Travelling back in time to Ceylon

In 2014 Francesca and I spent two months in Sri Lanka researching her grandfather’s life in what was then Ceylon. He was a mysterious character who no-one in the family knew much about as his wife returned to England with their four children shortly after the First World War.

It transpired Francesca’s family had early British roots in Ceylon as  her great-great grandfather had gone their as a foot soldier and ended up a coffee farmer. We researched Sri Lankan history. The Kingdom of Kandy (yes, an actual Kandyland!) survived in the mountainous central region throughout the island’s history not succumbing to any of the European Empires until the British in the early nineteenth century – another blog perhaps.

Kandians were Buddhists. They venerated elephants. In part because the islands water supply came from the central mountains, believed to be produced by elephants. The Hindu elephant god Airavata (mount of Indra) is also known as abhra-Matanga – elephant of the clouds. There were no natural lakes on the island so the Kandians  did not want to disturb the source of their waters. Kandians had a continuous line of kings stretching back 2,000 years.

I used to like reflecting on the thought that mountain elephants (yes elephants used to live in the mountains) had lived happily in their homelands for all that time, undisturbed.

One day, having told the anecdote several times, how elephants had been left free to roam in the mountains for several thousand years I had the sudden realisation of just how hopelessly and typically human my perspective was. The genus Elephas originated in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Pliocene (2.5 to 5 million years ago – the original African elephants perhaps) and migrated to Asia. The Sri Lankan elephants Elephas maximus maximus may have been living happily on the island for MILLIONS of years. I’m not sure when the island separated from mainland India. Long enough for them to develop as a distinct subspecies. According to mitocondrial DNA analysis, Borneo elephants have undergone independent evolution for 300,000 years.

So, lets be conservative and say Sri Lankan elephants were happily living on the island for quarter of a million years. The legendary Prince Vijaya mentioned in Pali chronicles arrived  in approximately 500BC. Even the earliest evidence of the hominin Balangoda Man only dates to approx. 38,000BC. Now we have totally destroyed their paradise (and are on the verge of exterminating them).

It was without doubt the elephants island. We are the (very) recent arrivals. So, I started to ask myself, ‘what were the elephants doing for all that time’. You will find an inventive response in my novel Padma and the Elephant Sutra.

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