29th July 2001
Sports| Mirror Magazine
By Kumudini HettiarachchiAtambagaskada on the Old Jaffna Road: Smart little boys in blue shorts and white shirt, with their bags of books and bottles of water walking home after school. For them 'home' is not what we understand it to be. Home is the temple in this frontier village, just two km from the Forward Defence Line in the Wanni.
Already the younger children are having their lunch off tin and plastic plates, seated in the temple garden. A cool breeze brushes the hair off their foreheads and they throw scraps of food to the kittens, dogs and chickens, which hover around them.
Sudarmaramaya is home to 37, including six monks. Managed by Atambagaskada Kalyanatissa Thero, 32, it is a story of compassion and love, the way Buddha Himself advocated. For in this temple, shelter, food and care are being provided by this monk with meagre means, to Tamil children ranging from four years of age to 17, orphaned by the war.
It began with a visit Kalyanatissa Thero paid to the Sidambarampuram refugee camp in Vavuniya many, many years ago. He had carried the infant Kuganeshan who was looking at him with an unwavering glance. Kuganeshan was an orphan. The child took to him and refused to leave his arms even when the Thero was ready to go back to the temple. The Thero felt compelled to take him with him. Thereafter began his role of foster parent, with the help of his aged mother who cooks the children's meals.
"Kiri povala haduwe," says Kalyanatissa Thero recalling how they fed Kuganeshan who is affectionately called Shakthi, with milk from a bottle soon after he was brought to the temple.
The monk himself washes the clothes of the children and looks after them. Often he is able to partake of the noon alms only after the stipulated time and he simply does not have time to engage in daily devotionals. He does so only on full moon poya day, but Kalyanatissa Thero feels this is what the Buddha would have wanted him to do. A service to mankind.
Shakthi is now in Grade 3. He goes to the school close to the temple, comes back home, studies and plays. He does not miss the refugee camp.
Hearing of the Thero's kindness, widows who are unable to make ends meet, come from as far away as Malavi and beg the monk to look after their children. That's how the numbers have grown.
Among them is also Samitha Himi, a Tamil boy whose father had died when he was very young. His mother handed him over to the temple and recently he decided to don robes. "I come from a Christian Tamil family, but was so moved by the environment here and the example of Kalyanatissa Thero that I decided to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha," says Samitha Himi, 16.
Kalyanatissa Thero is helped in his labour of love by the army and the NGO, Seva Lanka. "Some think that soldiers are armed murderers, but they are full of compassion. They keep aside a little bit of the rice and vegetables they get to cook each day and send it across to us. That is how I feed the children. Seva Lanka provides the clothes, the oil and the soap," he says
But they do not drink tea. "We cannot afford to drink tea because we don't have the sugar," he says, smiling wryly. Their accommodation too is bare and austere. The children sleep in the tiny temple hall, and the monk in a small room off it.
"Accommodation is a problem. We don't have any money to put up a building though we have the garden space," he says adding that the army is trying to help out.
And his close ally, his mother has six children of her own. She looks after the temple children when they are ill and cooks for them. "I too have six children of my own. One son is at home now with a leg blasted by a mine, when he was a soldier in Jaffna. I know what these boys' mothers must be feeling, when they are unable to look after them," she says.
Adds Kalyanatissa Thero, "This is my mite towards my country."
"It's ten thousand times more potent than morphine." The words echoed in my head as I looked at the container carrying the tranquillizers.
Experiencing a brisk but rather bumpy jeep ride with a veterinarian and some vet students armed with a tranquillizer gun as travelling companions, I could have easily imagined myself on some wildlife expedition.
But the fact that the scenery outside was not the jungle, but the city of Kandy at its busiest- it is Perahera season after all - reminded me that this was not a trip to the wilderness, but one that was to take me behind the scenes. Every show has a great many people the audience never sees, supporting the whole operation and ensuring that it goes smoothly. This was the task of my travelling companions, and they work directly with the star performers of the Esala Perahera - the elephants.
To hold the perahera without the elephants would be like trying to stage Hamlet without the prince. Yet working with the largest land animal is not without its risks. An elephant running amok during the Perahera would be nothing short of a calamity. "Our main function is to prevent this," says Dr. Neville De Silva, who heads the team of veterinarians who work with the Police every year during the perahera. A senior lecturer at the Faculty of Veterinary Science of the University of Peradeniya, he has been doing this for the past fifteen years while the university has provided the service for well over 25 years.
Every day of the Perahera, a team of four veterinary surgeons and some final- year students perform a preliminary check on each animal before the event and then station themselves in some central location until the end of the Perahera, ready to respond to a call of emergency.
It was just 5.30 on Wednesday evening, and the procession was not the grandest, yet Kandy town was already a teeming mass of humanity. But thanks to the Police jeeps the team was given, we were able to move around quickly to the places where the elephants were grouped, according to the Devala they belonged to.
Our first stop was near the Walkers' Building, where about eight elephants were herded. There the team checked the animals -they were all female- and spoke to the mahouts.
"It's a preventive measure," says Dr. De Silva. "We look for signs of unrest, especially 'musth' which occurs due to hormonal activity in male elephants. It makes them more aggressive and unsafe to be taken in procession. The main give-away of this condition is the secretion on the cheek area of the animal." They also look for signs of unrest or nervousness such as free trunk movement. "If we feel that there is the slightest possibility that the animal is unsafe, we immediately recommend that the animal be left out of the procession," says Dr. De Silva. Special precautions such as extra shackles are also taken with excitable animals.
The mahouts are a good source of information, not only about their own elephants, but also about others, as they are a close-knit community. The team looked at about 50 animals that day, ranging from several feisty babes to 60-year-old veterans like Ruwanraja of the Gangarama Temple. All of them received a clean bill of health.
Despite all these precautions, the team carries with them the tranquillizer gun, which is in fact a modified shotgun. According to Dr. De Silva something sudden like a loud noise, or a burn caused by one of the torches carried alongside the elephants is enough to cause a panic. And like in people, this panic is liable to spread. On such occasions the gun comes into play. "We are informed by Police radio if an animal is playing up, and we are immediately taken to the spot."
Only the most experienced vets handle the dart gun. "The dosage must be very precise. We have to take factors such as the age and size of the animal into account and prepare a dose instantly," he says. "There is also a choice of several kinds of cartridges to be made. If we use a long range cartridge in close range, the whole dart might get deeply embedded in the animal, causing complications."
The process takes about a minute or two, explains Dr. De Silva. The drug first sedates the elephant and then has a tranquillizing effect. Once this happens, the elephant is tied with chains to a tree etc. Next comes an antidote that revives the animal immediately, but it remains in a sedated state, explains Dr. De Silva.
" It's ten thousand times more potent than morphine. Just a little bit is enough to kill a person instantly,"says Dr. De Silva, adding that even contact with the skin is not recommended. "We can't afford to miss, but thankfully the target is a very big one."
"It's the last resort, and we always wait until the area is cleared of onlookers. We try to make sure that no harm comes to the animal or to any people or property around."
So the next time you go to see the Perahera and see an elephant acting up, rest assured. The experts are on their way.
Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to