The giants on parade | Sunday Observer

The giants on parade

17 September, 2017

If any country can lay claim to the title ‘Elephant Nation’, then surely it is Sri Lanka. For centuries, the island’s elephants have been famed for their strength, sagacity and ease of domestication. Once a tool of war and highly prized by kings, the elephant still plays an important ceremonial role in Sri Lankan life, is a willing worker and an object of pride and joy.

To almost everyone, Sri Lankan Buddhists and elephants are inseparable. Besides their exalted place in Buddhism, elephants have been an inexorable part of Lanka’s history, tradition, myth and culture. They have been captured, tamed, domesticated and bred in captivity. They have been used in battle, and on religious and ceremonial occasions.

In fact, the image of the elephant is everywhere. And nowhere more so than at the pageantry and glory of the Sabaragamuwa Maha Saman Devala Perahera in Ratnapura which is considered second only to the Esala Perahera in Kandy, in terms of reverence.

For five days in the week of September, the premises of the Maha Saman Devale get magically transformed by the ancient pageantry of the spectacular Maha Saman Devale Perahera.

The annual Perahera is a colourful devotional display that honours God Sumana Saman, believed to be the guardian deity of Sri Pada or Adams Peak, always standing with a white elephant and lotus bud behind him. The Perahera is a tradition that goes back many centuries.

One of the most striking features of this vibrant pageant is the action of the elephants. More elephants join the drumbeat as it echoes, and more people join to view the Perahera. It is the elephant that takes pride of place, that has the holiest of tasks and it is the elephant that indubitably steals the show.

Since this is the ideal location to spot elephants, last week, I took a stroll around the Devale premises to capture the actions of these elephants being fed and bathed by their mahouts in Kalu Ganga.

If you ride towards the Devale premises early in the morning during the Perahera period, you can see many pachyderms, with their mahouts come across your path, many of them carrying coconut leaves or Kitul palms for their lunch.

“Here comes Nedungamuwe Raja” an enthusiastic passer-by would point out. Prepare to raise your head in wonder to see a majestic tusker of unusual height. Nadungamuwe Raja is the most valuable asset of the country.

This tusker, towering up to around 11 feet, the greatest of treasures for Sri Lanka’s Buddhists, came here to carry the holy reliquary of the Relic of the Perahera along with Nuwara Raja.

Besides these tuskers, in the morning of the Perahera season, some mahouts get income from devotees who visit the Devale during daytime, walking their small children under the belly of the tusker.

If a small child walks three times under the belly of a tusker, it is said to bring luck during his lifetime. So, many villagers do this when they get a newcomer to their families.

When daylight fades, the elephants get ready for the show after worshiping the deity and gather in the compound facing the Devale premises. Gold-embroidered costumes of intricate design adorn the elephants who have been trained for their tasks from an early age.

Elephants in the Parahera were in the news during the past years, for the wrong reasons. During the festival season, from August to September, not a single Perahera has passed without the news of an elephant running amok or causing death to a mahout. This is because of a violent development in the adult male elephant, caused by the over activity of androgen, the male sex hormone.

The secretion from the gland triggers the violent mood of the tusker and it runs out of control and this explains the reason for elephants running amok during festival processions.

When the season of temple festivals comes to an end, the elephants are given complete rest by cooling the mind and body of the tuskers and through a planned diet and routine bath. In fact, this sacred place is a monument to the deep relationship between humans and animals.

When the Perahera festival is over, all the elephants and their mahouts who take part in the procession gather in front of the Devala compound to receive the divine blessing of the Kapuralas. After that, the elephants set off on their way.