By A S Abeyratne –
The first Buddhist procession with sacred tooth relic commenced during the time of King Keerthi Sri Megavarna (301 – 238 BC). Then onwards the Dalada procession was held every year. But elephants were not participating in such ancient processions. Later many other temples in Sri Lanka copied this type of cultural ceremonies. Asian elephants presence are seen in many Asian religious traditions, ceremonies and mythologies. Perahara is a Buddhist related cultural ceremony. It should bring in peace and religious feelings to the people. Also such processions should never harm the people or animals.
There have been many views about elephants participating in peraharas. Firstly the elephants have to be brought to the temples from various distant places. Such long walks damage the pads of all elephants, which ultimately lead to foot wounds and ultimate deaths. Many elephants in Sri Lanka die due to foot wounds. Each perahara will have many splendor events; riot color, twinkling lights, burning torches, thunderous noise of drums, whip cracking, conch blowing, flash lights, massive human populations in dense crowds which causes much pain a and suffering to elephants.
It is a pretty that these majestic animals are forced to participate in such ceremonies. It is not only the noise, crowds, and lights the worst is that much hurt is caused to all elephants when elephant health is considered. The worst thing that elephants have to face is difficulty in breathing and eliminating swat. Many do not know that elephants can perspire only through their ears. They shake their ears quickly to eliminate the swat that they collect due to walking. When ears and the entire body is covered by cloths elephants find it impossible to expire. Besides there are many lights that are tied to the covered cloths they are covered with, which make the expiration even impossible. Once the perahara is over and elephants are given freedom they rapidly run to the closest water facility and spend few minutes drinking and splashing water all over their bodies. How sad I was when I saw such events. There is another problem that most do not know. That is about elephant ‘musth’, which is a word that is used in India to describe the behaviour of elephant during sexual periods. Musth is a period of change of behavior of male elephants, which can last about a month or more. During this period the males get very aggressive and such elephants should not be used for ceremonies because it is most likely for them to attack. There is also a big problem of feeding a large number of elephants brought for peraharas. Since the elephants need big amount of food, it is almost impossible to find such large amounts. Therefore, all elephants are underfed during their stay. This change is brought about due to the increase of testosterone hormone during musth. Don’t the Buddhists know the hardships that all elephants face when parading in paraharas? Is this the Buddhist philosophies that they practice?
If you can, imagine for a moment that you are one of the hundred elephants participating in this annual pageant, then imagine your most terrifying nightmare (the one that comes back to haunt you time after time). That nightmare is what you as a Perehera elephant will endure year after year, as you are forced to participate in such procession. As an elephant, you will have to suffer the weight and discomfort of the robes, capes, ornaments and battery powered electric lights covering your body and large ears that usually serve to ventilate. Your vision will be limited, you will hardly be able to see as you walk because the eye slits of your costume keep shifting and blocking your view.
As an elephant, the mahout will sit on your neck and spine, prodding and poking you as he usually does, or he will walk by your side pulling at your multiple chains and jabbing your sore, weary legs with his bull hook (ankus). You may have to carry up to three people on your back on this occasion. Even a horse only carries a single rider. As an elephant, the heat and the glowing, curling flames emanating from the flame torch carriers and the fire ball dancers will remind you of your beloved forests and jungles burnt black to make way for famers and their crops, villagers chasing you and your family away from your homeland, brandishing fire and insults in your face. As a privileged elephant, you will have the honour of carrying the sacred relic or some other artefacts. However no one will see the many straps, belts and buckles that constrain you and hamper your mobility, but which are needed to hold the structure in place. Besides, most elephant caregivers usually get drunk during the day time and treat elephants in an inhuman manner.
I recommend that there should be a law to prevent using elephants in such inhuman and horrible events. Being Buddhist priests they should take the leadership in such situations to prevent cruelty to elephants. There are also many animal organizations like the Dept of Animal Production and Health, Preventing Cruelty to animals, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine etc, they should also take initiatives to prevent such cruelties to elephants.
*Dr A S Abeyratne, Veterinarian/ Reproductive Specialist