Footage of the festival showed the moment when an ornately dressed elephant in the streets of Kotte, near Colombo, became unnerved by a crowd of people behind it and suddenly charged forward, causing the crowd to disperse and flee from its path in terror.
The animal, which was covered in bright lights as it took part in the parade, then sharply turned around a corner, causing the person riding it to fall off. The man narrowly escaped being trampled.
Several festival-goers ran into another elephant at the front of the procession, which then became violent and ran, pushing onlookers.
At least 18 people were injured during the rampage and have since received treatment, officials from two hospitals said on Sept. 9. Of those injured during the incident, 16 have been discharged.
One individual is being observed for possible abdominal damage while the other is receiving treatment for an injured ear, according to officials.
The annual Sri Lankan festival, which departs from Kotte’s 600-year-old Buddhist Raja Maha Vihara temple (destroyed by the Portuguese) and proceeding through the region’s streets, usually features a procession of lavishly decorated elephants and dancers.
The modern 10-day festival dates back to the reign of the King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747–1781 AD) when the Kandyan King combined the Buddhist Dalada Perehara (procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic) with the Hindu Devalas Peraheras in honor of four Hindu deities to appease visiting Thai clerics, according to the Sacred Tooth Relic temple website.
In addition to the mixed religious meanings, the festival is also a display of traditional Sinhalese culture and customs.
Ornately decorated elephants are a major attraction in Sri Lankan religious festivals. Wealthy families own captive elephants as a symbol of their prosperity, pride, and nobility and send their elephants to participate in parades around the country.
Some religious temples also own elephants.
The use of elephants in religious festivals in southern Asia has been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks as animal rights groups called for an end to animal exploitation in captivity.
The charitable organization Save Elephant Foundation, based in Thailand, shared heartbreaking images of a malnourished 70-year-old elephant that is forced to perform in Sri Lanka’s annual Esala (July) Perahera festival in Kandy. This year, the festival was held Aug. 5 to Aug. 15.
Lek Chailert, the founder of the group, wrote in a Facebook post on Aug. 13: “This is Tikiri, a 70-year-old ailing female. She is one of the 60 elephants who must work in the service of the Esala Perahera festival in Sri Lanka this year.
“Tikiri joins in the parade early every evening until late at night every night for ten consecutive nights, amidst the noise, the fireworks, and smoke.
“She walks many kilometers every night so that people will feel blessed during the ceremony. No one sees her bony body or her weakened condition, because of her costume,” the post continued.
“No one sees the tears in her eyes, injured by the bright lights that decorate her mask, no one sees her difficulty to step as her legs are short shackled while she walks.”
Photographs of Tikiri showed embellished robes covering her frail and bony body as she wandered the streets of Kandy.
The Save Elephant Foundation urged the public to get in touch with Sri Lanka’s prime minister to take immediate action.
Since the public outcry, the parade’s organizers confirmed that Tikiri did not participate in the event’s closing procession and that she was being “treated,” reported Fox 8.
The Sri Lankan elephant is currently endangered, and since the beginning of the 19th century, its numbers have dropped almost 65 percent, with present-day population figures estimated at 2,500 to 4,000, according to World Wild Life.
The animal is protected under Sri Lankan law, and an individual can face the death penalty for killing one.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.