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 Post subject: Elephants in warfare in old Ceylon
 Post Posted: Sat Sep 24, 2005 3:42 am 
Elephants in warfare in old Ceylon

By V. Vamadevan
Deputy Inspector-General of Police (Rtd.)
(From Australia)


Until firearms entered the battlefield, elephants were an integral part of armies fighting in old Ceylon. Elephants were the forerunners of the modern armoured tank in Ceylon. They were used for numerous tasks in the war machinery both in the front line and for logistical support roles.

On rough terrain where modern macadamised roads were not heard of, elephants were used to transport men and materials against natural odds. They were found to be very useful to ford rivers carrying victuals for soldiers. They were used as personnel carriers for the upper echelons of the top brass in the armies. They assisted the rank and file when they had rivers to cross. Ropes were fastened to elephants and soldiers took hold of the ropes and either swam or were drawn across the rivers. This was a sine qua non when rivers were in spate and dangerous for soldiers to swim across.

History records elephants used as mounts for kings leading their men in the battle field. The elephant ‘Kandula’ was King Dutugamunu’s mount (200 BC) and ‘Maha Pabbata’ the mount of King Elahara during their historic encounter in the battlefield. They were also used in the front line both by advancing troops as well as a front line of defense. Heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end were tied to the trunks of elephants which they were trained to swirl and whirl menacingly with great agility. This was a very efficient way to keep advancing troops at bay. A few elephants charging with swirling iron balls at the end of a chain and the consternation it can cause in the ranks of the enemy is better imagined than described.

Elephants were also formidable when fortresses have to be breached and garrison gates broken down. Elephants were used in consort to charge at fortified gates to bring them down by sheer brute force. This is the reason why early forts had large spikes on the gates projecting menacingly outward. Besides spikes, the enemy also had other devices to thwart such elephant charges. The common practice was to have molten lead and pith at the ready on rampart walls and pour them on the charging elephants. There was no Geneva Convention in those days, nor the RSPCA to breathe down the neck of such practitioners, who have a field day of their own in present days and times. It was as a precaution against such practices that elephants used in war were clothed with a coat of Buffaloa hides. Jayantha Jayawardhene in his ‘Elephant in Sri Lanka’ ( 1994) gives the view that elephants were unreliable in battle except to intimidate the enemy. He says, ‘they have been found to be skittish and easily alarmed by unfamiliar sounds and for this reason they were found prone to break ranks and flee’.

Heydt describes Forts in Matara having tanks built adjacent to them to enable elephants from the stables to be led there for baths. The stables were large enough to house about 80 elephants. It is on record that King Rajasinghe the First, when he laid siege to the Portuguese Fort at Colombo in 1558, had an elephant phalanx of 2.200 ( Peris 1913). The officer-in-charge of the Royal stables was called the ‘Gaja Nayake Nilame’. His off-sider was the ‘Kuruve Lekham’ who controlled the Kuruwe or elephant men. The training of war elephants was the duty of the Kuruwe clan who came under their own Muhandiram.

Pliny (45 AD) one of the great Roman historians, in Book 6 of his 37 volume history, states that Megastenes had recorded the opinion of one Onesicritus that the Ceylon elephants are larger, fiercer and better for war than others. For this reason and the proximity of elephants close to sea ports inter alia made Ceylon elephants a lucrative trading commodity. Many elephants were captured in the Wanni by Muslim Pannikars and walked a few miles to the Port of Kayts. Towns sprouted in resting-places used to rest elephants on the way to the port to Kayts. Names such as Elephant pass (Tamil ‘Annai eravu’, meaning elephant landing place) Annaipanthi adi (Tamil for elephant junction) and Annaicottai (Tamil for elephant Fort) are reminiscent of the path they were walked to Kayts. In Kayts itself, the Dutch speak of Elephant Bridge mentioned by Major Raven-Hart in his Travels in Ceylon (1965) where he translates the Travels of the Swabian, Martin Wintergerst (1712). The Muslims were experts at loading elephants and the shallow waters of the Jaffna lagoon lent itself feasible for this purpose. This is not to ignore that there were other ports in Ceylon also used to ship elephants, such as Manthota, Kalpitiya etc.

Elephants were also used as state executioner in old Ceylon. Even in peacetime, death by elephant was reserved for traitors and other offenders against the state and royalty. Robert Knox describes such gruesome executions and even illustrates them with drawings. In modern times ‘parental guidance’ would be required even to view some of these pictures. But more pleasing representations of elephants in war are rendered in ancient temple drawings such as those in the Deva Angam cloth drawings in the Maha Devale in Hanguranketa (16th. Century).

Elephants were also useful both in peacetime and war to wade through jungles. R. K. de Silva mentions that elephant tracks were used to develop even the modern roads in Ceylon. Major Skinner (1815 - 67) Ceylon’s foremost road builder is said to have mentioned how invaluable the tracks of wild elephants were to him to map roads before construction. These tracks were not only well trodden but also showed the easiest access to the crossing sites of rivers and valleys.

It is interesting to note that elephants were not only used in warfare, but wars were also waged for the capture of elephants. It is on record that during the early 16th century one Adirasa Ryan from Kayalpatinam in South India raided the Port of Salawatte (present day Chilaw) and tried to capture elephants in defiance of the fact that capturing of elephants was a royal monopoly. This could have been a raid or an act of defiance. The King of Kotte dispatched a large force under Sakkalavallarajah and repelled the invaders.

The use of elephants in warfare ceased with the arrival of the colonial powers and the introduction of firearms. The Dutchman Medler writes ‘....the effect of one rocket can be imagined, frightened bullocks are hard to handle - frightened elephants would be impossible...’.


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