From Ganesha to the present

The mythology of Ganesha blossomed since the seventh century a.d., particularly through the Puranic texts, into myriad tales that made this deity the most popular one across households in India. Ganesha's eventual identification as the son of Shiva, one of the supreme Hindu gods, and of his consort Parvati also aided in the acceptance of this originally demonic figure by Brahmanical sensibilities. Paul Courtwright (1985) interprets Ganesha thus: "Throughout the history of Indian culture the tendency has been to see in the elephant the emblem of the cosmos itself, containing all dichotomies within his more ample form. Ganesha embodies many of these oppositional characteristics" (pp. 30-31).

After the rise of the classic Ganesha, the war elephant continued its march through Indian history until the early nineteenth century, by which time improved weapons based on gunpowder pushed it from the front line to the supply line as noted by Lahiri-Choudhury. The impressive rock-cut sculptures of the Pallava dynasty (a.d. 600-700), the temple sculptures of Orissa (about the eleventh to thirteenth centuries a.d.) and the elaborate bas-reliefs of fighting forces in temples of the Hoysala kingdom (twelfth to early fourteenth centuries a.d.) all testify to the importance of the elephant in the political history of peninsular India.

It is, however, with the arrival of the Afghan and Turkish Islamic rulers in northwestern India, beginning in the early eleventh century, that the best historical accounts of the use of elephants in war are provided. Simon Digby provides a detailed history of the war elephant during the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. The Ghaznavid kingdom centered in Afghanistan seems to have deployed large numbers of elephants. Mahmud of Ghazni, whose invasions left a wide swathe of destruction across northwestern India, is reputed to have inspected 1,300 elephants at the muster of a.d. 1023-1024, while his son Masud inspected 1,670 elephants in a.d. 1031. Given that Afghanistan was devoid of wild elephants, it is clear that the Ghaznavids captured or obtained as tribute their war elephants from rulers in northern India.

The Hindu Rajputs had successfully repelled the invading Turkish forces of Muhammad Ghuri in a.d. 1191 at Tarain, but a year later, the Rajput king Prithviraja Chauhan was defeated by Ghuri after the former apparently changed his mount from an elephant to a horse.

The Turkish Empire thus established in northern India, referred to broadly by historians as the Delhi Sultanate, was to last until a.d. 1398. At the height of their power (about a.d. 1340), the sultans of Delhi possessed about 3,000 elephants, of which 750-1,000 animals were of sufficient size and condition to be used in battle. Most of these elephants were captured from other rulers or obtained as tribute from places as far apart as Bengal, Orissa, the Deccan, and even the Pandyas in the extreme south. There is also a distinct possibility that elephants were imported by the Sultanate from Ceylon and Pegu (Burma).

A complex pattern of trade in elephants seems to have prevailed among these regions during this time. This also implies that the wild elephant populations in northern India had declined considerably. The pilkhana (elephant stables) of the Delhi Sultanate, however, declined precipitously to only 120 animals by the time it was defeated by the invading Mongol forces of Amir Timur (Tamerlane) in a.d. 1398. The Malikzada Sultan Mahmud's war elephants were "surging like the ocean and trumpeting like thunder clouds, armoured and with structures placed on their backs," each with several archers. They were no match, however, for Timur's strategy. Lahiri-Choudhury has pointed out that the line of buffaloes and camels used by Timur as a barrier to the advancing elephant force of the Sultanate is possibly the first instance of a biological repellent of elephants!

Although a shadow of its former glory, the Sultanate managed to survive for over a century, first under the Sayyids, nominees of Timur, and later under the Lodis. Ibrahim Lodi, the last of this line, fielded about 100 elephants (one exaggerated report mentions 1,000) at the battle of Panipat (a.d. 1526), where he was killed by Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty. The latter used firearms, possibly the first instance of their use in the subcontinent.

The memoirs of the Mughal kings and accounts by their court historians provide the basis for the military history of elephants during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Babur (a.d. 1526-1530) recorded in his memoirs that wild elephants were to be found in the district of Kalpi, in the present-day Gangetic basin devoid of elephants, and that these increased as one proceeded eastward, an accurate observation. His grandson Emperor Akbar (a.d. 15561605), the most illustrious of the Mughal rulers, was a connoisseur of elephants. He ascended the throne at the young age of 13 after his Mughal forces overcame the Afghan forces of Adil Shah in a seesaw battle in which the latter deployed several hundred choice elephants.

Akbar undoubtedly built up a large elephant force. Shireen Moosvi estimates there were 5,000 elephants with the Mughals about a.d. 1595, while nobles and landlords held at least 2,800 animals. Her estimate for the captive population in the subcontinent during the sixteenth century is about 17,000 elephants. There are tales of spectacular battles and individual valor in the clashes between the Mughals and the Rajputs, with both sides throwing in their prized elephants. Akbar's chronicler records wild elephants in many parts of central India.

The number of elephants in the Mughal stables had swelled to 12,000 animals, with over 40,000 in the kingdom, during the rule of Akbar's son

Jehangir (a.d. 1605-1627). The higher figure may refer to both captive and wild elephants estimated for the empire. Jehangir's favorite elephant, Gajraj (king of elephants), finds special mention in the chronicles and is depicted in a painting (fig. 2.5).

Jehangir's memoirs recorded an "elephant hunt" in the Panchamahal hills in western India, a region far removed from wild elephant habitat today. The Mughals interestingly refer entirely to capture and not killing of the animal, thereby implying that the Muslim rulers respected the prevailing sentiments of sacredness of the elephant. At the same time, this would have also suited their personal interests in building and maintaining a large elephant army.

An elaborate system of elephant management was in place during Mughal times, and the animal symbolized the pomp of the royalty. The Mughal expeditions to capture elephants also eventually resulted in the complete disappearance of wild populations, possibly already in advanced decline, over a wide

Figure 2.5

The Mughal Emperor Jehangir's royal mount "Gajaratan" or "Gajraj" depicted in a painting. (From the Indian Museum, Kolkata.)

Figure 2.5

The Mughal Emperor Jehangir's royal mount "Gajaratan" or "Gajraj" depicted in a painting. (From the Indian Museum, Kolkata.)

area in central India. During the declining phase of the Mughal dynasty, the use of elephants as a mount for army commanders was rendered totally ineffective by improved musketry and mobile cannon.

The idea of elephant hunting (i.e., killing) as a sport of the upper classes, alien to the local ethos, was introduced by the British during the early nineteenth century. Unlike previous rulers, Maratha or Mughal, Afghan or Rajput, the British did not absorb or practice culturally rooted taboos against hunting certain animals. D. K. Lahiri-Choudhury explains it thus: "The new rulers, unlike the 'natives,' were not encumbered by any superstitious veneration for the animal; for any animal for that matter, except perhaps the horse" (1999, p. xx). In 1807, Thomas Williamson had declared that "no native of Bengal nor any European resident there, would undertake such a piece of rashness as to go out shooting elephants" (quoted in Lahiri-Choudhury 1999, p. xxvi), even though this was prevalent in Africa. By 1826, however, shooting elephants had become an accepted form of sport among the British in Sri Lanka.

Big-game hunting in Africa and Asia was a distinct cultural phenomenon among the colonial rulers. The primary motive behind hunting was presumably the "Hunt," interpreted by historian John MacKenzie as a "contemporary rediscovery of medieval chivalry" linked to ritualized warfare and killing and symbolizing "manliness." Environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan's interpretation goes a step further. The elephant, like the tiger, was just another large denizen of the jungle whose killing symbolized for the British the conquest of a vast subcontinent by a small group of armed men. Hunting more than ever was an analog of warfare, and until late into the nineteenth century, many British governors gave out rewards for killing elephants. Hunting for sport and animal control resulted in large-scale slaughter of elephants across the Indian subcontinent, Burma, and Sri Lanka (see chapter 8).

The capture of elephants continued during the British period, albeit with different end uses. Elephants were still part of the army, but were not valued as transport for men and goods over hilly or wet terrain. The elephants' moment of glory in modern times came during World War II (1939-1945), when they were an indispensable part of military operations in Burma. The retreating British forces were heavily dependent on these skilled sappers to build bridges and to transport troops and supplies across the densely forested, hilly Burmese terrain, while the advancing Japanese also coveted these elephants for much the same reasons.

The other major use of elephants was for logging the moist forests of Burma and India beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. This was concurrent with the setting up of forest departments in British-ruled provinces. Drawing on traditional systems of elephant husbandry, the British civil servants organized the elephant workforce and introduced westernized veterinary practices. The "timber elephant" became a familiar scene in the economic and cultural landscape of Burma and India.

The Elephant Preservation Act (1872) of the Madras Presidency, which went into force from October 1873, and a similar act in 1879, which extended to other parts of India and eventually Burma to "prevent indiscriminate destruction of elephants," were presumably measures to ensure the continued supply of wild elephants to the military and the logging operations. At present, it is only in Myanmar that the timber elephant retains its original character (fig. 2.6).

Even as a military asset, the elephant made its presence felt as recently as during the Vietnam War, when American planes reportedly bombed the animal directly along the Ho Chi Minh trail to prevent the Viet Cong using it to move supplies through the jungle.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Indian elephant continued to retreat not only from capture, but also from conversion of its habitat into use for plantations of tea and coffee, agriculture, railways and roads, mining, dams, and other developmental projects. This process only accelerated after Indian independence in 1947 as the country strove to raise the economic standards of a growing human population.

The Wildlife Protection Act (1972) placed the elephant in the highest category of protection, while the Forest Conservation Act (1980) helped slow the process of deforestation of wildlife habitats. The wild elephants of the country had by then retracted into four regional populations—southern, north-

Figure 2.6

An elephant engaged in logging operations in the Bago Yomas, Myanmar. This is the only country in which elephants are still used extensively for such work.

Figure 2.6

An elephant engaged in logging operations in the Bago Yomas, Myanmar. This is the only country in which elephants are still used extensively for such work.

western, east-central, and northeastern—each with distinct subpopulations within just about 3% of the original geographical range.

As a final point, during the Indian struggle for independence, the nationalist leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), transformed Ganesha into a powerful symbol of cultural and religious unity among the people of Maharashtra in their resistance to the British. Tilak achieved this even though there were no wild elephants, and few captive ones, in his native state. The British administrator, Mountstuart Elphinstone, was sufficiently alarmed at the threat to the imperial rule to write, "One talisman that while it animated and united them all, could leave us without a single adherent. This barbarism is the name of religion, a power so obvious that it is astonishing our enemies have not more frequently and systematically employed it against us" (quoted in Courtwright 1985, p. xxvi). It can be argued that the nationalist elephant finally triumphed over the imperial lion in 1947. Ironically, the lion was declared India's national animal until it was displaced by the tiger in 1968, in spite of the eminent naturalist M. Krishnan suggesting in 1952 that the elephant was the truly pan-Indian species and was fit to be the national animal.

Historians have pondered over the wisdom of the Indian rulers' seemingly blind faith in the efficacy of the elephant as a war machine. The argument is that horse-based cavalry repeatedly proved superior to the elephant in battle. The eminent historian A. L. Basham sums up this view in the following words: "The great reliance placed on elephants was, from the practical point of view, unfortunate. . . . The pathetic Indian faith in the elephants' fighting qualities was inherited by the Muslim conquerors, who, after a few generations in India, became almost as reliant on elephants as the Hindus and suffered at the hands of armies without elephants in just the same way" (1967, pp. 129-130).

Simon Digby takes a somewhat different view of Indian military strategy. According to him, the tactical importance of the elephant, even if it did not match that of the horse, was much greater than has been conceded by military historians. For instance, elephants were much more useful in certain terrain, such as hills and moist tracts, where the horse had its own limitations. As supporting evidence for the importance of elephants in war, Digby emphasizes that the Delhi Sultanate, which once possessed several thousand elephants and successfully warded off invaders, finally succumbed to an elephantless army (that of Amir Timur) only when its pilkhana had been reduced to a mere 120 elephants.

Whatever the true achievement of the elephant as a war machine, the perceived role of the animal through history obviously determined the religio-cultural traditions of society. It so happened that the elephant was elevated to a supreme position, unmatched by any other animal, in the cultural life of a major civilization. That this exalted position has persisted for two millennia is itself a testimony to the powerful and vibrant role the elephant has played in the subcontinent. Long after the war elephant has faded into history, the elephant-headed god reigns supreme, more popular than ever before, assuming new roles and adapting to changing circumstances. The elephant itself has assumed the role of a flagship in India's efforts in conserving its forests and wildlife through the launch of Project Elephant in 1992.

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