Man and elephant………..a lifetime of bonding.
One is an octogenarian and the other believed to be a septuagenarian, although no formal birth certificate is available. Just off the main Colombo-Kandy Road, at Molagoda in Kegalle, in a house sitting squat on a large property are two legendary figures --- 88-year-old Appuhamy Millangoda and 70-odd-year-old Millangoda Raja famous for those much admired tusks.
The Atha believed to sport the longest tusks of any domesticated elephant in all of Asia is ill. Standing tall, he is but a shadow of his earlier self, when majestically yet serenely in the finest of attire he stepped along the streets of Kandy carrying the karanduwa for the veneration of all, the mighty and the humble who had thronged to see the perahera.
For 35 long years, Millangoda Raja strode the streets of Kandy like a colossus, we learn from his equally legendary master, Appuhamy, known in the area as ‘Ralahamy’ for he was part of the land-owning gentry of yore.
|Millangoda Raja now in his 70’s : A shadow of his earlier self. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
In and outside the office and home of Appuhamy lie the material evidence of the care and concern that have been showered on the Millangoda Atha considered “gedera kenek wage”. (Like someone in his very home)
Old age, says Appuhamy, when asked what is wrong with the tusker. His jaw teeth have fallen and he can’t bite and chew his food, this elephant expert tells us, explaining that all the kithul and other leaves his beloved atha swallows, pass out in the same manner without being digested. That is why they prepare special fodder for him – pellet-like horse-feed brought from Australia and rice flour.
“We mix it with ground hakuru (jaggery),” smiles Appuhamy because the Millangoda Atha has a sweet tooth. Many bottles of saline with vitamins are also administered to the tusker.
Reticent at first, Appuhamy warms up to the subject, leading us back in time when wild elephants were caught using snares. The memories flow crystal clear, though feeble with age, to this elephant expert who may be one of the few “whisperers” left in the country.
It was 1945 and the government had issued permits for the capture of wild elephants and to the Nawagaththegama jungles in Anamaduwa, Puttalam, went Appuhamy and his people. Usually when capturing elephants they secure the services of the “mirichcha kattiya” from Mannar, a group of Muslims well-versed in the art of elephant-trapping.
Than nam alinwa tranquillize karanawane, he says and we detect a note of disdain!
Yes, they would go to the area picked on earlier and set up camp in the jungle, a wadiye, cooking sparse meals and roughing out. These were the jungles of 1945, hardly with human habitation close by except villages scattered far between. Sometimes they would operate from a few village homes, sharing the scrap meals of humble folk for the one or two months as they waited to trap the elephants.
Meticulously and in detail Appuhamy who has roamed the country launches on their modus operandi in this elephantine task. They would track the elephant herds and watch them for a few days, he says throwing nuggets of information about them. “Elephants sleep in the afternoon, going into the maha kelle seeking shade,” he says. They feed in the landu kelle (scrub jungle), on grass, whatever is left in the henas (slash-and-burn cultivations called chenas) in the morning and gradually as the sun becomes scorching, move into deeper jungle where they would just break off a nibble of tree-bark. It is in the night that they venture down to the wewa (tank) for water.
The pathways that the elephants take to the wewa would be monitored by the elephant trappers, identifying the route by examining the trees which would bear marks of “rubbing”.
They would also have an idea what type of elephant they would like to trap – a five footer or an eight-footer and that would decide the “boru wala” (false pit) that they would dig.
On several pathways that the elephants would lumber to the wewa, they would dig the false-pit to custom-fit the elephant – a smaller pit to fit the foot of a smaller elephant and a bigger one for the larger ones. The noose for the foot would be hidden in the pit and drawn and tied to a large tree. They were madu ugul, explains Appuhamy, drawing the process on a piece of paper.
|Appuhamy: Hopes his beloved
Atha will live a few more years
Aliyage adiya vetunagaman, ugula gessenawa, he says pointing out that the moment the elephant’s foreleg falls into the pit the jerk causes the snare to jump, noosing the leg effectively. The snare is held in place by a very small pathura (stake), he says showing the length with his fingers.
Then the elephants would be in turmoil. If it is a small one, the others will not leave the animal’s side. If it is a big one, they hang around in the jungle close-by. They will not abandon the trapped elephant and next morning when the trappers go there, the elephants would close in scattering them to safety, according to him.
The trappers, however, would bide their time. Appuhamy says that as noon draws nigh, alinta inda be, nidanda yanna ona. (The elephants are restless and need to leave for their nap). It is then that the men get close to the snared animal, bringing an already-domesticated one parallel, crawling under its belly to slowly put nooses on the other three free legs of the wild one.
It is dangerous work, this fourth-generation elephant owner, agrees nonchalantly, for sometimes the wild one can break free and in its thunderous escape into the jungle kill all in its path. Appuhamy’s first elephant-capture foray was way back in 1943 at Hambantota as a youth of 22. In that journey he covered the deep south including Angunukolapelessa, Hungama, Palle Malla, Bolana, Bundala and even Koggala.
Life was tough. After trapping the elephants, they would sell off some in the area itself and walk the others, the ones they hoped to keep, all the way back home…..miles and miles, sleeping and eating rough. It took them 23 days to come back home and many were those who fell by the wayside, ill with fevers.
Memories of the Anamaduwa “catch” comes to mind easily. Nineteen elephants, big and small, were the yield. But the Millangoda clan required only four and the practice was to sell off the rest. Appuhamy’s group herded the elephants to the Anamaduwa wew pitiya and sold the rest, some for Rs. 2,000, others for Rs. 2,500 and “hondama” (the best) for the then princely sum of Rs. 3,000.
Among the four Appuhamy brought back home was a little fellow about five-six feet tall. They did not walk him to Molagoda from Anamaduwa but sent him in a lorry. “We kept him at home and never sent him out to work,” says Appuhamy
This was the little fellow, pampered in the Millangoda home who would later become the Millangoda Raja.
He considers me to be his Thaththa, says Appuhamy, recalling numerous occasions when the Atha would greet him with welcoming trumpeting when he was in his car about two miles from home.
For Appuhamy, there have been many more “elephant catches” including massive tuskers but never one like this.
As Appuhamy and Raja both face their twilight years, the human with no pressure, no cholesterol, no diabetes, only a little sema (phlegm), the tusker declining rapidly due to its inability to eat, there is sorrow but also resignation.
It is swabavadharmaya (the way of nature), says Appuhamy, adding, apith davasaka merenna una. (We too must die someday).
However, there is a tinge of sadness as he murmurs, “I hope Raja will live at least a few more years,” for the bond between this man and this tusker has been special.
Isn’t he a national Treasure?
Isn’t it time to declare the Millangoda tusker a national treasure? This was the view expressed by many conservationists when talking about this extraordinary specimen of an elephant.