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Every single tourist that has enjoyed the bewitching and unique charm of Sri Lanka is aware of the gigantic impact that the island's culture has on every aspect of the society. Just as the culture and heritage of Sri Lanka has reached sky-high levels of significance and depth, the link between the society of the ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka and the majestic elephants of the island has achieved considerably soaring levels of importance. The historically rich and culturally substantial ceremonies and traditions of many regions of Sri Lanka, especially those of the hill country, have extreme close ties with the regal elephants of the vicinity.

Such is the strength of the bond between elephants and the culture of the central highlands of Sri Lanka that any ceremony, be it nation-wide or a minor festival, is incomplete without several elegantly clad elephants. The "Esala Perahara", known more commonly among foreign tourists as the "Kandy Procession", is one of the predominant cultural festivals and events of Sri Lanka and thousands of Sri Lankan citizens flock to Kandy and the surrounding area to witness one of the greatest spectacles of South Asia.


Despite the numerous illuminating and captivating bravados and entertaining acts performed by hundreds of well-trained performers, it is the elephants that ultimately succeed to capture the hearts of the on-lookers in the most exquisite fashion. The immense creatures are so beautifully clad in expensive and alluring garments that it seems like magic for the observers. Other ceremonies and cultural events that occur in every region of Sri Lanka, including in the capital city of the country, have their own share of elephants and the presence of these gigantic and grandeur creatures enhance the overall ambience of the event.

Throughout history, elephants have played a central and vital role in all the proceedings of Sri Lanka. The various ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka, including those that blossomed twenty centuries ago, have used elephants as a symbol of majesty and authority. Many legendary and famous rulers of ancient Sri Lanka, including the popular King Dutugemunu, used elephants in many significant event such as historic battles. Some of these elephants, such as “Kandula”, have become extremely popular and they are included in the ancient chronicles and legends of Sri Lanka.


As mentioned above, the rich and illustrious ancient culture of Sri Lanka is closely tied with the majestic Sri Lankan elephant. Even though it cannot be completely verified, Sri Lanka could be one of the oldest nations in the entire world where elephants were constantly used and given a prominent position among the fauna of a country. It is a well-known fact that ancient kings of Sri Lanka, from over 2,000 years ago to a couple of hundred years back, were ardent in harnessing the majestic authority of the elephant. When it comes to royalty and Sri Lankan elephants, it is the tusker, or the elephants with tusks, that hold the crown among all the animals of the island.

Known as the "Aetha" in the local Sinhalese language, the tuskers portray a dominant ambience and are able to capture the most rigid hearts. Tourists, especially those from foreign nations that do not natively harbour elephants, are bewildered at the sight of the massive Sri Lankan tuskers. Several famous kings of Sri Lanka, including King Dutugamunu and King Elara, were renowned during their time for their skill with their elephants, especially in battle. Even though these battles involving tuskers occurred centuries ago, Sri Lankans are still eager to confer on the ancient elephants whose names are still remembered. This unique and rather mystifying relationship between the elephants of Sri Lanka and the royalty of the country instils a sense of dazzling charm in the historical accounts of the country.  



 Figure 1 - Painting of the grandeur of elephants in a procession of Sri Lanka.

Figure 2 – A historic and religiously significant procession of Sri Lanka involves grandly clad elephants carrying important religious artefacts.

The Hindu god that is known as “Ganesh” is believed to be of the form of an elephant and the prominence provided by the culture of Sri Lanka and the strong reverence held by Sri Lankan Hindu devotees for god Ganesh poses an interesting link. In addition to this, the ancient establishments of Sri Lanka, including the ancient palaces, moonstones, and image houses of the Anuradhapura period, Polonnaruwa period, and even the Kandyan period, include sculptures of elephants. These sculptures take various forms and one even finds elephants in a bowing-down posture on the walls of certain ancient structures.

The impact and influence that elephants yielded to the culture of Sri Lanka is not only limited to the period of the ancient times of Sri Lanka. It is true that during the Anuradhapura period as well as the Polonnaruwa period, several kings were associated with royal elephants. This trend continued on to later eras, such as the Yahapahuwa era and the Kandyan period of Sri Lanka. The Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka has a history that extends to at least three centuries and it finally succumbed to the British in the early 19th century. However, despite the rapid changes of culture and rulers, the prominence that the elephants enjoy is still witnessed today.

Several processions, festivals, and ceremonies that are products of the vivid and rich culture of the ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka as well as products of the historically and culturally significant kingdom of Kandy, all use elephants that are caparisoned in an embellishing and beauteous fashion. The famed Esala Procession that commences from the Tooth Relic of Sri Lanka includes, as mentioned previously, a large number of elegantly clad tuskers and elephants. All of these elephants have their own officers and personnel who ensure that both the elephant as well as the bystanders are not harmed in any manner.

Generally well-behaved, these elephants display a high level of discipline and this is the result of vigorous and lengthy training provided for them since their infancy. Specially trained officers, who usually hail from families that have engaged in these responsibilities for generations, are entrusted with the duty of ensuring that the elephants achieve high levels of discipline. Most of the traditions involving elephants of Sri Lanka have stood the test of time and even after dozens of centuries and several ancient eras, the strong, vivid, and rich culture of Sri Lanka has successfully integrated its precious elephants in to a role that both conserves wildlife and also provides loads of enjoyment for the general public.