Buddhist culture is closely entwined with elephants and tuskers. In many Jathaka stories, the Bodhisatva was born in the elephant family and at the dream which Queen Maha Maya saw at the conception of the prince Siddhartha, we know of the elephant that came with a lotus flower. There are other stories in Buddhist literature about the elephants Parileya, Girimekhala and Nalagiri and out of the elephants from history, the elephant Kadol of king Dutugemunu and Rajá the Dalada Temple that carried the sacred casket for half-a-century are very famous. An elephant that has the privilege of carrying the Sacred Casket at the Dalada Perahera indeed is truly blessed. There are a few who had this unique privilege, and I like to detail here about the elephants belonging to the Hunupitiya Gangaramaya Temple that had this privilege.
The history of Gangaramaya dates back to the time of Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero and the history of the temple has the added beauty of having possessed three great elephants of repute; Ruwan Raja, Navam Raja and Athula Raja. All three of them grew, cared for and well looked after by Galboda Siri Gnanissara Thero (Podi Hamuduruwo), the Sangha Nayake of Nava Korale and the Chief Incumbent of the Colombo Hunupitya Gangaramaya. Under his kind supervision, they were properly tamed and trained and became very obedient. When the Navam Perahera started in 1978, they were gradually introduced to take part in the proceedings.
After the Parinibbana of the Lord Buddha, prince Dantha and princess Hemamala of India brought the Sacred Tooth Relic to Sri Lanka and the annual Dalada Perahera started. The carrying of the Sacred Casket is a privilege that belongs to an elephant of royal lineage. On July 16, 1988, when Raja, the elephant of the Dalada Maligawa passed away, this privilege was given to the elephant of Ratnapura Saman Devale and later to Raja of Heyyanthuduwa. Finally, this privilege was accorded to Ruwan Raja of Hunupitiya Gangaramaya.
This elephant was a gift to Gangaramaya in 1996 from the Ratnapura Morawatte Walauwa and was known as ‘Dala kota’ at the time. At the inception it was known to be quite fearsome. It was renamed as Ruwan Raja since it came from Ratnapura. Under the careful guidance of Podi Hamuduruwo, in no time it became quite tame and was introduced to the Perahera event. He took part in the peraheras held at Gangaramaya, Kelaniya, Bellanvila and Kataragama and his regal performance was appreciated by all at these venues. Ruwan Raja had the privilege of carrying the Sacred Casket at Sri Dalada Perahera, Kandy until 2002, taking turns with Heyyanthuduwe Raja. With his royal appearance with pointed pair of tusks and admirable height, he took part in the Dalada Perahera as the main bearer as well as the supporting carrier of the Sacred Casket. He not only adorned the Gangaramaya’s proceedings, but with great respect beautified the religious proceedings all over. He passed away peacefully in 2003. The skeletal remains of the head along with the tusks have been used to make a real life size replica at Gangaramaya, which the devotees and visitors admire.
He was the most tamed elephant at the Gangaramaya. Originally he was owned by ‘Anton Appo’, the Basnayake Nilame of Ratnapura Saman Devale. He was found to be a ferocious animal, but the tranquil environment at Gangaramaya gradually made him tame. Devotees remember him strolling in the temple compound quite harmlessly without being chained. From his young age he was quite tall and with the two tusks he posed a regal look. Athula Raja contributed to beautify many Peraheras and Upasampada events right throughout the island.
Navam Raja came to Gangaramaya all the way from India. Ven. Piliyandala Hamuduruwo, a reputed indigenous physician was able to cure an eye disease of a relative of a Maharajah of Mysore. The Maharajah was overjoyed and presented two elephant calves to this monk. After sometime since it became difficult to maintain these two as they were gifted to a man in Horana and the other to Embilipitiya. The animal that was given to Horana was tended by Vedaralahamy Dharmavijaya and the present owner is Dr. Harsha Dharmavijaya. The tusker, known as Nedungamuwe Raja that carries the Sacred Relic Casket at the Dalada Perahera at present.
While the elephant given to Embilipitiya was brought to Hunupitiya Gangaramaya. When the Colombo Navam Perahera was inaugurated in l978, became known as Navam Raja. Originally his right tusk was touching the left tusk from top and later the left tusk touched the right. This was regarded as a good omen by everyone and was so published in the newspapers too. Navam Raja had the privilege of carrying the Sacred Casket in Kandy and was also privileged to take Gajanayake Nilame and Peramune Rala. Navam Raja had the privilege of carrying the Sacred Relics at the Colombo Navam Perahera several times and also took part in the Bellanvila, Kataragama and Kelaniya Peraheras. If there was an elephant with joined tusks in Colombo, Navam Raja of Gangaramaya Temple had that privilege of being the one. He passed away on July 8, 2011, and both devotees as well as the monks wept at his loss. Buried for four years, the Gangaramaya has made arrangements to honour this tusker to cherish its memory by making a replica. The Chief incumbent of the Temple, Dr. Galboda Gnanissara Thera, Dr. Kirinde Assaji Thera, Dr. Pallegama Rathanasara Thera and Ven. Palatuwe Jinarathana Thera commissioned Kasun Wickremesinghe for this work.
Kasun Wickremesinghe was born in Nugegoda on August 17, 1988, is an artist since birth. He studied both at Nalanda College and Ananda College, Colombo and his artistic capabilities were appreciated by the Principals and the teachers. It was due to his ability to create a replica of Ruwan Raja at that time. He received many an accolade all over for this excellent work and was invited to undertake artistic work. He had to leave aside all this work, since he had to do his A/Levels in 2007. Ranjith Susantha helped him when he made the replica. After he passed his A/Levels successfully, he was offered a scholarship by the Indian Govt and had to proceed to India in 2008. When he was studying for his degree at Rabindrabharathi University in West Bengal (2008-2012), returned to Sri Lanka and at the invitation of the Podi Hamuduruwo and was able to successfully create the replicas of both Navam Raja and Athula Raja.
All these three replicas of the elephants are historical. He has depicted the texture of the skin, hair and even the tears from the eyes on the replicas of Navam Raja and Athula Raja. All the devotees and visitors who visit the Temple appreciate these creations. Kasun Wickremesinghe was helped by several people while he was in this cause, including his parents, his brother, Uditha Weerasinghe, Thusitha Perera, Harsha Dharmavijaya, Nirmala Damayanthi Jayamaha, Dhanushi Dharmavijaya, Maduranga, Sasanka Rikshan, Ajantha Prathap, Janaka, Chalith, Patrick, I.P. Silva, Dhadeera, Nalaka and Mahasen.
Kasun Wickremesinghe is now engaged in University education in spite of his private artistic work and business. He is grateful for the opportunity that was given to him to create life-like replicas of these elephants that had the honour of carrying the Sacred Relic Casket.