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Religious Use Of Elephants In Sri Lanka

Painting In Temple Of The Tooth Of Elephant Procession Of The Tooth

The history and role of elephants in Sri Lanka ceremony

Abstract .

  • In Sri Lanka the religious use of elephants originated in the early period of Buddhism. Since Buddhism was introduced to the Island during 3rd century BCE, elephants were used in Buddhist religious festivals and processions. During the early periods, elephants possessed by the king were used for religious purposes. However many elephants from other sources were used in religious festivals later. In the early 1st century CE, an elephant was donated to a temple for the first time.
  • In present day Sri Lanka, the use of elephants in the Buddhist religious processions is a regular custom. The most important purpose of a Buddhist religious procession is to honour the Buddha. This customary ritual is linked with elephants carrying the historical objects of the Buddha and other cultural activities like drummers and performing dancers. The quality and excellence of the procession is determined by the varieties of dancers and number of elephants.
Elephant in Buddhism and cultural history
  • Throughout history, the Asian elephant has been regarded as a lucky animal to be a sign of good fortune and was used by armies and a trade item.
  • The relationship of Buddhism with elephants dates back to the start of Buddhism in 6th to 5th century BCE. Elephants are related with legends of the Buddha’s life and featured in several stories linked to previous Buddha’s births, in which the Buddha himself took the form of an elephant some times. Sukumar proposes that the holiness of the elephant was decisively founded by early Buddhist times.
  • The meat of elephants was eaten at least seldom during prehistoric times and even in civilizations such as Harappa. However with the growth of civilization this practice might have become infamous. The Buddha urged the monks, to refrain from eating elephant meat and said that if one does, he commits a crime.
  • During King Ashoka’s time (272-232 BCE) in India, elephants were often used to represent as a symbol of religion and the Buddha. The link of elephants with Buddhism has been shown in architecture and art since the ancient times such as in Sri Lanka and India. A few of which are directly related to the Buddha. Illustrations are the 1st millennium CE paintings found in Kotiyagala and Dimbulagala in Sri Lanka, a statue on the southern doorway of Sanchi showing the event in which relic caskets were bought on elephants following the ‘war of relics’, after the death of Lord Buddha. The ornamental use of elephants is different and found on features of architecture and art including protective walls, ayakas, building entrances, guard stones, moonstones, paintings etc. in several ancient temples in Sri Lanka.


Decorated Elephant In Front Of Temple Of The Tooth Kandy