Sri Lanka to hold state funeral for beloved sacred elephant Raja

Show caption A girl mourns the death of the ceremonial tusker Nadungamuwa Raja in Gampaha, Sri Lanka Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock Sri Lanka Sri Lanka to hold state funeral for beloved sacred elephant Raja Raja, who will be stuffed for posterity, was considered so important that when he travelled he had his own security detail Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia correspondent Tue 8 Mar 2022 06.36 GMT Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter

Share via Email

Sri Lanka is in mourning after the death of the country’s most sacred elephant, who is to be given a state funeral and his remains to be preserved and stuffed “for future generations” on orders of the president.

Nadungamuwa Vijaya Raja, popularly known as Raja, was considered to be the largest tamed elephant in Asia and as a young calf he had been among those “chosen” as the elite elephants who carried sacred Buddhist relics during an annual parade in Sri Lanka.

After news of his death aged 68, hundreds of mourners travelled to see his body at his residence on the outskirts of Colombo, which was covered in a white shroud and adorned with flowers.

Born in the Indian city of Mysore in 1953, according to folklore, Raja was one of two elephant calves gifted by the king of Mysore to a Sri Lankan physician monk to thank him for curing one of king’s relatives of an illness.

Sri Lankans pay their last respects to the elephant Nadungamuwa Raja, the main sacred tooth relic casket bearer at the Esala perahera in Kandy. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

For over a decade, Raja’s sacred role had been to carry the casket containing the holy tooth relic of lord Buddha during the annual procession of Esala, an important religious pageant for the country’s Buddhist majority which takes place in July during the full moon in the city of Kandy.

According to tradition, only certain elephants with very specific physical traits can be selected for this holy role. They have to be have a flat back, specially curved tusks and when they stand all seven points of the elephant– their four legs, trunk, penis and tail – must all touch the ground.

Raja was considered so important that when he travelled he had his own security detail, and a military unit was deployed when he made his annual 90km walk from his residence to the city of Kandy, where the Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic is located and the religious procession takes place.

President Gotabaya Rajapksa declared Raja to be a “national treasure” and said that after the Buddhist last rites had been performed on the elephant, his cadaver would be handed over to taxidermists who would stuff it for posterity. He will be given full state honours for his funeral.

He would not be the first sacred elephant to be given such treatment in death. His predecessor, also known as Raja, was also stuffed and preserved after he died aged 75 and now sits within his own museum in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic in Sri Lanka.