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Politics

The politics of elephants in the room

Sri Lanka looks after its pachyderms but keeping the human-animal peace isn't easy

An elephant being dressed up for Colombo's main <i>perahera</i> on Feb. 10 ​ (​Photo by​ Marwaan Macan-Markar​)​

I grew up in a corner of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, where a domesticated elephant was a regular presence in daily life. "Our" elephant belonged to the Buddhist temple near our home. On some mornings, it would lumber past our front gate, the chains tied to its legs producing a rhythmic rattle. Vehicles that clogged the road during the morning rush had to give way.

It is a slice of life that many Sri Lankans can relate to -- an urban setting rooted in the history of Sinhala-Buddhist society, the country's ethnic and religious majority. Elephants stand out in elaborate traditional murals that depict the island's ancient royal cities, featuring in regal pageants, Buddhist ceremonies and battles, or as beasts of burden.

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