elephants have black skins, dark-coloured eyes, curved
nails and tails and also short legs.
Gangeiya caste elephants are large headed and have long legs and
trunks. They also have wide feet with large nails.
Elephants belonging to the Pandara caste have wide, but longish
heads, grey coloured skins and yellowish coloured nails.
The tip of their trunks are said to be wide. Those belonging to the
Thamba caste have medium sized heads, large ears, a lean body and rather
weak trunks. They are copper-brown in colour.
Elephants of the Pingala caste have large heads, long eyes, medium
sized feet and wide-tipped trunks while those belonging to the Gandha
caste are endowed with small heads and trunks, thick, dark skins with
lots of hair and curved or bent tails.
Those in the Mangala caste have large heads and trunks, large
imposing bodies, large tusks, ears and feet. The tails touch the ground.
Hema caste elephants have strong, slightly bent heads, long, medium
size eyes, medium sized trunks, imposing bodies and legs and bent tails.
They are light coloured in skin and their nails have a reddish tint.
Uposatha caste elephants have medium sized heads and ears, strong long
legs and tails and trunks that touch the ground.
They too are light in skin colour with yellowish coloured nails.
Elephants belonging to the Chaddhantha caste also have large, imposing
bodies, long, strong legs, with the trunks and tails touching the ground
and long shaped eyes.
It is believed that Raja belonged to the Chaddhantha caste. Today the
legendary Raja’s stuffed form could be viewed by thousands of people at
the Maligawa museum thanks to the fine work done by taxidermists (people
who mount animal skins to give it life-like appearance.)
The name Raja (which means king) is given as a tag name to many other
elephants who are chosen to carry the casket. Usually an elephant is
named (according to the gender) after the area it is found in or born in
and also the owners.
According to officials, there are only four elephants from Sri Lanka
that are used to carry the golden casket. They are Millangoda Raja,
Nadungamuwe Wijaya Raja((the present casket bearer), Katharagama Vasana
and Kegalle Wewaladeniye Raja. The fifth elephant, Indi Raja is from
These five elephants carry the casket in turn at the peraheras unlike
Raja who did so annually.