Have you ever wondered how many gallons the bladder of an adult elephant can hold? No? Neither had I until witnessing the release of the bladder contents of a passing pachyderm almost caused me major bodily injury.
The cause for this curious situation was a combination of politics and culture. Kandy is known for a great yearly festival when dancers, drummers and finely decorated elephants parade through the streets.
The Perahera occurs in July or August and is called the Esala Perahera. Like many centuries old traditions, the significance of the celebration has evolved and absorbed numerous meanings over the years, but the main focus is to celebrate both the coming of the raining season and the sacred relic of Buddha’s tooth that is housed in Kandy.
When Kandy was ruled by a King, only the royalty had access to view the sacred relic, so once a year, the tooth would be paraded through the streets for all the people to revere. There are numerous youtube videos of the amazing processionals. I encourage you to take a look.
A very brief history –
In 1815, over 2,300 years of Sri Lankan monarchy ended when the British gained control of the island which they maintained until the island nation gained independence in 1948. The country was ruled by a parliamentary system. In 1977, the United National Party won a supermajority in parliament and amended the constitution to make the president an executive position, and the existing prime mister, J. R. Jayewardene became the country’s first president. While we were there in October of 1982, the president was elected to a second term. Then, in December of that same year, the ruling party had a special referendum to forego parliamentary elections scheduled in 1983 and instead extend the parliament elected in 1977 until 1989. The referendum passed with 54% approval.
Some saw Jayewardene’s move as a power grab while others saw it as necessary for the policies he was promoting to have time to be put into effect. There had been a small amount of rioting and striking in universities after the October election, but by the new year, things seemed to have calmed. As a ten-year old I did not understand political intricacies (nor do I now for that matter), but I did understand that a special perahara had been organized to honor that Jayewardene was coming to Kandy to celebrate his new inauguration as well as Independence Day on Feb 4th.
The main parade was to take place fairly late at night, so a special smaller procession was organized for younger viewers. My nanny, Karuna and I walked into town to see the festivities.
It was an especially hot day and the back of my dress was moist with sweat by the time we reached the parade route. There was quite a crowd lining the street on both sides behind the metal barriers that separated traffic from the sidewalk, but we found a spot where the people were only 3-4 deep and we thought we could see the coming parade. More and more people arrived and filled in behind us and we found ourselves unexpectedly jostled to the front.
The whip crackers came first and their long, thick colorful whips swirled overhead before smashing down on the pavement with a tremendous pop. They are said to signify thunder and lightning. They were followed by throngs of flag bearers with colorful banners. Next were dancers with jingling bells that sang out each time they took a step. We could feel the vibrations in our chests of the beat as the drummers passed. Next, people carryings swords marched silently and precisely. There were more dancers, men in ancient royal garb and hordes of children dressed in white. Finally came what I was most excited about – ornately adorned elephants. At the evening parade, there would be 53 elephants walking three abreast, but there were fewer and smaller elephants in the youth parade.
Although it was daylight they were accompanied by torch bearers who carried metal baskets on tall poles filled with coconut husks doused in oil which burned so hot that we could feel the heat from our curbside vantage point. Just as a pair of torches passed us, the man on our side lay his basket on the ground and tapped it to knock out the layer of ashes that were forming at the bottom. I could smell the coconut oil. A small, smoldering pile was left behind and I remembered my father telling me about an incident in which an elephant had stepped on one of the piles and run into the crowd trampling several people. But the next elephant in the procession was in the middle of the street and I mentally drew a line and saw that the creature would pass nowhere near the ashes.
The procession and the elephant stopped almost directly in front of us, and I could see the intricate embroidered designs on its costume. White, yellow and pink patterns stood out against the red fabric. At the evening parade the elephants would also be adorned with hundreds of lights. The creature shifted its weight from side to side as it waited for the parade to begin again. Then suddenly the elephant started to urinate. A collective chuckle arose from the surrounding crowd and Karuna looked at me and snickered, covering her mouth. It was as if a fire hydrant had been turned on and soon a river of urine was snaking behind the elephant from the middle of the street toward the spectators slightly to our right. As we watched the elephant it seemed impossible that there could be more to come out, but the torrent kept coming and the river kept getting closer and closer to the side of the road. People shuffled backwards and tried to make space for the group in front of them to get out of the way. Then, there was a sudden shift in mood from the crowd and people were no longer being polite. We heard some cries to our right which rippled back towards us. Suddenly Karuna and I were being pushed forcibly by the crowd. She tried to take my hand, but the force of the people pushing against us wouldn’t let her raise her hand and before we knew it we were pressed up against the metal barriers. The lowest one hit around my waist and an upper bar at just about my shoulders. Swiftly it became hard to breath as the throng pushed me against the metal. I briefly fell to my knees and then scrambled back up. I managed to get my torso between the two bars. My head was then sticking out into the parade route and I was folded in half and being pushed over the lower bar. The pressure on my stomach was painful and I looked around for Karuna. I could see her on the ground to my left her face pushed up against the same bar as I was. She was grabbing it and attempting to stand, but she fell to the ground and I could see people stepping on her hands. She was crying, and I was starting to panic. There was a general murmur punctuated by occasional shouts and cries behind us as people continued to push against us. Several police rushed towards the area from the street side and barked at the crowd to back up. A slender young officer in a brown uniform grabbed me around the waist and pulled me through the bars leaving one of my shoes behind. He then helped Karuna and several others near the front stand and crawl through the bars. From our new streetside vantage point we could see the throngs of people pushing together and then spreading apart behind the barriers. It was like a wave at a baseball game or the way a slinky behaves when you send a pulse along it. Then, like a traffic jam that suddenly opens up the pushing stopped.
I retrieved my shoe and the police escorted us to the end of the block where there was a break in the barrier. With shaky legs we made our way to the back of the crowd. My knees were pock marked with tiny pebbles from the road embedded in them and the bottom of my dress was filthy and slightly torn. Karuna’s pale pink dress was blackened all the way down the front. She had a scratch across her left cheek, her elbow was dripping blood and her slip shown through a rip in the side. A spectator handed Karuna a handkerchief and she wiped her face before holding it to her elbow.
Karuna was visibly shaken as we made our way back up the hill towards our home. I made a joke about the river of pee and we both remarked at how we couldn’t believe how much water the elephant must have consumed, and that they would have to build a bridge in that section of the road. By the time we got home we were fine, but there was a new wave of excitement as we showed up disheveled and were surrounded by the concerned household.
My grandfather was visiting at the time and seemed the most concerned as he spun me around to look for any hidden injuries. Karuna had no interest in heading back into town, but I still wanted to see the grand parahera that was to take place at nine that night. Luckily, for that one, a friend had invited us to view the parade from the second floor of the Bank of Ceylon building. From there we were able to see everything including the dancers, fire twirlers, elephants and massive crowds below in comfort.
By the way, an adult elephant bladder can hold about 42 gallons of urine.