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VOL. XXII NO. 4, June 1-15, 2012
Elephants over the centuries
By A. Raman

In Hindu and Buddhistic traditions, the elephant is sacred. In Hinduism, the elephant is humanised and personified as Ganapathi (Ganesha) and worshipped. Recall the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer film on the albino-elephant calf Maya, directed by John Berry in 1966. Even in landscapes where elephants do not naturally exist, these animals have established a positive relationship with humans. For example, according to Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), elephants are the "closest to man; not only they recognise the language of their homeland, obey orders, and remember what they learned, but also they worship the sun and stars, and purify [themselves] at the new moon, bathing in the river, and invoking the heavens." Pãlakãpyã (estimated 1000-1300 CE) wrote Gaja Sastra (Hastãyurvédã), which provided a comprehensive understanding of elephant's anatomy, illnesses, and different treatment strategies.

Because I am from Palghat, I have grown up seeing (tamed) elephants. Their majestic size and disproportionately small, but graceful, eyes have been awe-inspiring to me. The image of elephants decorated with gilt caparisons and colourful silk parasols standing gracefully for hours together – as though enchanted by the rhythmical resonance of the panchavadyam – in my village during festival time is memorable. Watching these pachyderms standing and lazily chewing coconut fronds and resting one of their legs on another is also fresh in my mind.

Sukumar* and I have in the past discussed elephants referred to in Sangam (Tamil) literature (300 BCE – 300 CE). Elephant, ãnai in Sangam times, has become yãnai in contemporary Tamil usage; interestingly, in Malayalam, the word ãnai remains! The Kurava people of the Sangam period who inhabited the kurinji landscape referred in veriyattu (a dance performed at high excitement levels to songs rendered to the accompaniment of percussion instruments such as tudi, parai, murasu) to elephants in their praise of Kumara (see Perumpanatruppadai, verse 75 and Paripadal, verse 19.2). A copper plate inscription (2nd Century CE) refers to a gift of 500 villages to Paranar by Cheran Senkottuvan (see Paditru Pattu 5) and includes the term umbarkkadu (umbar = elephant, also Ficus racemosa tree; kadu = forest).

Information in Sukumar's book is treated under ten themes that variously refer to the cultural aspects of elephants and humans from the Harappan times (c. 3000 BCE) to the present day. He deals with a range of interesting points at an extraordinary level of accuracy.

The chapter on elephants in Vedic and epic literature attracted me immensely. This chapter is exhaustive, supported by appropriate illustrations from different periods. A brief reference to the ashtadik gaja-s, I thought, would be exciting. In the Hindu belief of creation, when Brahma, the Creator, 'blew life' into hiranya garba (the cosmic egg), the universe started to wobble, unable to bear the power of Brahma's blowing. The Saptarishis recited the Sama gana. That recitation resulted in eight super-powered elephants – the Iravata, Pundarika, Vamana, Kumuda, Ãncana, Pushpadantin, Sarvabauma, and Supradika – which assumed the role of stabilising the wobbling universe. They became the ashtadik gaja-s, guarding the eight compass points. Returning to the chapter in Sukumar's book: with reference to the famous uttering by Yudishtra "Aswatãmã hata: kunjara:" to Dronacharya on the 15th day of the Kurukshetra battle, a partial lie is told by Yudishtra. The intent here was to convey a message that Dronacharya's favourite son Ashwatama was killed by Bhima and thus stun Drona and create time for Drishtadyumna to slit Dronacharya's throat, a plan hatched by Lord Krishna. The truth was that Bhima had killed only an elephant named Ashwatama. Whenever a reference to elephants in Vyasa's Mahabharatha occurs, the episode of Bagadatta, the king of Pragjyotisha (Kamaruna: the present-day northeastern India), who fought in the Kurukshetra battle siding the Kauravas always comes to mind. He rode Supradika, a majestic male, which had a pair of long tusks – similar to a pair of spears – that routed the Pandava army. According to Vyasa the bonding between Bagadatta and Supradika was something more than what would usually occur between a master and an animal. Reading Vyasa's description of the unprincipled killing of Supradika by Dananjayã would bring tears from the eyes of any reader. Sukumar, of course, mentions of Supradika, and provides many insightful remarks on the weaponry and battle strategies resorted to at Kurukshetra, particularly focussing on the warfare involving elephant armies.

The chapter 'Elephant in colonial Asia' starts with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Goa in mid-15th Century. Worthy of note is that chained elephants were used as a metaphor in newspaper cartoons to represent enslaved India in the early 20th Century. Most of this chapter alludes to elephant-trapping operations for timber movement in the then rapidly growing forest industry of the subcontinent, including kheddah operations in Ceylon. Reproductions of rare, spectacular oil paintings and those of paper engravings support this chapter. Justifying the title of the chapter, Sukumar has made profound efforts to collate details on the cultural history of elephants from neighbouring Asian nations, then European colonies. He deals with the exploitation of elephants and their annihilation by the colonial rulers and their Indian royal friends in the name of sport. Black and white photographs of such sport events in Ceylon in the 1890s are heart-wrenching. However, not all was dark and bleak. Elephants were sent as gifts to other nations as messengers of peace and love from India: for example, the Government of Madras led by P. Subbaroyan gifted a female elephant Nellikuthra (popularly Nellie) to the people of New Zealand in 1927.

Nellie was the first Asian elephant in Australasia. The Wellington Zoological Garden information window indicates that Nellikuthra, along with three other female Asian elephants, Mahãrãni, Nirvãna, and Kamalã, entertained New Zealanders for long. On another note, a medical doctor attached to the Madras Medical Establishment, William Gilchrist (1807-1895), besides being a surgeon by training and practice, seems to have been an enthusiastic veterinarian as well. Gilchrist documented treatment methods for elephant diseases, which remain as unpublished private papers in London. I also recall that the English East India Company issued a half-anna copper coin (today's worth 3 paise) with the image of elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganapathi on the obverse in 1839. I also remember seeing a 1930-dated currency issued by the Bank of Indonesia of Rupiah 20000 value with images of Ganapathi in a Jakarta museum a few years ago.

Nellikuthra at Wellington Zoo entertaining New Zealand children: photo by John Pascoe (1943). Nellikuthra died of intestinal ulcers in Wellington (NZ) on August 15, 1944. Source: National Library of New Zealand (

Every chapter in The Story of Asia's Elephants is illuminative with fascinating details presented crisply. The final chapter on the ecology and conservation of Asia's elephants is the jewel in the crown. Sukumar – a scientist with the Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore) and an alumnus of Loyola and Vivekananda Colleges of Madras – has elegantly demonstrated through this book how a scientist can be an artist as well; a brilliant book on a charming animal from the deft hands of an extraordinary wildlife scientist of India.

* The Story of Asia's Elephants by Raman Sukumar. Marg Foundation, Mumbai. 2011.


Elephants and the Madras Presidency

Sukumar refers to 'footprint' impressions at Attirampakkam (Attirampakkam archaeological site, Madras, 1 km north of River Kortalayar) mentioned by Shanti Pappu et al. Sukumar suspects these footprints, to be of elephants. He surmises that elephants could have been either trapped in soft mud along the Kortalayar or slaughtered by the early 'inhabitants' of Madras. Writing of elephants in rural Tamil (Hindu) heritage and culture, Sukumar comes up with examples from Ayyanar worship. Terracotta statues of Ayyanar riding either a horse or an elephant are common in rural Tamil Nadu. The Madras Museum also houses several elegant bronze pieces of Ayyanar. Sukumar suggests that the elephant culture of the Tamils goes back to 1 millennium BCE.

Although elephant culture has remained intimately intertwined with the Tamils, some of the reconciliations Sukumar provides in the context of the Pallavas from 7th Century Tamil Nadu are exciting. One Vaikuntaperumal temple sculpture depicting the ascent of Nandivarma Pallava (720-797 CE) to the throne, Sukumar says, resembles an elephant head, which is similar to the 'crown' used by Kings of Bactria (2nd Century CE) and also those depicted on coins issued by Demetrius (3rd Century BCE, Greece). The life-size rock-cuts of elephants at Mamallapuram are another imposing Pallava contribution to world heritage. Sukumar reinforces that we need to remember not only them, but also the gaja-prista vimana (the roof resembling elephant head) of the Nakula-Sahadeva ratha at Mamallapuram.

A satirical caricature entitled 'Good news from Madras' done by the British cartoonist William Holland in London in 1791 depicts the victorious Tipu (Sultan of Mysore) riding an elephant and receiving the sword of the defeated Cornwallis; Tipu's elephant, in the Holland illustration, is seen trampling the British soldiers.

Wild elephant ravages in Coimbatore were recorded by the Collector of Coimbatore in 1822: "Nearly half of the area was subject to the ravages of the elephants." Similar situations prevailed in the villages adjoining forests of the then Madurai District and the Madurai Collector sent a note of advice to the Coimbatore Collector on how to trap elephants. Sukumar records that, at that time, the services of 7-8000 guards solely employed by the Government to keep wild elephants away from cultivated areas were dispensed with. Appeals made by the Collector of Coimbatore to restore forest guards were unheeded; instead, elephant trappers from Chittagong were brought in to train people in Coimbatore in capturing elephants following methods practised in Northeastern India.

In the context of elephant capturing in forest management, Sukumar says that the number of elephants captured in the Madras Presidency was just 10 in the 1930s, whereas in Bengal the annual trappings were close to 300. At that time, elephant trappings in Mysore numbered 20; with George Peress Sanderson's (1848-1892) efforts, kheddah method was introduced in Mysore State in 1874. The pit method of trapping of elephants, Sukumar says, existed only in the Madras Presidency; unfortunately, no records of either death of or serious injury to captured animals by this method are available. Nevertheless, not everything was deplorable. Two Indian veterinarians, S. Gopalan (no specific dates available) and V. Krishnamurthy (1927-2002) of Madras Presidency played a significant role in managing captive elephant health. I quote Sukumar: "Indeed, the experienced Assam elephant catcher P.D. Stracey, writing in 1963, states that nowhere had he (Stracey) seen elephants so well maintained and so well cared for as in the South." Another positive note on Madras is that the Government of Madras issued an order in 1871 against killing of elephants – the earliest official effort to protect any mammal in British India. In 1873, the Madras Government passed a law and the Elephant Preservation Act of 1879 followed.

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In this issue

A good act, but could be better!
Integrating the City's transport
It's time to manage transport in the City
Elephants over the centuries
Vivekananda's Chicago visit
The day the Don had us nearly run out
Our cars, 1962-2011
Sounds you do not hear

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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