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Elephants are nothing new to Mallus. We see them often enough, being walked on the roads or transported in open vans, standing caparisoned and majestic at temple festivals and of course occasionally during news hour on television we also catch footage of them running amok or goring a mahout to death. We have our own elephant rehabilitation centers about one of which I wrote here. But to see so many of them together in such large numbers walking up the road from the banks of the Ma Oya river was indeed a sight. As you must have guessed by now, I am talking about the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which was our first stop after landing at Colombo. Well, not first because before that we had lunch and before that…. Well, I better rewind and start from where I had left off in my last post about the Lankan trip.

view from inside the Pinnawala Elephant OrphanageLast seen we were at the Chennai International Airport waiting for our flight to Colombo. To our dismay the flight itself was late arriving (not that we noticed, we were busy catching up), and also taking off (which we definitely noticed!). As a result, we were more than an hour behind schedule. The very first glimpse of Sri Lanka from the air was mesmerizing, the lovely green of land edged with gold and white lace and beyond that the infinite blue. No wonder at all that it is called ‘Jewel of the Indian Ocean’!

When the flight touched land I was in for a surprise. For a moment it seemed to me that I was back home in Trivandrum. That’s how much did that first sighting of Sri Lanka Path inside the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanageresemble Kerala. In the hours that followed when we drove along and until such time as we reached Kandy late that evening, I must have repeated about 150 times how much the Lankan countryside resembled Kerala. But let me not run ahead of events yet again.

Once we were out of the airport, we wandered off to one of the many kiosks with the intention of charging the new sim card for the cell phone. We almost missed the man standing at the far end to receive us. Luckily I turned around and saw him enthusiastically waving the placard with our names, Sandhya’s to be precise, at us again (guessing rightly that The view in the distancewe were the three he was supposed to pick up), and realized he was our *welcoming* party, the guide/driver rolled into one.

He introduced himself. “Prem naam hai mera… Prem Chopra!” I am kidding. Of course he didn’t say those lines (immortalized by the villain in the movie Bobby, a rage in my student days), but he very well could have, because his name happened to be Premasiri. He did say, ‘Call me Prem!” We did too, all throughout our tour, “Prem, this. Prem, that!” I guess by the end of seven days he must have been fed up of us. But why am I talking of the end of the tour when we have not even begun it?

Our royal carriageThe heat hit us as soon as we walked out of the roofed area. We were glad to guzzle cold bottled water provided by Prem and disappear inside our ‘royal carriage’ (which was *ours* for the duration of the trip) for our drive to our very first destination, which happened to be a quaint restaurant. Like the Mallus say, our tummies were crying, ‘Pailo, pailo!” in hunger. Don’t ask me why the Mallus think that’s how hungry tummies cry. I am totally ignorant of what lies behind the expression. The lunch itself had some typical local dishes which we thoroughly enjoyed and with our tummies having stopped going pailo, pailo, we were back in the vehicle. Now it was onward to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. And what do you think I saw as soon as we were on our way? A few Black-headed Ibis, also called Oriental Ibis, in a field. I was like,  OMG! OMG! OMG!, wanting to stop the vehicle right away and start clicking. But we had our itinerary and were already1-002 late, so I made do with the OMGs.

Now that everything that went before has been covered, the time has finally come to start talking of elephants. The first thing that met our eyes as we made our way down the dusty street towards the banks of the river Ma Oya, for a herd had been taken there for their bath, was the board that read ‘Poo Paper Sold Here’. So of course I had to click it. The lane had more than one shop with elephant poo products for sale. But let’s hurry to see the elephants. They are done with their bath 1-004(we are late!) and are walking up the street that is already lined on either side with tourists. We too joined the throng.

Suddenly I remembered that the telephoto lens was what I had on the camera. This meant I needed distance between me and the subject to get a good shot. Errr.. ummm.. In case you were to suggest that I had sudden visions of the elephants picking my camera off me or of deciding to take a swipe at me while standing right in front and hence chose to move to the back of the crowd, I wouldn’t deny it at all. But then it wasSandhya clicking elephants because I was standing behind them all  that I could catch Sandhya standing right in front of the crowd, almost under the eye of the huge elephant (Did you see her?), happily clicking!

The cute baby elephant in front, flanked by two of the older elephants, was the cynosure of all eyes. Behind was a horde of others of different ages and sizes. A youngster was seen extending trunk playfully at bystanders, but was discouraged by the caretakers with a poke and prod. Sigh. It is not a happy sight.

Baby elephant flanked by seniorsDid you know that the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is noted for having the largest herd of captive elephants *in the world*? Though it was started to give care and protection to orphaned and un-weaned baby elephants found wandering in and near the forests of Sri Lanka, now it functions to attract local and foreign tourists. The orphans are now cared for in the Elephant Transit Home in an adjacent park with the income Pinnawala orphanage generates, they say.

I was not happy to see the stalls and the captive elephants, all of them in chains, even the relatively young ones. I know there are those who believe it is give and take when it comes to animals in captivity, that humans give protection and care to elephants whoElephants in their stalls have been displaced with forest cover disappearing and waterholes drying up, and that in turn they suffer loss of freedom. But I don’t agree. Helping animals need not be at the cost of their losing what’s valuable to them. Well, it could be that I am fresh out of reading Jodi Picoult’s Leaving Time and my head is full of elephants, their ways, the awareness they are said to have, how not being part of a herd affects the learning process etc etc. Do I have to tell you, please do read the book. It is fiction, but the skillful way she has researched and incorporated details about life of elephants into the story is remarkable. It is not just the book, otherwise too I am totally against using of these majestic animals for temple festivals, in circuses, and keeping them chained when they are meant to be free. Reading the book has only made me realize how cruel we humans are and how easy it is for us to ease our conscience by telling ourselves wild animals gain by losing their freedom to us. No, they don’t. But I guess when I as a tourist go to see a place where elephants are held captive I am as The room I shared with Sandhyaguilty as anyone else and I have the grace to be ashamed about that.

So that’s how ended our first day. There were suggestions in the air of going to the Buddha temple later that night, but I was tired out, our day having started pretty early in the morning and I was only too glad when the program was rescheduled for the next day. What we needed was dinner and a good night’s rest to start the next day on a fresh note.

©Shail Mohan 2015