History and Culture of Elephants in Sri Lanka

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Minneriya National Park

The Sri Lankan people have had a long association with elephants for a very long time. It has been a part of their traditional and religious activities.

The association of Elephants in Sri Lanka and the man goes back to the pre-Christian era. There was an abundance of elephants in the country in those early days. The ancient Sinhalese kings captured and tamed elephants for their use.

Initially all elephants that were captured and tamed were kept by the king in his stables. Elephants, suitably caparisoned, took part in ceremonial, cultural and religious pageants and processions. There is historical, archaeological and anthropological evidence of the domestication of elephants in this country.

Various methods of capture were employed. Initially capture methods that were developed locally were employed. Later the Portuguese and Dutch, brought in new methods of capture. Gradually the number of elephants captured each year increased because their imports increased under the Portuguese and the Dutch. The methods of capture were refined and modified, as time went on.

The first record of elephant capture in Sri Lanka is by Robert Knox in his book. He says that tame elephants were used to lure elephants from the wild.

Selected she elephants from the King’s stables would be sent into the jungles. The elephants to be captured were then selected – the choice being males with tusks. The females are then sent amongst elephants that are to be captured.

These females, that mingle with the wild elephants, are trained to return at a given signal. When the females return, the wild elephants that seem to get love-locked, follow them through the villages, towns and into a specially constructed paddock.

The King then inspects the elephants and decides which ones are to be kept. Those whom he does not select are sent back to the jungle.

Though it is difficult to imagine that wild males will follow a female for such long periods especially through populated areas, it must be remembered that Knox was writing this in the 17th century.

Another method of capture practiced for some time long ago, was with the use of a pit. A pit was dug along one of the jungle paths used by the elephants. This pit was covered with leaves and camouflaged. Elephants, using paths they were used to, would fall into these pits.

In some instances another pit was dug and left open to deceive the elephant that would be wary of the open pit and fall into the camouflaged one. Sometimes the elephants are driven along these paths, thus making the chances of their falling in greater. Driving ensured that the elephant, in its urgency to get away, is not so cautious.

Elephants falling into these pits were noosed and the pit gradually filled with earth, till the captured elephant could be hauled out by tamers, etc. The Dutch banned this method of capture because of the number of injuries caused to the elephants.

Yet another method, again using the paths used by the elephants, was to tie a noose with its other end tied to a strong tree. The noose was just a little bigger than the foot of an elephant. When the elephant stepped on the noose, its leg would get caught. When the elephant tugged at the rope around its leg, the noose tightened and the elephant was unable to move and struggled to get free. The trappers then quickly noosed the other legs and secured the elephant.

In another method of noosing wild elephants, the trapper follows the elephant chosen for capture, and after getting up to it, slips the noose around the elephant’s back leg. The antlers of a sambar (Cervus unicolour) or deer (Axis axis) is tied to the other end of the rope. As soon as the noose is put around the leg of the elephant it bolts away.

At some stage the antlers get entangled with strong roots or trees and the elephant, has to stop running. Then the trapper and his assistants, who have been chasing behind the elephant, close in and tie the rope to a strong tree. Whilst the elephant is thrashing about, nooses are quickly slipped around its other legs and the animal secured.

Most elephant trappers were Muslims, mainly from the East Coast of the island. They were called Pannikans or Pannikears. They were expert elephant trappers who were completely fearless. The Pannikans practised both methods of elephant trapping as described above. Since the ban on elephant trapping, the art of noosing has died out amongst the Pannikans.

The kraal method, where a whole herd or more of elephants were driven into a stockade, ensured that a number of elephants were caught at once. However, with this method it was likely that more elephants than were required were also captured. This method necessitated the participation of a large number of men to drive the elephants into the stockade or pound as Knox has referred to it. It was also a much more costly exercise since so much manpower and a strong stockade was needed.

The stockade is also called a kraal or keddah. The word pronounced craal is thought to be a corruption of the word corral, brought here by the Portuguese. This word is also close to the Sinhala word gala, which means stable or enclosure. Eth gala is the Sinhala term for an elephant stable. A place where an elephant is tied up for the night is called eth pantiya, in Sinhala.

Elephants, which are used to assist in the capture and taming of wild elephants, are called Monitor elephants. They are specially chosen for their intelligence, maturity and obedience. These elephants must be strong, have a large frame and a thick neck.

These attributes are necessary to physically control an angry wild elephant. With its intelligence and maturity, it must be able to understand what is required of it when capturing or training a wild elephant. The monitor elephant plays a very important role in the taming and training of an elephant.

The elephants once in the stockade are agitated and excited. They are given time to settle down. After a while, tame monitor elephants with the mahouts riding them, are let into the stockade. One elephant at a time is chosen to be tied up.

The monitor elephants get on either side of the wild elephant and control it till the trappers, who are on the ground but close to the monitor elephant, noose its hind legs and tether it to a tree within the stockade. All the wild elephants are tethered to trees within the stockade.

Taming and training wild elephants needs experience, skill, patience and courage. When taming a wild elephant, it is necessary to break its wild aggressive attitude to make it obey the commands of its handler or mahout.

The captured elephant, as soon as it is tethered, gets into a highly agitated state, straining at its ropes to free itself. It lashes out at anyone who comes close to it. Elephants can kick equally effectively with their back legs. They are also adept at throwing logs, etc. with unerring accuracy, using their trunk.

The objective of training an elephant is to wean it away from its wild ways and to condition it to obey commands given by its handlers. The first thing in training an elephant is to calm it down and condition it to obey commands. The most effective way to calm an agitated and aggressive elephant is to tie it up and keep it in the presence of humans and other tame elephants.

In most instances the handlers and trainers keep talking throughout the day and night, thus preventing the elephant from settling down or sleeping. At the same time they keep on touching and feeling the animal. They also stroke it with their hands or the leaves of a small branch. Sometimes a fire, which the elephant dislikes, is lit to prevent it from falling asleep. No food is given to the elephant. All these actions are designed to break the resolve of the elephant.

After a few days, with the loss of sleep coupled with hunger, the elephant loses its resistance and becomes subdued. When the elephant is relatively calm, it reconciles itself to accept the food and water, which is then given.

Training elephants is a specialized art. Elephant trainers of the past were experts. Elephant trainers or Mahouts learnt the art from their ancestors. From the days of the kings, elephant training was a recognized profession, which they were proud of.

Mahouts some times belonged to a caste, which specialised in the profession. They leant their elephant management from ancient ola scripts and the experience gained as an apprentice. The ola scripts such as Gajashastra and Nilashastra mention methods of training elephants.

After capture and taming, the process of training begins. This is generally when the animal starts accepting food. The chief mahout positions himself in front of the captive elephant. Two assistants position themselves on either side, holding two goads directed at the trunk.

Two men are positioned behind the animal. They keep up a continuous chant addressing the animal and caressing it all the while. The animal at first is furious and strikes out in all directions. All these blows are taken up on the sharp points of the goad. The trunk becomes sore and the elephant soon ceases to use it offensively.

The objective of training an elephant is to get it to carry out the commands of its mahout or handler. Training also teaches the elephant obedience. The mahout uses his goad to keep the elephant in check and to ensure that it obeys its commands. The sharp end of the goad is jabbed at sensitive points of the elephant’s body, especially the trunk, to make it obey the commands that it is given.

Gradually the elephant learns to obey the commands of its keeper. It is essential that only one person give the elephant commands. Otherwise it leads to confusion in the elephant’s mind. The mahout, who is with the elephant from the time it is captured and its training begins, generally does this.

The first lesson to be taught is to keep it under control. This is done with the help of fetters on all legs and a binding rope around the neck and body. Veteran monitor elephants are also made to flank the new recruit and to keep him under control.

Often the monitors play their role by lashing with the trunk, nudging, kicking and beating the newcomer. Their mere presence is an influence on the wild elephant.

For the first week, the trapped elephant is starved, except for an occasional drink of water. In any case the wild one is not in a mood to eat and is in a state of trauma. As it gets weaker, the mahout would make a pass by offering water. Gradually the elephant will respond to the approach of the mahout.

Elephants were captured by our ancient kings and used in a number of ways; for State and royal occasions and temple ceremonies including Peraheras; to clear jungles; in wars with enemy invaders; for ploughing in agriculture; for logging operations, in the construction of the large reservoirs and magnificent edifices most of which are in ruins today; in trade with other countries and as gifts to kings and potentates of other countries with which they had friendly relations. Elephants were also used for sports and recreational purposes.

The first record of the association between man and the 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 the elephant.

Sinhala literature of the 3rd Century BC indicates that the state elephant or Mangalahasthi was the elephant on which the king rode. This elephant was always a tusker and had a special stable called the hasthisala. The post to which it was tethered was called the alheka.

First description

A 12th Century inscription on a stone seat at Polonnaruwa records that King Nissanka Malla sat upon it while watching elephant fights. These fights were staged for the entertainment of nobles.

A rock sculpture of an elephant on the banks of the Mahaweli River was described thus, by archaeologist H.C.P. Bell: “This piece of animal sculpture is probably unique in Ceylon. Cut in full round from a rock, life-size, are the head and shoulders of an elephant whose feet the river washed when low. The elephant stands in the water, looking slightly upstream, as though hesitating to cross.

At present the river in semi-flood reaches its eyes. There are signs of ‘sets’ for some building’s foundations on a boulder adjoining, but no ruins or inscriptions are known likely to afford a clue to the object of this solitary tour de force of a skilful sculptor,”. Unfortunately this rock sculpture no longer exists, having been blasted probably by fishermen dynamiting fish.

Elephants were used on all important ceremonial occasions, especially where pomp and pageantry were required. The annual Perahera in Kandy, which dates back nearly 220 years, brings together well over a hundred elephants that parade the streets during the nights on certain pre-determined days in July-August each year.

New Year festivities in Sri Lanka feature elephants in various sports and competitive combat. Elephant fights were a popular form of Sinhala sport in early times and was called Gaja Keliya. Being built like a tank, elephants were used in war not only as a means of transport, but also as an instrument of defense and offense.

They were used to ram barricades and, as to records, “in time of war, they now and then fix a heavy iron chain to the end of their trunks, which they whirl around with such agility, as to make it impossible for an enemy to approach them at that time”.

Significant demand

From the earliest of times there had been a significant demand for Sri Lankan elephants, from other countries. Aelian, quoted by Emmerson Tennent in 1859, says that the export of elephants from Ceylon to India had been going on without interruption from the period of the First Punic War.

India wanted them for use as war elephants, Myanmar as a tribute from ancient kings, and Egypt probably for both war and ceremonial occasions. The elephants from Sri Lanka were found to easily adapt to war, and were considered better than those from the mainland.

Their excellent qualities were well known to the Greeks even as far back as the 3rd Century BC, in the time of Alexander the Great.

Onescritus, who was an Admiral of the Fleet of Alexander the Great and probably the first European to describe the trained elephants of Ceylon, has stated that the elephants from Taprobane (later Ceylon and then Sri Lanka) “are bigger, more fierce and furious for war service than those of India”.

Greek writers like Megasthenes (circa 300 BC) and Aelian (44AD) corroborate this. Sixth Century writer Cosmos Indicopleustes says that elephants from Sri Lanka were highly priced in India for its excellence in war.

Elephants from Sri Lanka were exported to Kalinga by special boats, from about 200 BC, from the port of Mantai the present day Mannar. Such exports are also recorded by Ptolemy in 175 AD. By this time Sri Lanka had also earned a reputation for skilled elephant management. The Sinhala kings had special elephant trainers. They were the Kuruwe people from Kegalle.

Training elephants caught from the wild, for both traditional purposes and war, was the responsibility of these people. Even persons (mahouts) who looked after the elephants after their training, were trained by the Kuruwe people. A brass model of an elephant with a number of movable joints was used in the training of the mahouts.

Records show that even though Sri Lanka was exporting a large number of elephants in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, a number of elephants were also imported into the country after the 4th Century BC. This is apart from the gifts that the ruling monarchs of India and Myanmar, (then Burma) sent from time to time.

The Culavamsa records that during the reign of King Parakrama Bahu (1153-1186 AD), King Ramana of Myanmar decreed that the practice of selling elephants from his kingdom for export should henceforth be stopped.

The general term for an elephant is Aliya in Sinhala and Anai in Tamil. In Sinhala, a tusker is called an Atha and a male without tusks an Aliya. A male without tusks or tushes is also called a Pussa. Athinne is the term for a female with tushes and Alidena is a female without tushes. In Tamil, a tusker is called Komban.

Elephants are exceptionally well coordinated and intelligent animals. Learning and growing as family groups is a part of the elephant’s life. Most of the elephant’s habits are learnt and not instinctive.

Elephants have small eyes and their field of vision is limited. They cannot see beyond 30 metres unless the object is large and erect. Their eyes are easily dazzled in the open but their vision improves in the shade of the forest. However their senses of smell and hearing are very well developed. It is of course necessary for the elephant to be downwind to pick up any sounds or scents.

Other than their normal vocalizations like trumpeting, growls and rumblings, it is believed that elephants can communicate with each other over long distances using low frequency sounds (infra-sound), which are below the limit of human hearing.

The elephant, when alerted, points its ears forward and turns in the direction of the sound to catch the sound waves in its large ears. It has been observed very often that two or more elephants which are far apart, suddenly with no audible communication, get into action to do the same thing like cross the road or approach an intruder. Here it is evident that their communication is through infra-sound.

Teeth, tusks and tushes

Tusks are an elongation of an elephant’s incisor teeth. Tushes are small tusks that protrude just beyond the lips. Only some of the males in the Asian elephant have tusks. In Sri Lanka, about 7% of the males have tusks. In the African species, both the male and female have tusks.

Almost the entirety of an elephant’s tusk is composed of ivory, though it is not completely solid. The end of the tusk has an enamel conical cap, which often wears away. Nearly all elephants are born with a pair of deciduous milk tusks or tushes, which are around two inches in length. These tushes are shed by the time the elephant is one and a half years old. In some of the males the milk tusks are replaced by the long tusks that we see.

Though tusks and tushes are not used to masticate their food, some elephants use their tushes to break off branches and twigs and, as a result, most tushes are worn, chipped or broken. Some tushes are visible whilst others are covered by the upper lip. Tusks continue to grow throughout the lifetime of the elephant.

Elephants have tusks of different sizes and shapes. The weight of a tusk in a Sri Lankan elephant is generally around 30 kg. Most elephants have a symmetrical pair of tusks. However, in some cases there are differences in the thickness or length in a pair of tusks on the same elephant. Tusks differ in colour, from ivory white to dull white and almost beige.

Some tusks are brittle and it is not unusual to see an elephant with one or both tusks broken. In quite a few instances, the tusks do not grow parallel to each other and cross at their extremities. There are also many records of single tuskers.

The only other teeth that an elephant has are its molars. These large teeth are grooved across their surfaces. The number of ridges varies with age and it is possible to estimate the age of an elephant by examining its teeth. I have given details of an elephant’s molars in my first article.


The large ear lobes of the elephant help to catch sound waves to make the hearing of the elephant more acute, especially when the animal is in downwind.

There are variations in the size of the ears of elephants that are the same age. The shape of the ears of elephants also varies. These variations can be observed among the animals within a herd or even a family unit. The ears of most wild elephants are scarred or damaged in some way. Some are torn; others have pieces taken off and some have holes.

These damages are results of fights with other elephants and may be damages during flights through thick jungles. Even though the elephant’s ears are ragged as a result, this does not affect its thermo-regulatory system as long as the muscles can continue to control the movement of the ears.

Elephants stand with their backs to the wind, so that it blows on to their outspread ears and cool the blood vessels. If there is no wind, the elephant flaps its ears. In times of drought or intense heat, I have observed elephants, both tame and in the wild, sometimes drawing water from inside their throats and splashing it on their ears.

The objective is the same – to cool itself through the blood vessels in its ear flaps. This effort at cooling itself is called thermo-regulation. Elephants have thick skins and have no pores to sweat through and cool themselves.

With the passage of time, the top of an elephant’s ear lobe, which is straight at birth, rolls over. The approximate age of an elephant can be judged by the roll of its ear lobes. By the time an elephant reaches the age of twenty five to thirty years, about 2.5 cm of the ear has rolled over in the intervening period. This rolling of the ear increases by about 1 cm over the next five years. When an elephant is about sixty years of age, the ear has turned over about 5 cm at the top.

Trunk and tail

The trunk of the elephant, which is a prehensile elongation of its upper lip and nose, with a finger-like prehensile extremity, is that part of its anatomy, which popularly characterizes the elephant. The lower lip, compared to the trunk, is much shorter. However it projects some distance forwards and downwards. The trunk is the most versatile part of an elephant’s anatomy.

It is made up of thousands of tiny muscles and has no bone or hard tissue. The trunk is dexterous and able to perform various functions because of its high degree of flexibility and manoeuvrability. The trunk is used by the elephant as a hand or arm and even as a weapon.

The tip is sensitive to both touch and taste. An elephant can even pick up a coin from the sand with its trunk and hand it to its mahout seated on its back. The trunk is used to gather food, grass leaves and branches, and to put them into its mouth.

To drink, it sucks up water and squirts it back into its mouth. The elephant uses its trunk to ward off danger or to attack enemies. The trunk is used to blow water, sand and mud onto its body. When swimming, the trunk is kept above the water like a snorkel.

On the other hand, an elephant can kill a bull with a single swipe of its trunk. During times of drought when water is difficult, elephants dig up the riverbed with their forefeet and trunks in search of water. The elephant uses its trunk to communicate. It trumpets in anger, fear and joy. The trunk is also used to touch elephants from other herds when they meet and also in courtship.

The tail of an elephant varies in length. The tail has a tuft of bristles at the end. Generally a tail reaches three-quarters of the way down to the ground, one that touches the ground being rare. The thick, hard bristles at the end of the elephant’s tail are on the anterior and posterior sides of the tail and not all round. Elephants with short tails are encountered very often.

In most of these instances, the tail has been broken off in a fight, where the tail of a retreating elephant is grasped by the other with its trunk and due to the fragility of the tail, it is broken off.


The skin of an elephant, is thickest on the hind limbs and hindquarters, thinner on the forelimbs and shoulders, and is thinnest on the inside of the ears.

Though the elephant’s skin seems to be tough, it is sensitive in certain areas and susceptible to the ravages of heat and insect pests.

The colour of the skin is dark greyish over most of the body but lighter on the head, trunk and ears. However depending on different circumstances, elephants are seen in different colours. If an elephant is just out of water that is clear, the skin is dark grey. If the water that it has been in is muddy, the skin takes on that colour.

If the elephant has powdered himself with dust or sand, the colour of the skin can vary from a rust colour to brown. If it has thrown dust from clay soils onto its body, the elephant’s skin takes on a light grey colour.

An elephant picks up sand with its trunk and dusts its body with it. Sand baths generally follow a bath in water.

Mud and sand bathing is generally followed by the elephant rubbing itself on an ant hill, rock or tree to rid itself of parasites that go off with the caked mud.

The surface area of the elephant’s skin is relatively small compared to the volume of the body. This causes a problem of heat dispersal. An elephant has no sweat glands and its body tends to get over-heated easily. Elephants cool themselves by several methods. The large ears, which have an intricate network of blood vessels beneath the skin, have a thermo-regulatory function as mentioned earlier. The constant fanning of the ears helps to lower the temperature of the blood through evaporation and loss of heat.

Limbs and locomotion

The four large columnar legs are necessary to support the massive weight of the elephant’s head and body. The limbs of an elephant are very flexible and enable the animal to run, walk fast, amble at a leisurely pace or climb up and down fairly steep slopes.

The elephant however cannot leap, trot, gallop or canter. An elephant cannot run at speed for long distances. When frightened, an elephant erects its tail and runs away. When angry it charges with its trunk in its mouth to protect this sensitive organ and the large ears are pinned against its head.

Elephants are very sure-footed in any terrain despite their bulk and clumsy appearance. They can negotiate rough slopes and walk along rocky ridges easily. Elephants generally walk in single file through thick forests making trails, which they use regularly.

They are sensitive to the contours, and as a result, many of our early engineers have constructed roads, along elephant trails. This helps to make an easy ascent along the road. A good example is the Bulutota Pass in Rakwana.

The elephant is the only mammal, which does not have a hock or joint in the hind leg where a knee should be. The Valaliya or marsh elephant, found off Manampitiya, has a broader sole to its feet to enable it to move about easily in the soggy conditions underfoot.

Three feet are always in contact with the ground to carry the weight of the body. When walking, the hind foot occupies the place just vacated by the fore foot, so that there is overlapping of fore and hind feet in a pacing elephant. On an average an elephant weighs about four tons.

The soles of its feet are compressible to take its great weight especially in uneven terrain. Pads on the sole of the elephant’s foot expand when on the ground and its weight put on it. When the weight is taken off the pads contract.

A fairly accurate way to gauge the height of an elephant is to double the circumference of the forefoot which is equal to its height at the shoulder. This, however, does not hold good for immature animals. The average height of the adult Sri Lankan elephant is 2.75 – 3 m.


The lifespan of an elephant is similar to that of man. They live to around 60 – 75 years. Early writings, however, claim that elephants have lived to over 150 years. Though Dutch records show that elephants have lived to over 100 years, such high figures may be due to the fact that, in a number of instances, elephants have been given the same name and performed the same tasks, with no record of whether it was a single elephant or more than one animal.

For instance, an elephant named Hurathalaya in the Dutch fort in Colombo is said to have lived for over 140 years. It is more likely that there was more than one elephant by the same name.

Elephants continue to grow through their lifetime. Each elephant, if observed closely, has its own features and characteristics. Its growth is not always uniform. There are significantly varied growth rates in different animals even from the same herd and family as is seen even in human families.

By Jayantha Jayawardene
Daily News

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