Bump in the Road

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It appears the Trippers have hit a minor obstacle along the road. We’ve had close family members fall ill and although they are well on the way to recovery now, one of us has fallen sick.

Sorry about having been so quiet all this time but we expected things to go back to normal much faster. Since they haven’t yet, we’ll have to stay home for another week or so.

We promise we’ll be getting back on the road, writing and snapping again very soon.

Clear Skies and Good Health!

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Up close and personal with the largest land mammal

The Millennium Elephant Foundation is in Hiriwadunna, Kegalle

Ride an elephant, bathe an elephant, have an elephant shower me with water, basically enjoy really close contact with tame elephants; this was what the Millennium Elephant Foundation promised and I was brimming over with excitement at the prospect. That is… until I saw the elephants and my courage gave way *sheepish grin*

There were three in a row munching on an assortment of greens strewn at their hefty feet. Rani, Lakshmi and Bandara were introduced to us by our guide, Jayasooriya. I stood at a safe distance wondering how their massive proportions had not factored into my earlier happy imaginings of bathing with the elephants.

Bandara, Lakshmi and Rani chow down on the greens

Rani’s unusually vigorous swaying wasn’t helping my nerves. But what I hadn’t realized was that her owners had arrived to pay her a visit and, having spotted them a little distance away, she’d begun her excited elephantine jig.

Dancing Rani

This is one of the functions of the Millennium Elephant Foundation. As Mrs. Samarasinghe, President of the Foundation explained to us, the organization dedicated to the welfare of captive elephants, provides the animals with ample space, food, a river that runs through the property and medical care at no cost to the owners of the elephants. For elephants whose owners can’t afford to take care of them anymore, it is a new lease of life. Some of the other aspects of the Foundation include a mobile vet unit that travels to any part of the country to treat injured elephants and a museum that educates the public. The Foundation also has a large number of volunteers who enjoy the unique experience of interacting closely with and caring for elephants. As expressed by Mrs. Samarasinghe, “My main objective was to care for elephants who had completed their working lives; while at the same time giving to the domestic and foreign tourists an opportunity to stroke or play with tame elephants.”

Approaching her with presents of sugar cane, belli, bananas and other fruits, Rani’s owners were as happy to see her as she was them. Stroking her and speaking affectionately to her, they commenced stuffing some of the fruits into her mouth as she took the rest in her trunk. From the outside an elephant’s mouth looks small and fleshy, which left me wondering how Rani was able to fit all that food in her mouth with the sugar cane sticking out. But then I remembered the rock-solid rows of teeth set in the heavy jaws of an elephant skull I had just seen at the Foundation’s elephant museum.

Rani enjoying her fruity gifts

The museum is a mine of information on elephants, ranging from general facts about elephants, details of the human-elephant conflict and elephants in peraheras, to a mahout’s role, translations of the commands that mahout’s use and also a detailed diagram of over 90 nila points or nerve centres on an elephant’s body. There is also a display on the personalities and physical characteristics of the elephants at the Foundation.

The skull of an elephant displayed at the museum

Elephants have over 90 ‘nila’ points

Leaving Rani with her adoring owners, we headed down to the river. Raja, a tusker owned by the Dalada Maligawa, was lounging in the water, his snorkel-like trunk conveniently resting on his cheek so that he could breathe while staying submerged. An occasional swish of the tail and a puff of air through the trunk were the only movements of this pampered pachyderm. If there was ever an opportunity for me to bathe an elephant, this would have been it. But, generous soul that I am, I decided to let my friend have a go before me 😀

An occasional swish of the tail and a spray of water

I took the camera from him and watched as he waded towards Raja with a coconut husk. Soon he was grinning from ear to ear as he splashed water on the elephant and scrubbed with the husk. When he returned to the bank, I could feel the exhilaration emanating from him. That’s it! I’m going in!

My turn!

The first things I noticed were the wiry hairs on Raja that pulled at the coconut husk and left a pulpy white trail on him and how his skin kind of scrunched up around his neck. His ear fascinated me. It was so thin, almost soft, in comparison to the rough hide on the rest of his body. His spine protruded and it was funny how his great big belly rose and fell every time he sighed – in bliss, I would imagine. Whenever he stretched out a leg, I would back away afraid that he was going to stand up. A mountain of elephant rising so close above me would have immediately sent me into panic mode. But thankfully, Raja was only interested in shifting his weight around to find a more comfortable position. It was difficult to imagine that this lazily lolling mass of elephant had damaged part of a roof and power line pole when he went into musth only six months ago. This is why the staff at the Foundation is careful to guide and warn visitors. Jayasooriya had already pointed out two elephants that we should steer clear of, due to their unpredictable dispositions.

“Ah… that feels good”

Jayasooriya

Happy with our experience of bathing an elephant and sufficiently covered in elephant dung infused river water, we headed towards the exit. Along the way we saw a visitor carefully mount Bandara whose back was covered with a light blanket. While giving the random visitor a ride around the property is a good form of exercise, the Foundation ensures the elephants never carry more weight than is comfortable for them. In fact, howdahs used in the Habarana region to take tourists on safaris are terribly harmful to elephants causing deep wounds and spine injury.

Bandara takes a visitor on a ride

Find out about becoming a volunteer, donating, supporting the project to ban the use of howdahs and much more at the Foundation’s website: www.millenniumelephantfoundation.com

Mrs. Samarasinghe

Thanks to Mrs. Samarasinghe for taking the time to meet with us

Meeting with a Goddess

“The FARTY forties!” I hurriedly texted to a friend, who was trying to find an appropriate theme for the fast-approaching new epoch in her beloved husband’s life.

“Awesome! You had to get out of Colombo to get inspired, didn’t you?” was the tickled response.

“In Ambepussa to be exact,” I sent back.

Soon afterwards I get a call from said friend, who herself is an enthusiastic road-tripper. Excitedly, she recounted her experience of a devale quite close to where we were. Her stories of the location, its tranquillity and the uncanny occurrences at the site made up our minds; this was going to be our first stop.

Off the Colombo-Kandy highway we found the narrow, winding Devale Para that took us uphill, away from the jarring, modern-day bustle and into rural charm. Trees on either side leaned over the little road to shelter us and we passed by paddy fields, some of their sectioned off squares being replanted by women shin deep in mud.

Arriving at a footpath lined with kiosks selling offerings to devotees, we chose our own humble pooja; coconut oil and wicks, incense sticks, camphor and a sheaf of betel leaves. Along the path we came upon a roughly hewn moonstone at the foot of a flight of steps that led up a hill thick with vegetation and strewn with large boulders.

As beautiful and lusciously green as the scene appeared, we were unprepared for what we discovered around a bend up the steps. They led past a boulder hugged by many lengths of leafy vines; some grew straight down from a branch high above our heads. Instead of slashing them away to clear the stairway, some imaginative soul had draped the snaking vines over a metal wire strung by the steps, creating a lush, green alcove for devotees to walk through. Pausing on a landing past the alcove, I turned around to drink in more of the scene when I noticed a gargantuan tree trunk enfolded in more vines. We hadn’t even reached the devale yet andalready we knew this was a truly special place.

The lush, green alcove that devotees walk through

The stairway

Boulders flank the stairway

The gargantuan tree trunk

A statue of the Buddha sat serenely amidst offerings of flowers and oil lamps at the top of the steps and just past, in a sort of wide compound  flanked by large boulders at one hand and a short precipice on the other was the Devale dedicated to Goddess Pattini. After we lit some oil lamps and incense sticks in offering to the Goddess, we were free to watch the comings and goings on the devale grounds andabsorb the indescribably peaceful presence of the place.

Incense sticks in offering to the Goddess

Oil lamps left by devotees in the compound of the devale

We watched as the kapuwa stood at the entrance of the devale – a white doorpost blackened in places by smoke and countless fingerprints – and listened to each of the appeals that the women gathered at the doorway wanted to express to the Goddess. Some had come with children; there was also a crippled man. All had come with their own personal pleas to the Goddess.

The kapuwa listens to each of the devotees’ pleas

The kapuwa disappeared into the devale and began his chant, obviously inclusive of the devotees’ appeals. Framed in the doorway, his chanting figure, a golden statue of the Goddess and several garlands were all we could see. Outside, the women knelt reverently as the vine-covered boulder sheltering the devale rose above them.

I sat there, mind turned outward, reflecting on the scene before me, the pleas of the devotees, the aroma of incense and coconut oil, the hypnotic sound of the kapuwa’s chanting punctuated by the grating sounds of a coconut being scraped for an offering. Suddenly, I found myself searching in my heart for my own prayer to the Goddess, and before I knew it I was asking Her to bless our journey and keep us safe through our travels. For a moment I was surprised at myself because I’ve never felt the urge to pray at a devale before. But I decided not to analyse it and let my spontaneous prayer remain unexplained. I turned my mind back towards absorbing the happenings around me and the unique presence of the place.


Devale –
Shrine

Devale Para – Devale Road

Pooja – Offering

Kapuwa – A person who communicates with deities on behalf of the lay people

 

Love and thanks to Piumie and Steven for the tip-off 🙂