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.

perahera elephant
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 – Kandy king

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. Jayewardene

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.   karuna and jo

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.


Little Orphan Aliya

One weekend, my parents told me that we were going on an adventure. They would not tell me where we would be heading, but it would be a day trip from Kandy and our driver, Sumanasena, and his family would be joining us. Although we left early in the morning, the sun was already making it very clear that the day would be a scorcher. The air was distorted from heat rising from the dusty roads leading to our destination. If recreating the scene in a movie there would surely be screech of a single hawk overhead. It was that kind of oppressively hot day. Indicating we had arrived, Sumanasena pulled our van up to a clearing under a tree and the two families groggily exited. The ride had been long, and we stretched our limbs. Janelle, asleep on Mom’s shoulder, had damp hair that was plastered to the side of her face where she was sweating against Mom in the heat.  Probably 50 feet away a group of men crouched in the shade of a tree. The workers were moving as slowly as we were. As was often the case, I was feeling a bit car sick. The warmth was not helping and I was not sure I wanted to be wherever we were. One of Sumanasena’s sons was albino and we had to be especially careful to keep him out of the sun. He stood near the van under an umbrella while we got the attention of the workers who were slowly rising from their crouched positions.


Although moving at a snail’s pace, the worker who approached us was animated and friendly. He welcomed us and gave us some history about where we were and I quickly forgot that I was feeling queasy. We were at an elephant orphanage!

The elephant orphanage was founded in 1975 by the Sri Lankan Wildlife department to care for the numerous unweaned solitary calves that were being discovered in the jungles. Elephants can stand shortly after birth but rely on their mothers and the herd for some time. After pregnancy, which lasts for 22 months, the female gives birth to a single calf and very rarely twins. The calf can be 160-250 pounds, but despite their size they are vulnerable. The calves do not wean until 18 months to three years later, so they will rely on their mothers for that time. There are other females in the herd, usually juveniles without calves of their own, who are attracted to the youngsters and help look after the calf. The Wildlife department was encountering an increasing number of orphaned elephants who were dying after their mothers were killed sometimes by farmers protecting their rice paddies or villages from damage or from falling into deep pits. The goal of the orphanage was to foster these orphaned juveniles until they could survive on their own.

We followed the guide who took us around to the front of the building where we had been standing and there they were – young elephants of many sizes. The youngest stood shorter than I and was possibly the cutest creature I had ever seen.


After explaining the life cycle of the herd, the guide asked if we wanted to feed the baby. All orphaned elephants were bottle fed. I was handed a glass bottled as thick as my arm which the infant clearly recognized as her lunch. Lifting her trunk and searching for the bottle, she pulled my arm towards her open mouth. I was struck and a bit intimidated by the strength of the appendage but she guided the nipple into her mouth and quickly finished the bottle. I fed her a second bottle and patted her head which was covered with what looked like soft fuzz, but was actually more like the bristles of a broom.  She seemed to enjoy the contact and rubbed her head against my body almost knocking me over in the process. Janelle, now awake and full of smiles patted her as well. After her lunch, it was time for all of the elephants to bathe.


I am told that the elephant orphanage has become a popular tourist attraction, but on this sweltering day in 1982, there was no one but our group to view the bathing ritual. Twice a day the elephants are lead to the river to enjoy bathing and cooling off in the water. We followed them, rather they eagerly lead, us to the shore. Two elephant handlers known as mahouts were already in the water with two juveniles. Our small friend paced at the edge of the water seemingly afraid to enter. As the rest of the elephants entered and began rolling and splashing in the flowing river, our guide led us slightly upstream from the rest of the group. With less action, the little one entered the water following its handler. I was asked if I wanted to join. A dip in the river sounded delightful and I folded and rolled up my pant legs and waded in.  I wish I could remember the name of my large yet tiny friend. In my mind I refer to her as Aliya, the Sinhalese word for elephant. After wading into the river she quickly rolled on her side. The mahout gave me some coconut husks and told me to use them to scrub her back.  The coarse hairy husk resembled Aliya’s bristled top, and I gently massaged in the indentation where her head met her back. The mahout laughed and indicated that the elephant was tougher than I was treating her and showed me how to really scrub. Together we pushed and pulled the coconut across her skin like we were scrubbing the floor. Her ears flopped back and forth and we moved our focus to behind her ears.  Like a dog who collapses when being scratched in the right place, Aliya contentedly rolled back and forth in the water flapping her ears and trunk.  The larger downstream elephants were a bit more measured, but also seemed to be having a good time. Sucking water in with their trunks and splashing it over their backs. When Aliya joined in there was no longer a chance of staying at all dry. I gave into the fact that I’d be wet from head to toe, so I put my arms around her in the water. Feeding and swimming with Aliya was one of the most amazing animal encounters I’ve ever had.  I am not sure why I was afforded this unique opportunity. From videos and pictures I see posted today, it appears visitors to the elephant orphanage witness the twice daily trips to the river from a safe distance, while my interaction was very hands on. In 1982, the same year as our visit, the organization began a breeding program. Perhaps the increase in population and popularity of the refuge is the reason why my experience is no longer the norm or perhaps we were just there at the right moment, but I will never forget that playful exchange with a baby elephant. It is possible that little Aliya is still bathing in Sri Lankan rivers today. She would be in her mid thirties. We went back to the elephant orphanage several times with students and visitors who joined us in Sri Lanka, sometimes riding the elephants and sometimes feeding them but never swimming with them again.

When we travel in 2017, we will be visiting an elephant refuge although not the same one as the one we visited with Sumanasena and his familiy. We will be traveling to The Millennium Elephant Foundation. We have adopted the elephants for the year leading up to our visit and are learning about their lives. We are all looking forward to meeting them.