When The Tuskers Parade
- Esala Perahera 2012 concluded last week in all its traditional majesty amidst the gathering of a large number of local and foreign tourists
Text and Pictures
By Mahendran Pradeep
Esala Perahera is perhaps one of the most spectacular religious events in the whole of Asia, where a large number of elephants parade the streets of Kandy, bearing the tooth relic of Lord Buddha, venerated by millions of Buddhists all over the world. The citadel of the hill country came alive in its full exuberance to pay homage to the sacred tooth relic of Sri Dalada Maligawa with a pageant which commenced with the first ‘Kumbal Perahera’ on July 23rd and concluded with the ‘Dawal perahera’ on August 2nd.
Elephants have played a key role in the history of human development, where they were employed to construct megalithic structures soaring sky high, as well as to portray the pride and grandeur of an empire and the emperor. Elephants are also considered as symbolic representations of various divine beings, that appear in the Buddhist and Hindu pantheon, thus they became a frequent subject in the ancient mural paintings of Asia, and Buddhist legend has it that Queen Maha Maya dreamt of a white elephant entering her womb, before the conception of Prince Siddhartha.
These mighty creatures can be violent and aggressive when provoked, but when trained by an experienced mahout in captivity, they transform into the most gentle and obedient beings on earth. They respond to the voice and the body language of the mahout and perhaps remember the command when repeated. The chief tusker (Mangala Hasthiya) of the Dalada Maligawa, who is entrusted the mighty task of bearing the Golden Casket in the Esala pageant, is carefully handpicked from the wild, by the most senior mahout, who hails from the traditional families that serve the Temple of the Tooth Relic. These mighty giants are tamed and given adequate training and practice, in minor pageants for many years, before earning the privilege of participating in the grand procession of Dalada Perahera. During the process of selecting the royal tusker of the maligawa, certain auspicious features known as ‘Mangala Lakshana’ are taken into consideration, these auspicious criteria, range from various physical features of the animal and the elephants are classified into 10 major categories as follows:
1 . Kalavaka: Colour- black, eyes -brownish, head rounded and set awkwardly, ears soft, limbs short, tail and nails curved.
2. Gangeiya: Black haired, large head, trunk broad at its base and elongated, ears shrivelled with tufts of hair, limbs elongated, hands and feet broad, nails large.
3. Pandara: Body – grey, nails yellow, eyes blue in colour, head long and broad, base of trunk thick.
4. Tambara: Eyes, body and nails copper coloured, head medium sized, trunk weak and freckled, eyes round, ears narrow, limbs elongated and slender, copper colour.
5. Pingala: Whitish in colour, head large, trunk base broad, eyes somewhat elongated and slender, tail elongated with hairy tuft, limbs moderate, limbs large.
6. Gandha: Colour of dark rain cloud, body and skin hard like stone, very hairy, head small, trunk small, tail elongate and kinked, easily enraged.
7. Mangala: Head and trunk large, eyes dark and rounded, ears large, legs and feet large, body stout, nails large and rounded, tail elongate and touches ground, disposition kindly.
8. Hema: Head and trunk spotted, head full and rather elongated, eyes light, nails reddish, eyes light, strong and rather elongated, trunk and ears medium- sized.
9. Uposatha: Head medium sized, body light coloured, ears medium, eyes rounded, limbs strong and elongate, trunk, penis and tail touch the ground, nails yellowish.
10. Chaddantha: Body and eyes golden in colour, stout bodied, eyes elongated, limbs of medium length, trunk, penis and tail touch the ground.
(Ref : Elephas Maximus, the Elephant of Ceylon by Deraniyagala, 1951):
The elephant was seen as a status symbol of royalty and treated with a lot of respect in ancient times. This respect and affection continues even today. Kings during ancient times used to reward their officers for outstanding work with the gift of an elephant. It is common to find elephants roaming in the thick wilderness, but it is very strange and unusual to find elephants attired in dazzling garments and illuminated with electric bulbs parading city streets in large numbers. This magnificent pageantry has captured the fancy of tourists from all around the world and it has brought immeasurable glory to the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka.
The Shifting Rain Clouds
Esala Perehera consists of two different aspects, The Dalada Perahera and the ‘Satharavaram Devale Perahera’ (procession of the four cardinal deities of Lanka). Dalada Perahera is conducted to beseech bountiful harvests and rain, while the Devale Perahera is conducted to ward off all forms of evil.
The segments of the pageant are symbolic of a farming community’s homage to the rain gods. Each section of the perehera resembles the varying aspects of seasonal rain.The ‘Kasa Karayas’ with their exploding sound – symbolize thunder, followed by ‘Gini-Bola Sellam,’ which symbolize lightning bolts. Following the procession of symbolic flags of ancient Lanka, the gentle giants loom on the horizon, like slow, shifting, heavy rain clouds. Decked in their spectacular attire, symbolic and identical to each of the deities represented in the pageant, they parade themselves into the hearts and minds of the massive throng of humanity, gathered to witness the pageant from far and wide.
After the first few sets of elephants, traditional drummers move in …. symbolizing the sound of rainfall on hard parched ground. For two weeks at the end of July and into the first few days of August, Kandy is transformed to a pre colonial era…where kings ruled the hill capital. Elephants parade the street at night, officials and chieftains wear traditional costumes and dancers leap to the timeless rhythm of the drums.
The Esala Perehera is a timeless pageant which dominates Sri Lanka’s cultural calendar, bringing the pomp, pageantry and glory of a bygone rain ritual, into international focus, with the preservation of its religious and cultural values relived through this annual pageant. And making an unmistakable and immensely important contribution to the ancient ritual are the majestically decked tuskers of the animal kingdom who proudly and conscientiously bear the most sacred of the country’s religious relics in a pageant which cuts through time resonating in the hearts of a modern generation.