Bangladesh Slideshow

04 July, 2008

Land of the Elephants

Originally named after the descendents of the Kalinga Prince Vijaya, who were known as the Sinhala, Sri Lanka is a large island off the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. The island’s fascinating documented history goes back 34,000 years! Historical chronicles are found in stone writings (sel lipi), or leaf writings (hela atuva) and also in great Indian chronicles as Mahabharata and the Ramayana. More recent times saw it colonized in by the Portughese, who founded a port in Colombo in 1517 and gradually increased their control over the surrounding areas. The country became an important trade port and oasis of nature for sea farers of China, Arabia and Europe from the 16th century onwards. The Sinhalese kings moved their capital to Kandy in 1592, a hilly area deemed more secure against invaders. The country was ruled from Kandy until British colonial rule. The country has been known throughout most of history as Sinhaladwipa, meaning 'Island of the Sinhalese', and then was known as Ceylon from British colonial era. The name of the country was changed to Sri Lanka ('Beautiful Island') when it became a republic in 1972.

This is the magical land I have been in for the past few days. And this is where I have fallen in love with the elephants, who have always been part of the history, culture, pageantry, folklore and even politics of the country.

I travelled 85 km from Colombo on the Kandy road to visit the elephant orphanage at Pinnewala. The orphanage covers 25 acres, and was founded in 1975 with five young elephants. The orphanage is home to elephants of varying age, size and maturity, some truly orphaned in the wild, or found hurt, some abandoned by previous masters, and some born in captivity. The ages range from a few years old to some estimated at 40 years old or more. The animals spend the night in the main site, and in the mid-morning they are led down to the Maha Oya river, around 500 metres away, for a two hour bathing session. At around noon the animals are led back to the main site, where they are left to graze for a few hours. The baby elephants are taken to a feeding shed where they are given milk from bottles - a truly unparalleled sight. At 4pm the elephants are led down to the river again for another bathing session, and a few hours later they are led back to the main site for the night.

The road winded through paddy fields and palm trees, and mountains rose not to far away.

At Pinnewala, I bought my ticket, paying half-price on the USD 5 entry because I looked so young. Well, actually it is half price for SAARC nationals. I had arrived at bathing time and went a few hundred metres down a dirt road to the banks of the river.

It was a truly awesome sight to see some sixty elephants of all sizes bathing and playing in a wide shallow river. There were five handlers for the group. Watching them from only a couple dozen feet away, knowing I could just walk right up to one, was absolutely captivating. They displayed traits of a close-knit family - the older ones were looking after the smaller ones. They sloshed around, the older ones simply wandering about, or washing themselves placidly.

The more adventurous younger ones ran around and wrestled with their trunks, spraying themselves and each other in glee.

One inquisitive little tyke tried to climb up the stairs to say hi. But later had a change of heart and rejoined the herd.

Later I went to the Millenium Elephant Foundation in the Kegalle area. There I had the option of giving a bath to a pachyderm, or riding one, or both. I opted for the dry option and went to meet Rani, a 21 year old domesticated elephant.

After getting properly acquainted, she took me for a ride. The mahout, seeing the rapport between the ladies, had left us alone as we went swaying along the road. It was a tricky moment when the time came to turn her around for the ride back.

By the time came to say goodbye, we’d become friends and I was feeling really sad at parting from this gentle giant. I bought some banana for her as a way of saying thank-you.

An adult elephant consumes around 75 kilos of leafy food a day, and the babies have to be fed around 25 litres of milk. The costs of keeping them are high.

But the elephants in Sri Lanka are truly loved. The animals have been removed from conflict areas for fear of becoming maimed, and while it is true that they do not lead the same free lives they would have in the wild, this at least gives them a risk-free, no-worry-about food life, and they are cared for by dedicated people who really care.
And I’ve decided to adopt one. It only costs USD 35 for a year. Now I’m poring over their photos and histories to make my choice. If anyone is interested in adoption, or volunteering, please contact the Millenium Elephant Foundation at

1 comment:

Rezwan said...

You remind me of my Sri Lanka trip in 2004 (check the travelog -the photos have disappeared though).

Pinnawala Elephant sanctuary was simply great.

And Elephant adoption is a cool thing! Didn't know of that.