Gentle Giants Worthy of Carrying Relic Casket
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.”- John Donne
Tuskers and elephants; these gentle giants have always been an inseparable aspect of Sri Lanka’s natural and cultural heritage. Elephants are considered as noble beasts and they have always been associated with royalty and religion in the culture of this island. Elephants are known for their intelligence, sharp memory and mightiness. Thus, a great number of carvings and sculptures of elephants and tuskers among Sinhalese arts and architecture could be found. Also, the large number of folk poems and tales that are woven around elephants and folk beliefs are evidences to the close relationship between these wonderful creatures and the Sinhalese culture.
Elephants in culture
In Buddhist literature the Buddha is compared to a majestic elephant (Gaja) and also the Bodhisattva is symbolised through a white baby tusker who enters the womb of Queen Maya. The Jataka tales that depict the past lives of the Bodhisattva reveal how Buddha was born as a noble elephant or tusker in many births. Also, the tusker Parileyya is a famous tusker in Buddhist literature which took good care of Buddha by attending to him.
According to Sri Lanka’s folk religion, god Saman’s vehicle is known to be a white Tusker. So is the vehicle of local deity Aiyanayaka. Also, the elephant headed god, Ganapathi or Pulleyar is one of the oldest known Sri Lankan deities.
In ancient times, elephants and tuskers were used in battles and the South Asian war-elephant was much popular among foreign lands, especially in ancient Rome. Sri Lanka used to export elephants during ancient times. The war-elephant depicted in coins of Alexander the great, Porus and Roman coins can be identified as Asian elephants. Historical and archaeological evidences reveal that these Asian Elephants were popular as great war-elephants as they could be trained and tamed well.
Sri Lanka’s Tuskers
The first ever known royal tusker recorded in Sri Lankan history is the royal tusker of King Devanampiyathissa (3rd century BCE). The Sacred Relics of Buddha was first placed on this royal tusker and then paraded. According to legends at one point, the tusker refused to move forward and refused to let the Relics to be taken down. Then that land was cleared and a small mound was built out of dry mud to match the height of the tusker. Only then he allowed the Relics to be placed on top of this mound.
After few days Thuparama Stupa was built enshrining this mount and the Relics. Until the stupa was built, the royal tusker was carrying the Relic Casket during day time and at night he would guard the Relic Casket which was placed on the mound. The name of this Tusker is not mentioned in the chronicles. In chapter 14 once again Mahavamsa mentions how the king cleaned the resting hall of the royal tusker to the massive gathering who came to see Arhat Mahinda for the first time. This suggests that the hall was large enough for a massive crowd and also was suitable enough for an arhat which means the royal tusker was given all comforts and honour within the kingdom.
In the history of Sri Lankan tuskers and elephants, there are three tuskers that will be remembered forever fondly and proudly out of all; Kandula, Panamure Tusker and Raja. Kandula is the great war-elephant of Sri Lanka and the royal tusker of King Dutugamunu. It is told that Kandula was born on the same day as Prince Dutugamunu and he was named after the Vedda with the same name who first found the baby tusker. Panamure Tusker fought fearlessly for the freedom of his heard and finally faced a brutal and tragic death. The well-known Raja tusker of the Temple of the Tooth carried the casket for almost five decades.
The perahera culture and tuskers
Talking about Raja, the strong and inseparable connection between Tuskers and the Temple of the Tooth should be mentioned. In Sri Lanka tuskers and elephants had importance in war, trade, culture and religion. Today these gentle giants are not used in war and trade anymore. Therefore, their importance lies in culture and religion. The significance of elephants and tuskers in culture is highlighted in the perahera culture which is unique to Sri Lanka. As the Relic Casket is only carried and paraded on a majestic tusker, accompanied by two other tuskers besides him and followed by a large number of tuskers and elephants, tamed tuskers plays a vital role in the perahera culture. The grandeur of the perahera relies on the tuskers and elephants.
Dalada Perahera tuskers
Since ancient times, the royal tusker of the monarch was chosen to parade the Dalada Perahera carrying the Relic Casket. During ancient times all tuskers in the island was considered as property of the Sinhalese monarch and killing a tusker or an elephant was considered as a grave crime and the penalty was death.
After 1815 a permit was issued to capture wild elephants. Once captured, they were sold. Later these wild elephants were tamed and trained by those who bought them. This was how the wild elephants were captured and trained since the 19th century in Sri Lanka. Aristocrats and politicians would buy young or baby elephants and tuskers as they were considered a sign of wealth and power. Gifting these beasts to the Temple of the Tooth was an age-old tradition followed by the aristocrats and political leaders of the country. Also the temple of tooth was gifted a number of tuskers from India, Myanmar and Thailand as a token of honour, friendship and gratitude.
Let us now get familiar with the mighty tuskers who carried the Relic Casket at Dalada Peraheras and some of the notable tuskers and elephants at the Dalada Perahera . Out of all the tamed tuskers of the country, only few are chosen as suitable enough to carry the Relic Casket. Not only their physical looks but also their personality and intelligence is considered. Therefore, these tuskers are believed to be blessed noble creatures. Buddhists also believe that the casket-bearing tusker is a bodhisattva and would be living one of their last births as a beast.
Maha Raja Tusker
Maha Raja was a mighty tusker of the height of 13 feet and known as one of the tallest tuskers of Sri Lanka. His beautiful and perfectly-proportioned body structure is notable. Raja carried the casket in Dalada Perahera from the 1920s until 1940s. His owner is recorded as Clifford Rathwatte.
Another majestic tusker who carried the casket after the demise of Maha Raja was Idampitie Tusker who was owned by the Mawanalle Idampitiya Walawwa. He passed away in 1967.
The Raja Tusker
Known as Raja Atha or the Maligawe Raja, this majestic tusker is still considered as the pride of Sri Lankan tamed tuskers. He was declared as a National Treasure when alive, by President J.R. Jayewardene, following Ahmed tusker of Kenya who was the first animal to be declared as a National Treasure. Raja’s picture was printed in the thousand rupee note and also a 75 cent stamp was released with the picture of Raja. This was the first time in Asia that a stamp was released in honour of an animal.
The story of Raja
Raja was captured by Umeru Lebbe in 1925 under the elephant permit bearing number 1318 at Eravur. He was bought by Mampitiye Disawe on 11 December 1925 for Rs 3,300. Then in 31 July 1931 young Raja was gifted to the Temple of the Tooth along with the second young tusker who was captured by Lebbe. He was Skandha or Kanda. Kandha was also known as Dala Puttuwa.
Raja’s first Dalada Perahera was in the year 1937. He was the leading tusker in Dalada Peraheras till the year 1987. It is said that when the Relic Casket was on his back, Raja would never step forward unless a carpet is laid before for him.
Once during one Dalada Perahera, Raja’s mahout fell sick and he was rushed to the hospital. By this time, the Relic Casket was already on Raja and there was no time to change the tusker and the parade was about to start. But it was a risk to move on without the mahout. However, the then Nilame decided to take the risk and commenced the Perahera. That night Raja paraded without a mahout, not creating any mess or trouble and proved his gracefulness and noble character further.
In the year 1988 Raja fell sick. The Government gave special attention in taking care of Raja’s health. That year a tusker was needed to carry the casket at the Dalada Perahera as Raja was no longer able to do so. The noble tusker was lying in his specially made attalaya fighting his last battle.
Ratnapura Maha Saman Devale tusker, Ratnapura Raja was brought to Kandy for the preparations of the 1988 Esala Perahera just one week before the Perahera. It is said that the very next day Ratnapura Raja arrived at Kandy, Maligawe Raja passed away. This was on 16 July 1988 around 10.20 a.m. He had suffered a heart attack.
Raja received a State funeral. His memoires will always be alive at the special museum dedicated to him at Temple of the Tooth. Raja will always be the greatest tusker among all tamed elephants of the island.
Skandha or Kanda was the second baby tusker captured along with Raja. He was also bought by the Giragama Walawwe Mampitiya Disawe and later gifted to the Temple of the Tooth in 1937. Skandha passed away in the 1970s.
The tusker to follow Raja was Rathpura Raja who is known for the beautiful shape of his tusks. He is also known as Saman Devale Raja.
This tusker was caught at Hambantota Kattakakaduwa forest in 1945. He carried the Relic Casket form 1991 to 2000. This mighty tusker had 11 feet long tusks and known for the beauty of them. After his demise in 2002, his skeleton is displayed at the Colombo National Museum.
He is a majestic tusker captured in 1974 at Agunakolapalassa area and took part in the Dalada Perahera since 1986. He was honoured to carry the Relic Casket for 15 years. On 10 February 2014 this mighty tusker passed away.
Raja carried the casket for almost five decades and the second noble tusker to be honoured in such is the Millangoda Raja. He paraded the Dalada Perahera for four decades. Millangoda Raja was caught in 1945 at Puttalam, Anamaduwa area and he was 73 years old when he passed away in 2011. Mighty Millangoda Raja was a gentle giant who used to love to eat sweets.
Millangoda Raja is known for his long tusks and he owned the longest tusks of South Asia. Like Raja, he also paraded the Dalada Perahera without the mahout once when the mahout fell sick. Millangoda Raja is remembered at the Molagoda Millangoda Walawwa as his stuffed body stands there with pride.
Bothale Gamini Tusker
Caught in the year of 1947 at Gal Oya area, Gamini Tusker was first owned by former President D.S. Senanayake. He paraded the Dalada Perahera a number of years until he demised in December 2011.
Although known as Kotte Raja, he was actually born in Myanmar. This majestic tusker who carried the casket at Dalada Perahera passed away in September 1998.
Sella Raja was at Pinnawala elephant orphanage until he was gifted to the Mawanella Keraminiya Temple. He also carried the Relic Casket a couple of years until he passed away in March 2013.
Ekadantha was a tusker who was born at Pinnawala. What is unique about him was that he was born with one tusk and hence, the name Ekadantha. Ekadantha passed away in 2007 at the age of 47. Ekadantha was gifted to the temple of tooth by Wimala Kannangara along with Kandula tusker in 1978. Ekadantha was chosen to carry the Relic Casket for his notable noble personality.
Kataragama Vasana is truly one lucky giant. He is a lucky and noble tusker to be paraded in two chief peraheras in Sri Lanka; Kandy Dalada Perahera and the Kataragama Perahera, which is a rare opportunity for a tusker. He is also known as ‘the lucky tusker king of Sri Lanka’ (Helaye Ath Raju Vasana). He has carried the Relic Casket at a number of Kumbal Peraheras and Randoli Peraheras. He is also the lead tusker at Kataragama Perahera. Vasana is a real majestic tusker. His mahout Ajith Asoka and Vasana shares a wonderful bond of friendship. Vasana was captured in a forest near Anuradhapura and then taken to the zoo. Later he was gifted by Wimala Kannangara to the Kataragama Devala when he was a baby tusker of 5-6 years old.
It is said that Vasana spends 2 to 3 hours to take a bath and is used to sleep during this time. During perahera season, he journeys to Kandy from Kataragama in a specially made vehicle and it takes one day to arrive at Kandy. He is noted for resting his trunk on his tusks while parading in a unique regal style during the perahera.
During the civil war in the North, baby Sinha Raja was separated from his heard, lost, and injured in the forests in Vavuniya when he was rescued by the Sinha Regiment. The Army brought him to the Peradeniya veterinary faculty for treatments. Once he was cured he was gifted to the Temple of the Tooth.
Noted for his intelligence and grandeur Sinha Raja also parades the Relic Casket at Dalada Peraheras. Today he is the sub leader of the elephant troop at Temple of the Tooth.
Indi Raja, the majestic tusker who carried the Relic Casket at Dalada Perahera this year was gifted to Sri Lanka by Rajiv Gandhi and today, Indi Raja is the leading tusker of the elephant troop at the Temple of the Tooth. He was only 6 years when he was gifted to Sri Lanka.
One of the most loved tuskers of Sri Lanka for his noble and gentle nature, majestic looks and intelligence is the tusker Nedungamuwe Raja. He is truly a vision of beauty. He walking all way along from Gampaha to Kandy is a sight one must not miss. His dislike to travel in vehicles is well-known. Therefore during Dalada Perahera season, this gentle giant would walk for five long days spending the nights at temples. His mahout is Kodithuwakku and their bond is a beautiful one.
Presently owned by Harsha Dharmavijaya Veda Mahaththaya at Gampaha, Nedungamuwe Raja has a sad past, just like Sinha Raja. He was gifted to Nilammahara Temple monk by an Indian Maharaja along with another tusker, now known as Navam Raja. Later both tuskers were sold to a timber mill at Horana. Dharmavijaya’s father who saw these two majestic giants bought them in 1978. Nedungamuwe Raja was 25 years then.
He first carried the casket when in the year 2006.
Other tuskers and elephants that parade in the Dalada Perahera
Buruma Raja and Myan Raja (They were gifted by Myanmar and they are two prominent tuskers at the Dalada Perahera as they are chosen to parade besides the lead tusker)
Bellanwila Raja (He was in the zoo and later gifted to Bellanwila Temple. He passed away in 2001 at the age of 71)
Ruwan Raja (Ruwan Raja is also known as Dala Kota. He was gifted to Hunupitiya Ganagarama Temple in 1996. After his demise in 2003 a statue was built at the temple. He is also known for his long pointed tusks and its unique shape)
Muthu Raja (He was gifted from Thailand to Aluthgama Kande Vihara)
Kelaniya Kandula (Kandula was a gift from a princes of the Thailand royal family)
Vijaya Raja (gifted by the king of Thailand)
Kaveri Raja (was gifted by former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998. This gentle giant met with an accident when he was a baby. He had a habit of running towards the Temple of the Tooth to eat milk rice and one day when he was running, he has slipped from the stairs and his front left foot was permanently injured)
Jana Raja (known for his adamant nature yet one of the tuskers with beautiful and long, unique tusks, Jana Raja was gifted to the Temple of the Tooth in 1985)
Thai Raja (a gift from the King of Thailand)
Migara (Migara is a young tusker who was gifted by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike from Udawalawa Ath Athuru Sevana in 1999. He is in his 20s and is the youngest at the Temple of the Tooth)
Other tuskers and elephants who paraded the Dalada Perahera this year
Pulasthi Raja, Rani, Ganga, Manike, Muthu, kumari, Tharaka, Gajaba, Kandula, Seetha, and Arjuna.
Tuskers – Muthu raja, Kotte Raja, Rama, Siyam Raja, Suranimala, Kanchana, and Bibila.
(Special thanks to archaeologist Harendralal Namalgamuwa.)