Elephants down the ages

Informative studies on the history of the elephant in South Asia and its relations with human beings in the past, present and the future.

Published : Mar 15, 2017 12:30 IST

IN May 2013, a symposium was held in the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Organised by the anthropologist Piers Locke and the historian Jane Buckingham, editors of the book under review, the symposium was on human-elephant relations in South Asia. Experts on the subject who participated in the event included Raman Sukumar from India, Thomas R. Trautmann from the United States and Charles Santiapillai from Sri Lanka. The proceedings of the conference have been produced as a book.

Conflict, Negotiation, and Coexistence: Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia, consisting of 13 papers, covers various aspects of the elephant, from the time of the woolly mammoth to the present scene in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. The contributors to the chapters are mostly academics, anthropologists and historians. In fact, India figures prominently in the book —with chapters titled “Symbolism and Power: Elephants and Gendered Authority in the Mughal World” by Jane Buckingham, “Conduct and Collaboration in Human-Elephant Working Communities of Northeast India” by Nicolas Laine and a chapter looking at human-elephant conflict in the Wayanad region in Kerala by Ursula Munster. The book sets out to examine the interaction between human beings and elephants down the ages.

Dating back to millions of years, the elephant is one of earth’s oldest creatures. Of the two species, the African and the Asian, the latter has been declining fast in numbers, with only about 50,000 left in the wild. The book under review is about Asian elephants, of which India has the largest population—28,000 in the wild and 3,500 in captivity. Countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam also sustain elephant populations, though in small numbers. There is even a tiny elephant population in the Yunnan province of southern China. However, the tropical forests of India and their floral diversity provide an ideal habitat for the animal to flourish. If the Asian elephant is to survive, it will be in this landscape.

Even during the British Raj, the government realised the vulnerability of the elephant, and as early as 1871 the animal was declared a protected species in the Madras Presidency and hunting was prohibited. In independent India, mounting pressure on the habitat as a result of deforestation and a flourishing trade in contraband ivory reduced further the elephant population in the wild. The government of India launched Project Elephant in 1992. However, because of the predilection of the elephant to move over vast areas, its protection has been a daunting task.

The Gajah Report of 2010 produced by the government reflects a dismal picture. Although poaching for ivory has been largely contained, encroachments into elephant habitat in the form of roads, dams, resorts and ashrams have reduced their lebensraum into islands of wilderness. Now, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has categorised the elephant as “endangered”.

One fact to remember is that the elephant has not been domesticated. It is caught in the wild, tamed and trained. Capture of wild elephants was banned in 1982. Elephants that are already in captivity are taken care of by traditional handlers. Elephants needed for forestry work and for tourism will have to be drawn from the offspring of captive animals. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department engages men of the Kadar tribe of Kerala, two for each animal, for this purpose.

The chapter “Towards a Deep History of Mahouts” by Thomas Trautmann focusses on the long relationship between the handler and the elephant. In fact, the starting point of the symposium was the ethnological study Piers Locke had done on the mahouts of Nepal. Trautmann points out that the war elephant appeared in the late Vedic period, perhaps as early as 1000 BCE. The last battle in which elephants were deployed was in 1833, during the invasion of Cambodia by the King of Siam.

Drawing from his earlier study of elephants in the Maurya period, Trautmann provides a detailed description of the role of war elephants and traces the spread of war elephants to Persia Greece and Rome. Of the fourfold armies of medieval times, it was the elephant section that was considered critical to the outcome of a battle. In the later period, elephants were used like a battle ram against fortifications. In training the animal for the battlefield, the mahout played a key role.

Writing about “Conservation and the History of Human-Elephant Relations in Sri Lanka”, Charles Santiapillai and S. Wijeyamohan point out that a Pandyan king sent a large number of elephants as dowry when his daughter was married to a Sri Lankan prince. They write: “Long before the Indo-Aryan people of north India, the Dravidian people in the south had discovered the art of capturing and taming free-roaming elephants.”

Elephants in Tamil land

However, none of the authors has touched upon the literary or epigraphical sources on elephants in south India. The Western Ghats even today remain one of the last redoubts of this magnificent creature. Throughout history, the elephant has been close to the people in what is Tamil Nadu today, as shown by the numerous references to the elephant in ancient Tamil literature. E.S. Varadaraja Ayyer’s The Elephant in Tamil Land cites such references to elephants. Kalingathuparani , a collection of poems of the Sangam period, talks about battle elephants. Inscriptions in the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur tell us that a regiment of these behemoths guarded the temple. In Hampi, Karnataka, and in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, one can see numerous sculptural representations of elephants in their various roles, military and ceremonial. South Indian languages have many proverbs in which the elephant figures. Sad to record, Santiapillai passed away while the book was in progress. Wijeyamohan continues the work they were doing together on elephants at Rajarata University in Sri Lanka.

Jane Buckingham, a historian from New Zealand, has dealt with the elephant’s role as a symbol of power in the Mughal empire, particularly during the reign of Akbar. Citing references in Akbarnama, she establishes that the emperor was partial to the animal. He often rode the elephant named Lakhna, which was known for its ferocity. We learn about one instance when the mahout of an elephant lost control, brought it to heel and made it fight. The author goes on to say that “Akbar’s skill and athleticism in subduing unridable elephants were presented by Abul Fazl [the author of Akbarnama ] as evidence that, though young, Akbar was powerful and would control dissent, a ‘Divine athlete’, clearly under God’s protection.” Akbar’s adventures with elephants are depicted in a few Mughal miniature paintings.

Scholars are getting interested in the area of the history of animals. Divyabhanusinh, the former vice president of the Bombay (now Bharat) Natural History Society, has traced the history of the lion in The Story of Asia’s Lions (2005) and the cheetah in The End of A Trail: The Cheetah In India, and Trautmann, in his Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History (2015), looks at elephants and royalty in India. Conflict, Negotiation, and Coexistence takes the study further in that direction.

The exhaustive bibliography provided in the book will be of immense help to researchers in the field.

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