Kandy: Elephants add glamour to Perahera | Sunday Observer

Kandy: Elephants add glamour to Perahera

27 August, 2023
A lone elephant raises its trunk near the Natha Devale. In the background is the temple complex of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa)
A lone elephant raises its trunk near the Natha Devale. In the background is the temple complex of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa)

This photographic essay is on Sri Lanka’s age-old relationship with temple elephants. During the days of the Esala Perahera, I captured on digitally the service given by Sri Lanka’s magnificent pachyderms to Kandy’s Sacred Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic).

It is impossible to imagine life in this country without elephants. So intricately bound are they, to the work and worship of the island and its people, that the image of the elephant is everywhere. And nowhere more so than at the Kandy Esala Perahera.

Annually, during a week in August, the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha is venerated with a series of great processions. Pilgrims come from across the country, and also from the far corners of the world, to pray at the temple during the festival period. Every evening, temple chieftains, along with drummers, dancers, torchbearers, and the elephants, parade through the streets of Kandy in a magnificent procession known as the Kandy Esala Perehera.


As a photographer, I find it fascinating to see the preparation for this spectacular event. I spent a day at the Sri Dalada Maligawa and surrounding areas, photographing the events that take place prior to the Perahera.

A painting of an elephant drawn on an outer wall of the Natha Devala

During the festival, the streets of Kandy are filled with people from all over the country. Pilgrims come to pray at Buddhist temples and the nearby Hindu devales. Foreign tourists throng the temple premises. Drummers and performers, both young and old, gather during the day in preparation for the evening’s procession. Elephants can be seen walking along the streets with their mahouts in search of a bath, food and water. The entire city of Kandy bustles with activity.

Visiting the sacred Sri Dalada Maligawa, I first saw the stone walls at the entrance of the Maligawa bearing bas-relief, testament to the elephant’s centuries of service, but the real pachyderms still play an integral role in the life of a temple. After venerating the temple, I strolled inside the premises of the Maligawa and found a small museum dedicated to the legendary ‘Raja’ a Maligawa tusker who had carried the Sacred Tooth Relic for over 35 years. All his belongings have been placed on view while Raja’s body is also on display in a living stance, having gone through the hands of an expert taxidermist.

At the Maligawa, my attention shifts to the amazing elephants that make the entire event astonishing to behold, in the evening.

Sacred service

Walking around the Natha Devale premises, Wel Bodhiya and St. Paul’s Church, I stumbled upon a large number of elephants stationed at their reserved places after another day of sacred service.

They are not lazy as they chew constantly on kitul palm (Caryota urens) leaves, coconut leaves and palm fronds. Some of them raise the trunk in response to a command given by the mahout, watched by foreign tourists.

After a hectic walk in the parade at night, the daytime is entirely free for them. Some elephants walk in single file to the ‘Coffee Flower Fountain’, in front of the Natha Devala premises, a favourite water spot of the elephants.

It was constructed by coffee planters of Ceylon during the British colonial era. During the Perahera period, the elephants gather at the fountain in search of water as the mahouts bathe and clean them.

Kitul trunks and palm fronds

It is said, each day an elephant consumes 400 pounds of grass, leaves, stems, bark, fruits – the woodapple (Divul in Sinhala/Scientific name: feronia elephantum) being its favourite.

While kitul trunks and palm fronds are supplied to each and every elephant daily, by the temple authority, the Kandy Municipal Council (KMC) undertakes the cleaning of tons of elephant dung and leftovers of elephants at the sites, deploying KMC workers and trucks, during daytime.

The liveliest moment of the show comes an hour after sundown, before the procession, when the magnificent elephants wait to dress colourfully. Gold-embroidered costumes of intricate design adorn the elephants which are trained for their tasks from an early age.

But the most honoured of all is the tusker which carries the holy reliquary of the Sacred Tooth Relic – the greatest of treasures for Sri Lanka’s Buddhists. Eventually, it is this elephant that takes pride of place, and has the holiest of tasks. Above all, this elephant steals the show.