Sri Lanka’s most sacred elephant has passed away at the age of 68, prompting an outpouring of grief and a presidential order for the huge cadaver to be stuffed and preserved for posterity.
On Monday, a procession of mourners – including schoolchildren, priests in saffron robes and an elderly lady with a Zimmer frame – paid their respects to Raja, praying and touching his mighty tusks in reverence.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared Raja a “national treasure” and ordered his remains be preserved “for future generations to witness,” his office said.
Raja was handed over to taxidermists after Buddhist funeral rites.
Nadungamuwa Raja was the most important among 100 elephants who walked in an annual pageant, surrounded by fire-eaters and drummers.
Decked out in lights, Raja carried the golden casket of Buddhist relics at the annual Esala Perahera pageant, a major tourist draw in the central city of Kandy – nearly every year from 2006 to 2021.
He even had an armed escort of elite commandos after a 2015 incident when a motorcyclist almost rammed into him while on an outing to attend a temple ceremony.
One of Raja’s predecessors, who was also known as Raja, carried the golden casket of 34 relics for exactly 34 years between 1953 and 1986.
When the older Raja died in 1988 aged 72 there was an enormous outpouring of grief and the government declared a national day of mourning.
The older Raja was also preserved and has his own museum within Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth compound, which contains a purported tooth of the Buddha.
Search for successor
Choosing a successor will be a lengthy process.
The chosen elephant has to be from a particular caste with special physical characteristics to qualify.
When the elephant stands, seven points – the four legs, its trunk, penis and tail – must all touch the ground.
The animal must also have a flat back, the tusks must be formed in the shape of a traditional winnow and its height must be about 3.7 metres (12 feet).
An exception was made for Raja, who was only 3.2 metres (10.5 feet) tall, because he was the tallest in the country at the time.
Raja was born in India and had been gifted to Sri Lanka by an Indian prince.
Elephants are a protected species in Sri Lanka but many are kept as pets because they are seen as status symbols.
Laws have been tightened in recent years to ban the capture of wild elephants, which is punishable by death.
Animal rights campaigners say captive elephants are often maltreated, a charge denied by temples and owners of domesticated elephants.