By Ajita Kadirgamar –
Are you planning to view the Kandy Esala Perehera which takes place August 8-18th?
If it’s your first time you will no doubt be awed by the splendour of the event; the riot of colour, the twinkling lights and burning torches, the thunderous noise of drums, whip cracking and conch blowing, the massive crowds, flashlights popping, dancers and acrobats cavorting in the streets, hopeful devotees in fulfilment of vows with hooks piercing their skin, and most of all the elephants. Those majestic beasts, caparisoned and adorned, stately and dignified, yet forever held captive for the enjoyment of their human masters.
If you can, imagine for a moment being 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 this procession.
As an elephant, you will have walked many kilometres to get to Kandy, on searing tar roads in the blazing heat or if among the ‘fortunate’, you may have got a ride in the back of a truck, also in the scorching sun, manacled and chained, with crazed motorists coming at you left, right and centre, horns blasting furiously. Elephants are known to travel vast distances in the jungle, at their own pace and with their own agenda. They walk under trees and constantly cover their bodies with soft earth to protect their sensitive skin from the sun, and as an insect repellent. Their natural environment does not include tarred road surfaces or four wheel motion.
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, your so-called ‘carer’, 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 artefact. 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.
As an elephant, your sensitive ears will flinch from the noise of drummers, whip crackers, trumpet blowers, loud speakers, ice cream vendors’ horns, and all the cacophony associated with such grand public festivity.
As an elephant walking in procession you will be flanked by thronging crowds on either side of you, a sea of human beings who as your cellular DNA memory will remind you, have only caused you and your species much pain and suffering.
Dear spectator, this year by all means go ahead and enjoy the Perahera, be awestruck by its magnificence for indeed it is a unique spectacle. But as you watch the magnificent elephants file by, spare a thought for their discomfort and suffering. Imagine yourself in their place. Take a moment to remember that elephants are highly intelligent beings, they have feelings, they cry, they have astonishing memory capacity, they nurture their young as we do our babies. Most of all, dear spectator, remember elephants were born to be wild and free. They are not meant to be paraded for our viewing pleasure.
The tradition of including elephants in processions needs to be rethought through awareness-raising. Sri Lankans living in other countries have begun to celebrate such traditions using artificially constructed, beautifully decorated elephants on wheels, proving that it is not necessary to inflict pain or suffering on living animals any more. After all we are supposed to be more enlightened in the 21st century, than our ancestors who first initiated the concept of the Perahera.
If you observe any cruel treatment of the elephants before, during, or after the Kandy Esala Perahera, please take photos and report such instances to DWC Hotline: 1992. You are encouraged to also share your observations on the Say No To Cruelty To Our Elephants of Sri Lanka Facebook page.