Buddha’s Giants

Discover how Asia’s endangered elephants have played a crucial and varied role in Sri Lanka’s rich and turbulent history, and learn what the future may hold for these gentle giants. 

Produced by NHNZ

One of the most magnificent Asian pageants takes place every year in the Sri Lankan city of Kandy. During perahera season the entire city celebrates for 11 days as fire-jugglers, spectacular dancers, frenetic drummers and more than 60 elephants parade the elaborately lit streets.

The richly decorated elephants are majestic escorts for the Sacred Tooth Relic casket of the Buddha. It is said the tooth was rescued from the Buddha’s funeral pyre and smuggled into Sri Lanka many centuries ago.

Buddhists believe that in honouring the Tooth Relic they honour the Buddha himself. Because the Buddha was once incarnated as an elephant, they are seen as reflections of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion – and male tuskers as the only elephants majestic enough to honour the sacred duty of parading the Relic

It’s also believed that any king who guarded the tooth had the right to rule the country, and still to this day it remains a powerful symbol of Sri Lankan sovereignty. This is why the successful completion of perahera is reported to the president of Sri Lanka, and why only a few years ago, the Tooth Temple was the target of a terrorist bomb.

Even after the bombing, and with a cease-fire in place on this island torn for years by civil strife, crowds of several million people from Sri Lanka and around the world still come to Kandy for the spectacle of perahera. But while Sri Lanka’s people are looking forward to more peaceful times, the country’s elephants are in trouble.

Each night of perahera the task of carrying the Relic casket in its beaten-silver howdah is given to one of several magnificent male tusked elephants. Whichever one is chosen for this sacred duty is known as the Maligawa Tusker.

But there are few tuskers remaining to carry out the perahera rituals, and many of them are now reaching the ends of their lives ¾ as is most of Sri Lanka’s domestic elephant population. Unless solutions are found, their passing will also end a two thousand-year-old relationship between the country’s people and their elephants.

Sri Lanka’s wild elephants are also facing difficult times as they compete with 19 million people for land and food. Humans and elephants have been fighting a land war with casualties on both sides; one elephant dies every three days, while peoples’ possessions and lives are being destroyed by the giant creatures.

Wildlife managers are determined to end this war now, and are making decisions which, if successful, will allow people and elephants to live together for a century and more into the future ¾ solving the problems facing wild elephants and the domestic herd.

Buddha’s Giants interweaves the excitement of an extraordinary festival with fascinating insights into the part that Asia’s largest — and greatly endangered — land animal has played in Sri Lanka’s rich and turbulent history.

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