Elephants of Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka no other animal has been associated for so long with the people in their traditional and religious activities as the elephant. This association dates back to the pre-Christian era, more than 5,000 years. Ancient Sinhalese kings captured and tamed elephants which used to abound in the country.
Various methods of capture were employed, some indigenous, others introduced by neighbouring kings and countries that conquered and ruled Sri Lanka. Gradually the number of elephants captured increased. All elephants were kept by the king in his stables. The methods of capture were refined and modified as time went on.
Elephants, suitably caparisoned, have and still take part in ceremonial, cultural and religious pageants and processions. Elephants have been used by man in his wars in Europe and Asia. They have assisted him in his logging operations and construction works. In this country too elephants have fought in wars and featured in various sports and combat during Sinhala celebrations. In India they have provided transportation for sportsmen indulging in shikars.
During the time of the Sinhala kings the elephant was afforded complete protection by royal decree. The penalty for killing an elephant was death. With the advent of the British this protection was withdrawn. Large numbers of elephants were killed by the British under the guise of sport. Not only did the British government encourage and condone killings as a sport but it also paid a bounty for each elephant killed, deeming the elephant an agricultural pest.
In Sri Lanka the variations in physical appearance amongst elephants were noticed and recorded in ancient Sinhala manuscripts. There are ten such groups or ‘castes’. These differences do not seem important now.
The first record of the association between man and elephant in Sri Lanka was recorded in the 1st Century BC on an inscription at Navalar Kulam in Panama Pattu in the Eastern Province, of a religious benefaction by a prince who was designated “Ath Arcaria” or Master of the Elephant Establishment. The Elephant Establishment was called the “Ath panthiya”. The ruins of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka abound with carvings of elephants in many forms, attesting to the close association between man and elephant.Sri Lanka a Tropical Paradise