Gajaga Wannama – Sri Lankan Literature

Gajaga Wannama

The elephants are out. Last night they marched
Gorgeous through streets, caparisoned like kings,
Electric radiance shattering the night,
Laden with relics, talismans and things.

Dawn came. And they were tethered in their stalls
(The back garages of an Institute of Education)
Where they swayed and chafed,
Had time for thought. A notion then took root.

In the huge cerebellum that uncoils
Behind the great, domed skull. ‘We are the lords
Of open spaces. Great bucolic monarchs
Of the land.” The city’s teeming hordes.

Hooted and jangled by beyond the walls
That prisoned and demanded patience from them.
With one accord they snapped their ankle chains
And lumbered forth towards the gates to storm them.

The city froze. Then birds sprang to the air
And men to trees. Vehicles clambered walls.
All order vanished as the blind grey surge
Swept down the arcades and the trumpet calls.

Drowned klaxons, sirens, bells, horns, engines – swamped
The roaring of the bloodstream of Colombo
Quite suddenly it ended. Having made
His point, the pachyderm returned to Jumbo.

And plodded meekly home. The city now
knows behemoths, aroused will rule by riot.
We bow the head and bend a loyal knee
to jungle law3, in hope of peace and quiet.

Author Richard de Zoysa

Summary and Analysis


gorgeous= beautiful
caparisoned= decorated
radiance= light reflected by something.
shatter = break into pieces.
laden =weighted down by something heavy,
relic = a part of a deceased holy person’s body kept as an object of reverence
talismans = an inscribed ring or stone thought to have magic powers
dawn = early morning
tethered = tie with a rope or chain so as to restrict its movement.
swayed =moved slowly or rhythmically from side to side.
chafed = rubbed a part of the body to restore warmth
notion = an impulse
took root = began to grow
cerebellum = a region of the brain that plays an important role in motor control
uncoils = make straight
domed skull = round skull
bucolic = relating to the countryside
monarch = a head of a state
teeming = swarming hordes = large herds
jangled = made a ringing metallic sound
accord = agreement
snapped = broke out suddenly
storm = suddenly attack
clambered = climbed
order = the disposition of people according to a particular method
surge = a sudden powerful
arcades = a covered passageways arches along one or both sides
trumpet call =a bugle call
drowned =submerged
klaxons = electric horns
sirens = horns that make a loud sound as a warning
swamped = overwhelmed with water
pachyderm = a very large mammal especially an elephant
jumbo = a very large thing plodded = moved slow
meekly= submissively
behemoths = huge creatures
riot = a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.
jungle law = natural law; the weaker is overpowered by the stronger


Subject-matter: a sudden excitement of tame elephants
Main Theme: When an uncontrollable power unleashed it causes a catastrophic situation.
Sub-themes: Jungle law invades the civilized human society.
A lawless society overpowers the innocent.


Appropriate words and phrases
caparisoned like kings
electric radiance
the lords of open spaces pachyderm
bucolic monarchs
with one accord
the city froze
grey surge
a loyal knee
jungle law
Shifting from present to past
The elephants are out. Last night they marched

We are the lords
Of open spaces. Great bucolic monarchs Of the land

Personification: the walls
That prisoned and demanded patience from them the trumpet calls.
Drowned klaxons, sirens, bells, horns, engines
The roaring of the bloodstream of Colombo

Exaggeration: Vehicles clambered walls.
the blind grey surge
Quite suddenly it ended. Having made
His point, the pachyderm returned to Jumbo.

Retrospection: the whole poem is a retrospection

Simile: like kings

Language: the ordinary language with figures of speech


The subject-matter of Gajagawannama by Richard de Zoysa, is the horrible scene created by some excited elephants in the city of Colombo. That is the very reason for the poem to be titled, “Gajagawannama,” as ‘gaja’ means elephants. These elephants actually, were not wild elephants but tame ones brought to glorify a Buddhist perahera. The elephants are pachyderms which are the biggest and the strongest animals in the world.

Although these animals had been taken to Colombo for the purpose of adorning the perahera as soon as they freed themselves, they roamed throughout the city and caused a great havoc.

Nevertheless, the whole poem is based on the black July which took place in the same year, 1983. It created a violent situation all over the city and caused a great genocide and a vast material destruction. Many lives were lost with no justifiable reason and many houses, shops and such other buildings were burnt down. The thugs and the other extremist racialist groups in Colombo when they took power into their hands made the whole city a pool of blood and ruins.


In the verses but the last two verses, the poet directly describes the excited elephants and the destruction they caused. But, of course, the hidden meaning of all those verses is the violent situation created in black July. The sixth verse includes the words, sirens, bells, horns and engines. These words give the reader the idea of a war-torn situation which reminds him of the civil war which started from the north and spread throughout the whole country. And the word ‘bloodstream’ indicates the uncompassionate murders of innocent civilians. The last verse includes the word ‘riot’ and the term jungle law, which denotes the fact that the weaker is always oppressed by the stronger. The first line of the last verse, “And plodded meekly home,” denotes the fact that the rioters had no real personality. The poem ends with the situation restored to the earlier peaceful situation but the last line of the last verse of the poem, “in hope of peace and quiet” hints us the temporary peace may not be constant.

Gajaga Vannama Elephant Dance – a traditional dance form)

Elephant Dance (a traditional dance). In February 1983, some elephants brought to Colombo for the Navam Perahera held by the Gangarama Temple broke free from the
make whiff stalls where they were tethered and ran through the streets of Colombo. The elephant is the symbol of the UNP the ruling party of Sri Lanka (from 1977 to 1994). UNP thugs ,  are believed to have been heavily involved in organising anti-Tamil violence in July 1983) Shortly before that poem and these troubles, Richard had already used the image of the elephant to convey what was building up, in ‘Gajagavannama’, his evocative account of an incident that occurred in February 1983. In an author’s note he penned later for an anthology, he mentioned directly the connection with the July riots; but it should be noted that the poem had been written a couple of months earlier, being based on his awareness, from trying to help the ruling party with its 1982 referendum campaign to extend the life of Parliament, of how ruthless, albeit still on the surface restrained, that party had become. The use then of the riotous elephants of February to foreshadow an increasingly dominant fact of life in this country was immensely powerful.

Gajagawannama is a musical recital by group of dances emulating the graceful demeanor (behavior) of elephants. It relates to an exclusively cultural pagents where elephants in large numbers take part. The poem at a superficial level can be related to a true happening of the era, where elephants rampage along the streets of Colombo causing a lot of destruction. (Ref; foot note in the poem)At a deeper level, the poem could be interpreted in a political rein. Symbolically, elephants signify a party symbol of a prominent group. Considering the size and other characteristics, they could be political thugs who ran the show in the turbulent time. They use their political and muscular power to quench any form of unrest uprising in the country. They were state sponsored and state acknowledged. They engage in extra judicial killings of their whim and fancy. The hand that maneuverer them are political manipulators. They oppressed the civilians and this era was advocating ruled by riot. The title is suggestive and ironic since a stark contrast between the behavioral patterns of the same themes of elephants in two occasions. This presents the duality of behavior in both elephants and politicians. Above political concern put up a pious image to the public while resort into violence in secrecy. The first stanza presents the glory, the glamour, the grace with which the elephants came hay-vive in the city. The element of humor is brought forth by attributing human characteristics to the animals. “the nation then take root domed skull”.

Humor is created through diction.( use of words. EG; the pachyderm returned to Jumbo…. and the dramatic events that took place. Eg; birds sprang to the air and men to trees, vehicles climbed walls.

The abrupt beginning and end create humor as well. The diverse action of people, animals, vehicles create humor.

This poem is prophetic since it brings out uncanny (open, strange) predictors about events bound to happen a few months ahead. The comparison between the elephants and humans are satirical.

Despite the large size, elephants are gifted with meagre (small) brain. However, July 1983 this scene was realized. Tamils and other civilians ran mock in the streets while thirsty racists pursuit them.

The final point was driven home by the political though their antics people become submissive with the knowledge how destructive the political forces can be. Theme: How the breakdown of law and order is caused due to the excesses of corrupt politicians. The UNP is synonymous with corruption and violence under the cover ofgrace and free society. They opted to violence.