WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Wanted: A ‘Sathdantha’ ("high-caste") elephant  

by Amal Jayasinghe

Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist shrine is still searching for an elephant to replace a sacred one that died 12 years ago and for the right jumbo the job will come with a life of privilege and leisure.

"Without elephants there cannot be a perahera (parade)" said the chief lay custodian of the Temple, Neranjan Wijeyeratne. "In about 10 to 15 years we will have a serious shortage of good tuskers".

The temple already owns 13 elephants, seven of whom are elephants who can potentially lead the perahera pageant, but not every jumbo is suitable for the most prestigious job.

"There are several physical attributes that are essential for a perahera tusker", says the temple’s chief veterinarian, Neville de Silva. "The main thing is that they must be ‘Sathdantha’ elephants".

"Sathdantha" means that when the elephant stands erect, seven points — the four legs, its trunk, penis and tail must touch the ground, explained de Silva.

The animal must also have a flat back, the tusks must be formed in the shape of a traditional winnow and its height must be about 12 feet (3.6 metres). However it is increasingly difficult to find such "high-caste" elephants locally.

The last elephant deemed perfect for the job was Raja now preserved at his very own museum within the temple compound in Kandy, 72 miles (112 kilometres) northeast of the capital Colombo.

Since the death of Raja in July 1988 after having faithfully taken part in the Buddhist processions for half a century, the temple has been hard pressed for a permanent replacement.

Raja was declared a national asset and his death prompted the government to order a day of national mourning. Devotees who visit the glass-encased chamber of Raja can be seen worshipping the stuffed animal.

The temple is now grooming three potential successors to Raja.

The newest addition is an eight-year-old baby elephant given by Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1999.

Another eight-year old baby, donated by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and a 25-year-old gifted by King of Thailand in 1986 are also possibilities for the top job.

Another two both aged 21 years given by Sri Lanka’s former president Junius Jayewardene in 1985 and by India’s former Premier Rajiv Gandhi in the following year may have already made it to the top, but not quite.

But it will be some time, before the temple authorities know for certain if the present candidates totally fit the bill. In the meantime, another elephant donated by India’s Premier Vajpayee has been deputising, and it has already learned commands in Sinhalese.

"There was an initial problem of language because the mahouts (keepers) could not speak in Kannada with the elephant but now they seem to be able to communicate after some months of interaction", said de Silva.

The chosen temple elephants generally lead a leisured life with only light work such as lugging their snack of palm leaves and branches and posing for pictures with local and foreign tourists.

Some pay mahout to walk under the elephant’s belly, a move that is said to bring good luck.

With promising career prospects which include the possibility of ending up a national symbol, the tuskers must also learn to amble along gracefully while dressed to the nines in the midst of hundreds of thousands of spectators.

But with only male elephants allowed to carry the Buddha relics and no congenial female company in sight the down side for the temple elephants may be the life of celibacy they must maintain.

"It has not crossed anyone’s mind recently", says de Silva when asked about a breeding program for the animals. "There was a suggestion long time ago, but there seems to be opposition to it".

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka