Caught between culture and controversy | Daily News


Elephants of the perahera

Caught between culture and controversy

On a hill beside the Temple of the Tooth, beyond the dizzying crowds vying for perahera seats and high above the hoards of tourists shuffling through the Temple, there is a massive pool of water. Humps of gray peak out from the glistening, still surface, creating an idyllic image far from the flashing lights and beating drums of the festival. Here, the elephants of the perahera are in rare form – relieved, relaxed, some dozed off in a heavy afternoon slumber, fully succumbing to the weight of exhaustion.

Sunil Rambukpotha, secretary to the lay custodian at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, explained that while at the perahera, many of the elephants stop trying to sleep. They are used to sleeping in water, but during the festival, spend their days and nights chained up in the heat. The hectic crowds, a new environment, and all of the other elephants around make a recipe for restlessness.

This elephant bath is the latest addition to the Esala Perahera to improve conditions for elephants – which have come under scrutiny in recent years. Some activists have gone as far as to call the festival a form of ‘socially accepted animal abuse’.

But here, on the Saturday afternoon before the grand finale of the festival, the elephants get a brief but sweet taste of their natural habitat – a glimmer of familiarity and calm amidst 10 frenzying days of festivities.

The mahouts

While in the pool, the elephants are apathetic to the mahouts, who move around them, scrubbing tirelessly at their fleshy bodies.

The water of the pool soaked through Nihal’s sarong as he carefully plucked at the tail of his elephant in pensive concentration. He had the elephant’s tail in his right hand and a piece of sharpened coconut husk wedged between his left arm and side. Between questions, he would jump back into scrubbing the elephant, every so often re-sharpening the coconut husk with a knife.

Nihal spoke in short but polite sentences. He said the whole process – scrubbing the 5,000 plus kilo beast from head to toe – takes him about three hours. “The hardest part is the head,” he explained, “because it has many bends and shapes, and touching the head can change the mood of the elephant.”

A working mahout for 38 years, Nihal says he chose the job because it “commands a lot of respect.” But any respect that the centuries-old job has is hard-earned. The daily groundwork of a mahout is a far cry from the glamour of the pageant.

Late Friday afternoon, throughout the streets of Kandy, mahouts hang out in makeshift campsites near their elephants. One group was staying in a metal encasement. Cloth stretched across wooden planks formed a surrogate bed and clothing dangled from the metal scaffolding.

The mahouts’ feet rested on the wooden planks, arms folded over their knees, eyes heavy as they looked out onto the elephants in front of them, squinting into the afternoon sun. For mahouts and elephants alike, these are long, sleepless nights.

One particularly outgoing mahout wandered out of the campsite to show off his elephant. As he lifted his arm to point, he revealed a tattoo of an elephant on his inner forearm. His entire face rose into a smile when he introduced his elephant, Mali.

Nihal was quieter about his work, but no less devoted. “He’s a very gentle mahout, he knows what he’s doing” Sunil whispered, as Nihal moved around the elephant with familiar ease. “He doesn’t yell or act aggressively at the elephant, like other mahouts.”

The controversy

The devotion to these beasts evinced by Nihal and the other mahouts is in stark contrast to the stories of mahouts that have surfaced online in recent years.

Videos of mahouts hitting elephants, footage of elephants storming the streets, images of elephants with wounds from being poked with the ankus, and stories of elephants sent to the festival despite experiencing ‘musth’ (a period of hormonal surge that makes male elephants particularly aggressive), all give mahouts a reputation of being irresponsible and uneducated.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reports that elephants live in “constant fear of mahouts,” who scare them into obedience. And the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS) issued a statement condemning the mahouts’ treatment of elephants. “Keeping elephants has moved away from traditional practices. As a result, the centuries-old knowledge of caring for elephants among elephant keepers, or mahouts, has been largely lost. They base their methods of control on fear and cruelty towards their wards,” they said.

Beyond the mahouts, the conditions of the elephants – tied up for 10 days with limited exercise and ridden by humans in a way that can cause irreparable damage to the spine – has also earned the perahera a reputation of being a nightmare for elephants.

Such reports have led NGOs and animal rights groups to call for the removal of elephants from festivals. The caustic WNPS statement demands that keeping elephants captive, “become a thing of the past,” and adds that, “none of the cruelty, captivity, deprivation, restraint and regimentation suffered by these young animals can be justified in a Buddhist context.”

The history

But other scholars and activists hesitate to uproot such a deeply entrenched culture. For some people, making captive elephants a thing of the past would mean relegating a culture they feel in the present to the past too.

It takes only a stroll down the streets of Kandy during the perahera to see such fidelity to tradition. Thousands and thousands of Sri Lankans lie all day in the sun, on blankets spread on the hot, tar pavement, waiting for the festival. “Ninety percent of those who visit the pageants and specifically the perahera are from the village areas, travelling long distances to be there,” Dr. Wijemohan, who has studied the physical conditions of captive elephants, explained. “If those people say elephants should not be in pageant, I will accept it, but not from the people who are in the cities – they don’t have that kind of faith in the pageant.”

If the people believe celebrating the perahera can offer a once-in-a-lifetime blessing, Dr. Wijemohan doesn’t feel it is right to interfere. “For the village people it’s a real belief, so I would not destroy that, and I have no right to destroy that.”

Dr. Wijemohan said having elephants in the perahera is a “cultural fact,” enshrined in many years of ritual and tradition, so the question is not whether or not the elephants participate but how to keep the elephants who do, healthy.

As the sun set on the penultimate day of the perahera, Sachinie Lawanthika, a volunteer in the media department at the Temple of the Tooth and a self-identified elephant enthusiast, explained the long history of the elephants in the festival.

Elephants have been used in captivity for thousands of years for tasks from transportation and labour to sacred tasks in temples and religious festivals. They have been used in Kandy’s Esala perahera since its beginning as far back as 1754 and perhaps earlier.

Sri Dalida Maligawa tuskers have the responsibility of carrying the casket of the Sacred Tooth Relic. In the procession, which is a rain dance, the elephants represent the storm clouds. (The drums symbolise thunder and fire stands for lightning.)

As Sachinie recounted the history of the perahera elephants, her voice was occasionally drowned out by the loud, rhythmic sound of chains clashing together. Each time, the sound was accompanied by an elephant descending the driveway beside the World Buddhism Museum, on its way to line up for the parade.

From memory, she told us the name of the elephant, its hometown, and the history of the owner. “I can identify each of them by their tusks,” she said proudly.

When I asked her if the tuskers of the perahera were more important than the ordinary elephants, she joked, “Well, all of them are important to me.”

When the elephant passed and the sound faded into the distance, Sachinie continued explaining the symbolism of elephants, which, in a wider Buddhist context, represent youth.

And that youthful, playful side of the elephants was also on display at this year’s festival. On the final night of the perahera, just before the elephants were to be dressed for the evening festivities, two young elephants began to play.

Twisting and untwisting their trunks, they reached out to each other. At one point, the larger elephant fell down and the smaller started to climb on top of him, jumping around like an energetic toddler. As they played, their trunks swinging all around, an audience grew around them.

But what at first seemed like a fun elephant playdate, soon became a more gruesome scene. One elephant railed against his chains with such fervour, he fell over – chains pulled taut, head bobbing, legs splayed.

The flash of smartphone cameras illuminated the darkness and laughter echoed through the hills. Suddenly, what seemed like a fascinated, respectful group became a taunting crowd. The elephant rolled in the dirt, struggled to stand up. The crowd howled.

The companion

When asked why the elephants were behaving like this, a mahout explained that these two elephants were old pals and came from the same village.

Elephants form long-lasting relationships and have memories spanning decades. Some scientists attribute this to the elephant’s large hippocampus, a part of the brain that is connected to emotion through memory. In elephants, the hippocampus makes up a higher percentage (0.7 percent) of brain mass than it does in humans (0.5 percent).

The elephant cortex also has similarities to that of the human, leading some scientists to believe there may be convergent evolution.

Such beliefs might explain why elephants and humans can form such an intense connection. “It’s like having a friend,” Sunil said, describing Kandula, one of the perahera elephants he knew as a child in Badulla.

“Kandula has been with me since I was a schoolboy, our association is over 50 years. We grew up together,” he remembered. “When I used to go away to college, three months later, I would come back and Kandula would recognise me and be very happy.”

And this sort of memory is not uncommon. Sunil told another story about an elephant expert who had formed a close bond with a young elephant named Indi Raja. Fourteen years later, the expert visited the elephant at his new home in Sri Lanka. He spoke to Indi Raja softly, in the same language he had when the elephant was small, trying to get him to sit down. The elephant stopped eating, and listened closely. After a moment, he made a sound of recognition, followed the order, and lowered his body.

Sunil remembered the expert turning around from the elephant and saying, “That is an elephant’s memory. Never play the fool’s game with this beast.”

At the final night of the perahera, a crowd of people stood beside the Temple of the Tooth, close to the parade. As the procession moved forward, dancers jumping, plates twirling at the tops of rods, and torches lighting the walkway, one elephant stepped out of line, much to his mahout’s disdain. But his misstep was met with glee – his owner standing by the side of the temple, reached out from the shaded corner and touched his trunk in a fond greeting.

The ‘wild animal’

According to one UN report, these warm and affectionate relationships can mislead people into thinking that elephants should be domesticated.

And while it might seem paradoxical, an animal with empathy and intelligence can still be wild. Because elephants have never been selectively bred, ‘domesticated’ elephants are behaviorally and genetically identical to their wild counterparts.

Ironically, it is the same wit and amicable nature that has led humans to form bonds with elephants, which may make personifying them a bit too easy. Rumours circulate that elephants cry, that elephants “think humans are cute,” and that they dance to music. In reality, no evidence has shown that elephants cry and we can hardly ask an elephant what it thinks is cute.

As for dancing, elephants shaking their heads side to side or shifting weight with their feet has become an iconic image of elephants in carnivals and festivals, but this behaviour is stereotypical – it is out of the range of their normal behaviours in the wild.

Elephant advocates, enthusiasts, and researchers all have different explanations. One indigenous elephant doctor said it can be either a sign of happiness or a sign of anxiety – and that the right doctors could tell the difference. Sunil claimed it was the elephant trying to keep himself awake. Lay people say it is the elephant dancing. One of the top elephant researchers in Sri Lanka said it is a tell-tale sign of distress.

It is human nature to believe what we want to believe.

Many elephant experts agree that for cultural reasons, it would be impossible to remove the elephants from festivals. Instead, they argue, we should focus on improving conditions of elephants which participate in pageants.

Dr. Wijemohan says daily health monitoring is a must. Sumith Pilapitiya, a conservation researcher, recommends costume adjustments that will keep the elephant’s ears free and thereby enable the elephants to better regulate their temperature.

“Train the mahouts so that they are kinder to the elephants – you don’t have to frighten the animal to make it listen to you. If you are kind, it will respond to you kindly,” says Jayantha Jayawardena, an Asian elephant expert, who has written about tame elephants in Sri Lanka.

The sight

Over the course of the perahera, elephants are scattered around Kandy. Some are tied to walls within the compound, others relegated to grassy hills beside the Temple, and an unlucky handful spend the duration of the festival in crowded streets just outside the Temple.

During the sweltering daylight hours, tourists and locals crowd around the elephants, phones and cameras at the ready for a coveted selfie. Some mahouts even try to make money by taking photographs. But between the clicking sound of an iPhone photo and the smiling faces, there are reminders of how unnatural it is to be so close to an elephant.

Sometimes that reminder is loud and dangerous – like when two elephants got loose and trampled a police car in the middle of the night, this year. Other reminders are subtler.

There’s grunt of an elephant, awoken from his slumber and forced out of the artificial, cement bathtub. 

There’s the sound of the chains, clattering beneath the elephant’s neck and holding his feet together, rendering his stride more of a hobble.

And then there’s the elephants that have been brought all the way to Kandy, but don’t get to be in the parade, because they’ve misbehaved – perhaps they’ve gone into musth or displayed the “wrong attitude.” In the dark of the night, they stand chained up, alone, like exiles, as the festival music beats on in the distance. 

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