Elephants have fascinated mankind perhaps more than any other species of animal on earth. Probably the most well-known among the wild animals of India is the elephant. The elephant is deeply interlinked with a man in India in his religious and cultural heritage. Curiously enough, even though the elephant has been a part of human history in India from time immemorial and treatises such as Palakapyas Hastayurveda (treatment of elephants) have been written in the past, scientific enquiry into the ecology of the elephant in India was not undertaken till the late seventies of the last century.


Elephants and epics

The two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha, probably describe the Indian society of 1000 – 700 B.C. Both the epics abound in references to elephants in the life of the people, in peace and in war. Elephants rather than chariots had become the royal mount by the 4th Century B.C. if not much earlier. ‘Chaturang Bal’ (four-armed forces consisting of chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry) is a standard description of a large army in both the epics.

The elephant in literature

Ancient Tamil literature of the Sangam period (1st to 3rd century A.D.)  offers a wealth of information about elephants and shows elephants as a part of the culture and way of life of the ancient Tamils. ‘Nigandu’, the old poetical lexicon, has 44 names for the elephant species, and four separate names for elephant calves. Each part of an elephant’s body is separately named. There are also indications that the domestication of elephants was indigenous to India. And the Aryans picked it up in the process of assimilating the culture of a country they had overrun. There are many references too to the training of elephants.

Kalidasa (about 400 A.D.), perhaps the greatest poet of the golden age of the imperial Guptas, makes very interesting observations on wild as well as domesticated elephants in  ‘Raghuvamsam’ and ‘Kumarasambhavam’.

Bana’s  Harsha  –  Charita  (7th Century A.D) describes the entrance to the royal camp of King Harshavardhana of Kanauj in  Northern India as “dark with the congregation of elephants; some for tying up with silk ropes (presumably this means for use at court); some for carrying trumpets; some freshly captured; some received as revenue; some received as gratis; some as gifts to be sent with ambassadors”. The passage offers a remarkable overview of various uses the elephants were put to in this period.

Elephants and history

One of the first historical accounts of an army with elephants, suffering a decisive defeat is that of the famous battle in 326 B.C. between Alexander the Great, and the army of Porus on the banks of the river Jhelum.

The army of Chandragupta Maurya had 9000 elephants; other rulers in the Indian subcontinent at that time had between them at least another 5000. It is not surprising that during the reign of his grandson, Emperor Ashoka (268 to 31 B.C.), the elephant became the symbol not only of Ashoka but also of Buddhism.

The Mughals prized elephants and used them extensively in war and state pomp. Akbar’s (1556 – 1600 A.D.) great love for this animal, its place at the court and in the army has been meticulously recorded by Abul Fazal. He had 32,000 elephants and his son Jehangir had 1,30,000 elephants.

The main use of elephants during the period of the British Raj was in state pomp as a status symbol by princes and the landed gentry, and the great shikar meets organized during the period,  a  practice which continued right upto the 1930s, when the second world war put an end to this form of revelry.

In present-day India, large-scale demands for elephants come from the logging industry in remote forest areas, for use as status symbols in Hindu temples, and from Government Departments of Forests and Tourism.

To be continued…

Jayanthi Rengun
Blue Cross of India

Source: Eco News, Vol.9, No.1 (April – June), 2003.

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