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Sri Lankan Elephants
A part of the history, culture, pageantry and folklore of Sri Lanka
 
 
Elephants have always been part of the history, culture, pageantry, folklore and even politics of Sri Lanka.  Elephant fights were one of the more popular Sinhala sports termed ‘Gajakelia’ since wild elephants, being strictly protected, were so abundant that they could be driven into stockades or arenas with little difficulty. The elephant was of great economic importance, being the fore-runner of the modern armoured ‘tank’ in war and was also and was also of much use as a worker during times of peace.
 
© by M. B. Dassanayake
 
Sri Lankan Elephants

By tradition elephants from other parts of the world, including Africa, were believed to incline their heads or kneel to the Sri Lankan elephant, recognising it instinctively as their superior. Other legends affirmed the superiority of the Sri Lankan elephant; Onesicritus, a pilot in the navy that Alexander the Great brought to India, reported in the 3rd Century B.C. that the Sri Lankan elephant was fiercer than the Indian (quoted Deraniyagala, 1955 - 1).

The elephants great sagacity, its reliability, and its comparative docility are not myths, however, and in Sri Lanka its record of service to man is a long and distinguished one. Elephants have always been part of the history, culture, pageantry and folklore of Sri Lanka and many parts of Asia. Elephant fights were one of the more popular Sinhala sports termed ‘Gajakelia’ since wild elephants, being strictly protected, were so abundant that they could be driven into stockades or arenas with little difficulty. The elephant was of great economic importance, being the fore-runner of the modern armoured ‘tank’ in war and was also and was also of much use as a worker during times of peace. The animal also played an important role during the New Year festivities, both as a combatant and in sport, while another use to which it was put, as an executioner. Elephants were strictly protected during the times of the Sinhala Kings, and the penalty for killing one was whipping, confiscation of property or banishment.

Protection

The Sri Lankan elephant is considered to be the ‘type’ elephant of Asia, and to make sure that it does not disappear from the island altogether, wild life authorities here will have to learn from the mistakes of countries such as China, where the elephant has become extinct. There were elephants in Persia, Mesopotamia and Java, too, but they have been extinct for many years now. With the increasing popularity of elephant hunting in this island’, the herds were driven further and further away from their natural feeding grounds in lush jungle country into drier and less congenial areas. All animals suffered, but particularly the elephant, who is a great water lover, and thrives in regions where green food and water are present in abundance. The greater part of the south West and Central Regions of the island is now occupied by man, and the elephants have wandered to areas where they undergo great hardship in times of drought. Elephants, who spend most of their day browsing leisurely on grasses and leafy branches or in the water, need an extensive acreage in which they can roam to satisfy their essential wants. But this is just what they do not have. It is believed that the life span of our elephant has been greatly reduced by this enforced change of habitat.

In East Africa, poaching is considered a theft against the state, and heavy punishment (including long periods of imprisonment) is meted out to breakers of this law. In the Kiev district of Soviet Russia, peasants are not allowed to keep vats as domestic pets because, as an old peasant woman said, justifying this rule, " We have so many rare singing birds in the woods around, the authorities are afraid that cats will kill off their young" (Vander Post, 1964 - 1). Similar admirable regulations, and public awareness of its responsibility towards the country’s natural treasures are very badly needed in the adequate protection of the Sri Lankan elephant.

Below is a brief history of the Sri Lanka elephant.

Elephant establishment

During the time of the Sinhala Kings elephant establishment was important. The ‘Gaja-nayake Nilame’ was in charge. ‘The ‘Ath-bandina-vidane’, master of the hunt, ‘Ath- Panthiya-Aratchies’, Overseers, the ‘Ath-Bandina Rala’, who supervised the ‘Badinno’, noosers ‘Vel-Kareya’, cutters of lianas, ‘Vaga-kareyo’, scouts who located the herds, ‘Panikkayo’, officers over the ‘Kurunayake’ mahouts, ‘Dureyo’, who assist in tying the tamed animals, ‘Pannayo’, foragers, ‘Diyakum- kareyo’, suppliers of water, ‘Gaja-Pattiya’ or elephant veterinary officer, ‘Oli’, who collect ingredients for medicines, ‘Thundugattene Hulavalliyo’, Headmen of the Rodi caste who were the rope makers or ‘Thondugattene Hulavalliyo’, Headmen of the Rodi caste who were the rope makers or ‘Thondu-Gattene-Kareyo’.

Elephant Lore

Some idea of the mediaeval Sinhalese system of subdividing elephants into breeds or varieties can be ascertained from the following works on various breeds of elephants (a) ‘Gajayoga- Satakaya’ (b) ‘Hasthi- Vidyava’ (c) ‘Gajatu-Lakshanaya

Breeds of elephants are -

(1) Kalavaka-Breed (2) Gangeiya (3) Pandara (4) Tambara (5) Pingala (6) Gandha (7) Mangala (8) Hema (9) Uposatha (10) Chaddanta.

The castes in ascending order are as follows :‘Kalavaka-Kule, Gangiye-Kule, Pandara-Kule, Thambe-Kule, Pingala-Kule, Ghandha-Kule, Mangala-Kule, Hema-Kule, Uposatha- Kule, the highest being the ‘Sathdantha’ or Chatdanta-Kule.

Nerve centres or ‘Nila’

Old palm leaf manuscripts set out in detail the points of the animal, the numerous ‘Nila’ or nerve centres goaded in controlling it, the different types of seats afforded by elephants, the making of the goad ‘Henduwa’ or ‘Ankussa’, the medicaments employed for coating an ‘Ankusa’ to ensure submission, to stimulate, madden, kill or heal an elephant, the choice of an elephant keeper, the training o£ elephants to different types of gait and head carriage, and a number of other items including a full description of the various ailments of elephants and their cures. In employing the ‘Ankussa’ the depth of the prodding increases by half an inch for each caste, from three inches for the lowest to seven and half inches for the highest.

The half of the ‘Ankussa’ or goad is generally of ‘nika’ wood. On a day auspicious to the mahout two different preparations are applied to the spike and hook respectively and a third to the left. The effect of these mixtures is supposed to enforce obedience, to pacify, madden or kill according to the wish of the owner of the ‘Ankussa’.

Pressure on ‘Nila’, unaided by voice or gesture, suffice to induce an elephant to complete any type of work a mahout assures, and an expert, by pressing ‘Nila’ with his feet, can cause an elephant’s hind quarters to collapse.

‘Ath-gala’ or elephant kraal

The word ‘kraal’ is probably a corruption of the Sinhala term ‘Gal or ‘Gala’ which was mispronounced by the Portuguese and Dutch who occupied parts of the coastal areas of Sri Lanka and captured elephants which they exported.

Beaters

Each Headman is expected to produce the able-bodied men in the area and is assigned a part of the line. When the herds are located the beaters form a rectangular around them and gradually drive them towards the ‘Gala’ which might be thirty miles distant. Upon nearing the stockade the nearest short side of the rectangle of men bifucates, and each half lines up with a wing of the enclosure so that now the herds are within three sides of the human rectangle and the area enclosed by the wings of the stockade. The entire drive-in usually lasts about two months. The beaters line is termed ‘Ralma’ or watch. The long sides of the rectangle are the ‘Diga-rakma’ or long watch the short sides being the ‘Haras-Rakma’ or transverse watch. Under the Sinhala Kings these beaters were service tenants and it was usual to supply them all with food and clothing while actually on duty.

The Portuguese and the Dutch employed mostly forced labour and 5,000 to 6,000 villagers had to drive in herds in their territory.

The English maintained this system for about 30 years and Governor North kept 2,000 men on such work for 3 months ‘to the danger and ruin of the men’s health’ (Pridham) also ‘they were compelled periodically to engage in the work of snaring them for Government’ (Ferguson 1868).

In Kraals organised by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the district of Colombo (one was organised, it is interesting to note, on the present Ridgeway Golf Links) elephants were captured in such large numbers that 160 animals were stockaded in a single kraal. Just over 100 years ago, over 200 elephants were caught in a kraal held in early British times, some of which were taken for training in the usual way and the others which could have been released in the jungles, were shot (tennent, 1861 - 4).

Sport of the Sinhala Kings

Vasco da Gama noted, during his pioneer voyage in 1497, that "the King of Ceylon has many elephants for war and for sale (quoted Nicholas, 1954 - 2). The docility of the tamed elephant makes it easy to train, and in the Kandyan period fights were staged in the great city square between pairs of large bull elephants; but the tales of these pale before the fight between two wild herds, a form of sport which no animal combat, staged in part of the world, approached in immensity. These fights were staged in a stone enclosure over which was built a pavilion for which the King watched the fight On New Year’s Day, as the herds drew near, bets were laid freely by the assembled populace as to which herd would enter the enclosure first, and which win the fight.

The traditional fourfold army of the Sinhalese Kings consisted of detachments of elephants, horses, chariots and infantry (Nicholas, 1954-3 ). King Raja Sinha I had 2,000 fighting elephants in the army that besieged the Portuguese Fort at Colombo in 1588 (Deraniyagala 1955-3), and after the introduction of cannon and shot discouraged the use of elephants in battle, the King of Kandy was reported to have maintained 300 tuskers for ceremonial functions (Nicholas, 1954- 4).

British period

From the 10th century onwards, elephants were shot on sight, and driven further and further away from their accustomed haunts by the speculators who invaded the forest areas, opening up roads and plantations. Major ‘Thomas Skinner, an unusually benevolent man and one whose public career was of great service to the country, is reported to have shot 600 elephants himself, and in his autobiography gives an interesting account of his first exploit of this kind at Maturata within a week of his arrival in Ceylon. The elephant - a tusker - was feeding half a mile away from his barracks; word was brought to him of its presence, Major Skinner loaded his guns, went out, and shot the beast (Skinner - 1891). Major Thomas William Rogers is said to have slaughtered 1,400 elephants, justifying these numbers with the statement that he needed the ivory, with the proceeds of which he was to buy his army commission (Tennent - 1861 - 5); an argument that does not stand up to close examination, for tuskers are rare in Ceylon, and the few who exist have poorly developed tusks, by mid-19th century, the tusker in Ceylon had come to be a kind of spectre, to be talked of by a few who have had the good luck to find one. And when he is seen by a good sportsman, it is an evil hour for him - he is seen by a good sportsman, it is an evil hour for him - he is followed till he gives up his tusks. (Baker - 1 855 - 1).

Major Roger’s killings work out at an elephant a day, every day, for 4 years. A Captain Gallway was known to have killed 700 elephants, and less well-known sportsmen followed suit, with 300 and 200 animals to their credit (Tennent - 1861 - 6). Some of Ceylon’s major sportsmen have left memoirs that speak for themselves without need of elaboration.

 

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