Elephant story

Print edition : October 30, 2015

Lead elephant, Arjuna, carrying the 750-kilogram golden howdah from the Mysuru Palace premises during the Dasara procession. Elephants were a standard asset of Indian rulers. Photo: M.A. Sriram

Thomas R. Trautmann.

A herd of elephants marching across the fields at Shoolagiri in Hosur. The problem of man-elephant encounters has given rise to anti-conservation voices. Photo: N. Bashkaran

The insights and information provided in the book are of immense value in understanding the Asiatic elephant better and in planning conservation strategies.

The nature writer Peter Mattheissen once said: “One way to grasp the main perspectives of environment and biodiversity is to understand the origins and precious nature of a single living form, a single manifestation of the miracle of existence.”

Books on wildlife history, particularly those examining a single species, are rather rare. In Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History, the historian Thomas R. Trautmann traces the story of the Asiatic elephant from the earliest notice to the present day in the context of its association with royalty, covering a time frame of about 3,000 years. Trautmann, Emeritus Professor in the University of Michigan where he taught the history of ancient India, lives up to the reputation he has earned through his earlier works, which include Dravidian Kinship (1981) and Arthasastra: The Science of Wealth (2012). The insights and information he provides are of immense value in understanding the elephant better and in planning conservation strategies. The book also provides important insights into the military history of Asia. Trautmann’s earlier work, a monograph titled Elephants and the Mauryans (1982), can be called a precursor to the present work. It is familiar territory that he is dealing with here, elephants and their association with kingship. It is basically the Asian elephant that he is looking at, but the geographical area covered is wider, from Spain to Java.

Although he writes about the elephants found in 13 countries, including China, Laos and Bangladesh, the main focus of his work is on India. Next to India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have a considerable population of elephants. Wild elephants were once distributed throughout China. If the tiger is the national animal of India, the elephant is an iconic animal of the subcontinent. The largest land animal is also one of the earth’s oldest creatures, dating back to millions of years. Of the two elephant species, the African and the Asian, the latter has been declining fast in numbers, with only about 52,000 left in the wild. Compare this with the population of 3,00,000 African elephants. Of the surviving Asian elephants, India has the largest population of 28,000 in the wild and 3,500 in captivity. India’s vast tropical forests and their floral diversity provided an ideal habitat for the animal. Even the British Raj had realised the vulnerability of the elephant, for as early as 1871, the elephant was declared a protected species in the Madras Presidency. In independent India, although sport-hunting of elephants had stopped, there was mounting pressure on its habitat as a result of deforestation caused by hydroelectric projects, construction of roads and cultivation of cash crops. The Government of India set up Project Elephant in 1992 to protect the animal. However, because of the predilection of the elephant to roam over vast areas, their protection has been a daunting task. Frequent reports in the press about seizure of tusks from poachers show that elephants are still being slaughtered to feed a flourishing trade in contraband ivory outside the country, mainly in the East.

The Gajah Report released by the government in 2010 revealed a dismal picture of the status of the elephant in the wild. One fact to remember while talking about the elephant is that although it is used for work and in ceremonies, it has not been domesticated. Nor is it bred in captivity. The gestation period, coupled with the long dependency period of the calf, would put the mother elephant out of action for a long time. So they are caught in the wild and trained. Capture of wild elephants was banned in 1982. Yet, the population of the wild elephant has dwindled to pitiable numbers even as its habitat is shrinking fast. As the author says in the opening paragraph of the book, “Their very survival is a cause for concern.”

Trautmann has gone about the job of tracing the history of the elephant with the diligence of a seasoned historian, harnessing varied sources of information to highlight the antiquity of a single animal species. In addition to official reports, the one source he has used heavily is literary. Being a Sanskrit scholar he is at home in this area, particularly the Arthasastra on which his work Kautilya and the Arthasastra: A Statistical Investigation of the Authorship and Evolution of the Text (1971) is well known. He says that the references to elephants in the Arthasastra are evidence to the antiquity of elephant lore. There are other treatises in Sanskrit on the subject such as Gajasastra (elephant science) of Palkapya and Gajagrahanaprakara (exposition of the capture of elephants) of Narayana Diksita. One of the two copies of Gajasastra is available in the Saraswathi Mahal library in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, and has been translated into Tamil.

Mahavamsa, the Buddhist work from Sri Lanka in Pali, is used as a source to know about the Sri Lankan tradition. Although written by monks, Mahavamsa contains considerable material on both royal and war elephants. It talks about a king of Madurai giving his daughter in marriage to King Vijaya of Sri Lanka and says the entourage of the bride included elephants. The island is still home to about 4,000 elephants.

Tamil literary works, mainly from the Sangam corpus (3rd-4th centuries A.D.), contain a lot of information on elephants. The author has harnessed this. Kalingathuparani, a collection of war poems of the Sangam period, has many references to elephants in battle. The poets of ancient Tamil Nadu documented their external world in great detail. For instance, there are about 11 words in Tamil to denote each type of elephant—tusker, makna (tuskless male), battle elephant, ceremonial elephant, work elephant, female elephant, calf, and, so on.

The author focusses largely on war elephants, which played a crucial role in the model of kingship and formed an important part of the army. The battle elephant was the ancient equivalent of a modern-day battle tank. The author points out that the war elephant originated in India. For many centuries, elephants were used in battle only in countries that had elephant habitats. But later, faraway kingdoms that had no elephant habitat also began using elephants for military purposes. The most well known in this category is the elephants that Hannibal, the Carthaginian commandant, had in his contingent that crossed the Alps to reach Rome. Although it was expensive to acquire, train and maintain elephants, kings in Persia, Greece, Rome and Turkey had elephants in their stables. Alexander the Great used elephants in his campaign in India. Elephants figure prominently in the battle of Jhelum, in which the Greek faced the armies of Porus. Among the many gifts Alexander took back with him to Babylon were 200 elephants.

In India, even today the central feature of the 10-day Mysore Dasara festival is the welcome accorded to the “Dasara” elephants and the “jamboo savari” on Vijayadasami, the last day of the festival, when the main elephant in the procession carries the idol of Chamundeswari on a golden howdah. Elephants were a standard asset of Indian rulers. By 1,000 B.C., elephants had probably become a common feature in the kingdoms of northern India. But elephants were familiar to humans even earlier. Among the 4,000-odd seals that have been found in the Indus Valley sites, at least 57 feature the elephant. However, since the Indus script has not been deciphered, we do not know much about the animal’s status in that civilisation.

In Mughal miniatures

Miniature paintings of different schools of Medieval India serve as a source for the author. For instance, one Mughal miniature, reproduced from Akbarnama, shows elephants in battle. A 17th century Persian painting featuring a tame lion used for hunting a boar is mentioned as “the only record in the public domain of such a sport”. Murals from the Lakhota palace in Jamnagar depicting a lion hunt, and the British-era etchings of artists such as W. Daniells have been scrutinised. In Indian historiography, visuals are rarely used as a source of information. Traditionally, painting and sculpture are consigned to the realm of art history. Although the author breaks this convention by analysing paintings, sculptures have not been examined. Examples of the depiction of the elephant in sculptures include the elephant family in the massive 8th century relief sculpture referred to as Arjuna’s Penance in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu, the elephant frieze in the 11th century Somanathapura temple in Karnataka, the elephants that seem to bear the weight of the rock-cut temple at Ellora, Maharashtra, and the Vijayanagara monuments in Hampi, where elephants are depicted both in temples and in secular buildings.

Trautmann argues that the kings saw the elephant as a valuable resource. This is evident as far back as recorded history goes. When a king owned elephants it symbolised his primacy. Unless the king was powerful and wealthy, he could not organise an operation to capture elephants and train them for warfare. Another dimension of this fact is that if elephants could be captured and used for military purposes on that scale, then we can assume that there were vast stretches of forests and that this habitat was taken care of. One contemporary account says that there were 1,000 elephants in Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom. The author observes that the use of elephants in war helped in the preservation of their habitat and their population in the wild. Evidently, in southern India elephants were more common than horses as the latter had to be brought over long distances. The Western Ghats, with its varied types of forests, served as an ideal home to elephants. Avvaiyar, the legendary Tamil poet, describes the hilly area of the Tamil region as teeming with elephants ( vezhamudaithu malainaadu). The region continues to have a concentration of wild elephants and will be their last bastion in this part of the world. After the era of war elephants, elephants were in demand in the timber trade, particularly after the arrival of the British when clearing of forests began on a large scale. The British saw the sal and teak forests of India as a treasure trove without a watchman.

One subject the author does not mention is that of temple elephants. In the olden times, kings donated elephants to temples. Temple elephants are kept chained most of the time and hardly exercised. A study by the Bharat Natural History Society (BNHS) on temple elephants highlights the pitiable condition of these animals. Quite a few non-governmental organisations have taken up the cause of temple elephants. Animal rights activists, who are vociferous on the subject of jallikattu (bull-vaulting), are silent on the issue of temple elephants.

In the process of tracing the history of the elephant, Trautmann touches on certain important issues connected with conservation in India, such as man-elephant encounters, a problem that has assumed huge proportions in recent years and has often given rise to anti-conservation voices in rural areas. When the elephants raid the fields and trample the crops, the villagers/farmers do not see why the animal should be protected.

The book has an exhaustive bibliography, which will be of immense help to researchers of wildlife history. It is an outstanding example of how interdisciplinary approach to a subject can provide fresh insights and can open new areas for exploration. At the Students Conference on Conservation Sciences held in Bengaluru in September, one could see tentative attempts by young researchers to come out of the narrow confines of wildlife biology and perceive the interconnections with other disciplines.

What is to be borne in mind is that it is not just the mere survival of a species that is at stake. If we cannot protect the elephant, there is not much hope for the myriad other creatures that are declining in numbers inexorably. The elephant has come to symbolise the wild. Trautmann is hopeful of the future of the elephant. He concludes: “It appears that the nation-state can secure the future of elephants.”

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor