The Localist

Elephant tales

SRI - VW - elephants

My first encounter with elephants in Sri Lanka (not that I actually remember) was when I was a few days old and I was carried under the belly of an elephant. In Sri Lanka, newborn babies are often carried under an elephant at temples for good luck. Elephants are a symbol of luck and grandeur, which is why today most hotels in Sri Lanka provide ‘elephant wedding packages’, where elephants bless newly married couples before carrying them off on their backs into the sunset. Wearing a ring made of elephant tail hair is also said to bring protection and prosperity, the significance of which dates back centuries.

Elephants for me don’t necessarily represent luck, but rather prompt exciting memories of the good old days growing up in Sri Lanka. My grandmother used to speak of the time when her father had a pet elephant that she loved to play with. It would poke its trunk through the kitchen window, wanting a treat just like a puppy would! I tried convincing my parents in vain to adopt a baby elephant. I’m pretty sure it’s not even allowed these days. But this does not mean I don’t have a lot of elephant tales to tell!

Coming from Kandy, a city that adorns elephants in rich colourful cloths, complete with light bulbs, and parades them annually for about ten days in The Kandy Esala Perahera (the grand festival of Esala), I’ve always loved the pre-pageant days. During this time, elephants from nearby areas make their way to Kandy by foot, or in lorries and tipper trucks.  I remember being stuck in traffic behind one of these elephants not long after getting my driver’s license. Trying to overtake a giant whose two rear feet were chained to prevent any feral mishaps was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life!

If you make it to Kandy and you’re after an authentic pageant experience, I’d suggest the daytime parade on the morning of the last day. Unlike the grand finale night pageant, when high security and filming crews compel the viewers to stay in one spot for several hours, the daytime parade gives you the opportunity to move about in a less crowded setting. This proves especially useful if you tend to be quite vertically challenged like me!

I also love visiting the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage*. Although it has become a little touristy over the years, its primary purpose is to provide a safe haven for abandoned and orphaned elephants. There are over 80 elephants within this coconut estate. I remember being particularly intrigued by a giant blind tusker, and another three legged elephant that had lost one of its legs in a landmine.

Each morning there is an elephant feeding session where baby elephants are fed milk from bottles before bathing in the river. The river is situated on the other side of the main road, and I will never forget seeing the traffic stop to allow fifty or so elephants to cross the road, ever so gracefully. Pinnawala provides visitors with the opportunity to ride elephants, feed them, bathe them or even volunteer for more long term caring.  Although the elephants here are tame, be warned: It’s never a good idea to get too comfy around them! When my brother was little, he tried to pat a baby elephant during feeding time, and the baby elephant responded by punching him in the stomach, thinking that my brother was trying to steal its mlik bottle!

My most recent encounter with elephants occurred when my family was driving along an isolated road at sunset. Around six wild elephants suddenly appeared in the middle of the road, one after the other. We had to repeatedly shut down the car engine, wait for an elephant to make its way off the main road, and then speed past. Most wild elephants, if undisturbed, gently walk away after a while, but one of these elephants came right up in front of our vehicle and refused to budge, even making threatening noises. We later found out that the locals had named this elephant the hingana aliya (begging elephant), as it wouldn’t let anyone pass along that road unless they gave it food. After several mini heart attacks, I managed to lower my window just enough to throw a packet of potato chips over the elephant’s head. As it turned to investigate this ‘gift’, my dad sped off like a formula one driver, not even looking in the rear view mirror. Thank god for Pringles!

MEET THE LOCAL: VIRANDI WETTEWA 

*Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is an orphanage, nursery and captive breeding ground for wild Asian elephants located at Pinnawala village, 13 km northwest of Kegalle town in Sabaragamuwa Province of Sri Lanka. Address: Karandupona-Rambukkna Rd, Pinnawala, Sri Lanka

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