The arrival in Sri Lanka was a shock on many levels. The unexpected heat in a month like February, especially after having left the frozen swamp we came from (a.k.a. the Netherlands in February LOL). The jungle. The chaos in the cities. The endless wobbly trips on Sri Lankan dirt roads you need to swallow to pretty much go anywhere. And most of all, huge mammals sleeping a few hundred meters next to your room in the volunteers village!
In your first day as a volunteer you are literally overwhelmed by the amount of information about the work: facts about the elephants (#elefacts!), the daily care they require, their story etc. But after having slept on it for a few days we started asking a few important questions (uncomfortable at times) to understand the whole mission we were joining a bit better. And that’s exactly what we’re sharing here, blog post after blog post.
One of the first doubts was: why are elephants there in the first place?
Well. Short story: the Buddhist temples.
Yes. Hear me out…
When we Westerners think of Buddhism, we immediately think of mediation, lotus flowers and beautiful gardens. Right?
It turns out, there’s more than meets the eye…
Buddhism is by all means another religion. And like any other religion, there’s holy scriptures, dogmas, sacred Gods, temples, monks, prayers, rituals etc.
Among their rituals, one called perahera involves, guess who … ELEPHANTS!
The most famous perahera is the one held in Kandy, in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. That temple is believed to hold Buddha’s tooth, a sacred relic that is honoured every year with the historical procession.
So elephants are help captive by Buddhist temples so that they can be embellished and paraded around cities and temples as part of the ritual. And this stuff is something like 2000 years old, dating back to the 3rd century BC.
Trying to change this traditions, despite all our good intentions as volunteers (and foreigners), is as easy a task as going to Napoli to teach Italians how to make better pizza. Yeah. Good luck with that, man.
However, this shows how courageous of a challenge these organizations are facing. And most of all, puts into context their progress (of perceived lack thereof). And trust me, there has been tremendous progress!
Just to mention one, in the last decade, about 200 (captive) elephants where used in the Kandy Sacred Tooth Relic Perahera. Now, about 80. That’s great progress right there.
This is happening thanks to such organizations who are proactively changing the culture about elephants from elementary schools in remote villages all the way up to government officials!