Pachyderms and their South Asian pasts


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IT would be stating the obvious to suggest that a heritage animal ought to have a past. In the case of the Indian elephant, that past is not just long and complex, but also immediate and felt. Images, whether of Ganesa, or from colonial fiction come instinctively to mind. Taken in its entirety, this is a past that stretches millions of years while continuing to be relevant; it is one which takes many different kinds of expertise to piece together. In recent years, two landmark books have sought to bring much of this material together in a fashion that cannot even be remotely attempted here – one by Raman Sukumar1 and the other by Dhriti Kanta Lahiri-Choudhury.2 Enabled by their contributions, this paper merely attempts to present a few vignettes from this story, a few scenes in which the elephant strides out of the woods into the clearing of history. These will focus on the prehistoric and the early historic periods, being divided into two parts.

A beginning can be made by asking what, in evolutionary terms, makes an elephant? We know, for example, that they evolved from the class of animals called gomphotheres, and that their success and that of the family of proboscidea rested upon a major adaptive shift in their method of chewing. Stable isotope studies, which measure ratios of isotopes present in the collagen and enamel of fossil elephants, have provided surprising results. It appears that when plants themselves were profoundly changing, in terms of photosynthetic pathways – that is, in their own efficacy and constitution – elephants were amongst the most efficient and quickest to adapt to a diet of these new plants.

In other words, in the period between five and one million years back, fossil elephant stable isotope studies reveal a predominantly C4 diet (tropical grasses) as against one of bamboo and trees and shrub which are all C3 plants. Yet, it is hard to think of an elephant without a clump of tender bamboo. It is this contradiction that modern elephants are principally browsers of C3 vegetation, which stresses the adaptability and flexibility of the animal. Observational studies have even pointed out that diet may vary by age and position within a herd.

Similarly, in its evolutionary position, it turns out that the snout is perhaps best thought of as a periscope in addition to a feeding hand; the elephant is known to snorkel using it, remaining fully underwater for hours on end. Additionally, the lungs of an elephant appear to have evolved for precisely such an activity.3 For an animal who eats a lot of what it didn’t adapt to eat and doesn’t live most of its life doing what its most prominent limb suggests, the elephant has indeed done quite well.

Some of the oldest fossil beds in South Asia are in the Siwaliks (India), and the Pabbi Hills in Pakistan, sites where the story of the elephant can be picked up. Fossils of Elephas hysudricus appear circa 2.7 million years ago (hereafter mya) will supplement and are later replaced by the species Elephas namadicus. In a quantitative study of the Pabbi Hills fossils, it is clear that the Elephas sp. lineage prospers by being amongst the most common taxa to be recovered while others like the hippopotamids and giraffids become locally extinct after a shift in climate towards colder times and a presumed shrinkage of tree cover.


The same trends are replicated by studies on Siwalik sediments closer to home, with a still older date (3.6 mya) for another elephant species (Elephas planifrons) from the fossil beds near Chandigarh.4 While these mark the beginnings of the distribution of the elephant, this distribution was a wide one, summarized here in terms of river valleys where fossil finds have been made. We know the Elephas roamed around what are now the following river basins: Ganga, Son, Narmada, Mahanadi, Godaveri, Manjra, Ghod and Brahmaputra.5 


Such widespread distribution and status as one of the most common megafauna obviously brought them into contact with the hominin communities who cohabited these spaces and are known to us by their profuse deposits of stone tools. It is here that we have to pause and ponder, for unlike North America where we have scenes of hunting and even a hypothesis of overkill, the evidence in South Asia is slender. Unlike the African Palaeolithic, butchery sites are not forthcoming and the evidence of human and elephants together in deep time must be pieced together from fragments. Since the images and stories that tell the pasts of Indian mega-fauna are not yet scripted, they must be narrated slowly, keeping close to the evidence rather than assuming what passed between human and elephant.

When we come down from a time scale of millions of years to the last million, we have a denser sense of hominin (early humans and their ancestors) activities and distributions. At Chirki on the Pravara, an Acheulian site was excavated and the excavations yielded a small bit of a broken tusk. This is the earliest known excavated association of human and elephant and can be dated to between 600,000-300,000 BC. At a host of other sites, known from river sections, human and elephant are associated by the find of human artifacts and elephant bones together; this continues through into the Upper Palaeolithic or much more recent times (45,000 years ago). (These sites are Bori on the Kukdi near Pune, Teggihalli, Mula Dam and Kalpi on the Yamuna6 ). At another site, Attirampakkam, where no fossil evidence was preserved, it appears elephants walked right through the site and favourable conditions preserved footprints.7 


An insight can be gleaned from the Ganga plains, where the University of Allahabad excavated the site of Damdama, situated north of Allahabad on the banks of an oxbow lake. From Damdama, we know of a community of hunters who flourished circa 8000-4000 BC and were dependent on venison. They camped seasonally or moved frequently from Damdama to other sites and also gathered grasses, seeds and fruit. In the course of their ranging activities, they encountered various animals and we know of these interactions from the detailed archive of bones buried at Damdama. While these consist overwhelmingly of hunted deer and birds there are occasional larger animals including rhinos, gaur, wild buffalo and the elephant. The bones bear cut-marks, telltale signs for butchery; yet one must caution against the impulse to imagine elephants being truly hunted.8 All this, as before, was possible with scavenging on the part of humans, which is what likely defines the human-animal relationship in this case for the bulk of prehistory.

Two sources of information change this scenario and they come from two ends of the contemporary world. Sometime between 4000 to 2000 BC, certain communities living between Bhopal and Hoshangabad took to the hills and painted their own art on the caves, often painting over what was already there. Amongst these representations there are those of an elephant with a rider.9 The domestication of the proudest mammal is something that is possibly first known to us today from the same complex of caves whereas in earlier epochs it was drawn standing ferociously aloof.


The other piece of evidence comes not from hunter-foragers but from the most urbane of them all: Harappans, out of whom I shall consider only one small case. Questions of representations are posed starkly from the plains of Sind, for example, where there are no elephants today. At Mohenjo-Daro at the height of the Harappan phenomena, the elephant is found on copper tablets as a full-fledged sculpture and on the seals which lent individuals and the civilization its signature. The elephant of the Harappan seals, of sometimes eccentric anatomical details, is once shown with a covering on its back – a clear indication of its domesticated nature. ‘Composite animals’, which the Harappans conceptualized and variously depicted, include examples which combine the trunk and tusks of an elephant with a ram, a bull and human elements. In a sense this completed the assimilation, if not domestication, of the elephant when in such a range of symbolic media and forms it became representable and intimate.

Incidentally Harappans also had a well documented habit of throwing their trash out into the street. Outside of one house at Mohenjo-Daro were found the tips of two tusks and the upper surface of a femur, likely the end products and remainders of someone who had procured them whole for manufacturing into something else. The evidence of such small-scale working is interesting, suggestive of not only procurement networks but pointing out how despite such representational profusion there are very few ivory artifacts at the site.10 In at least these two ways the elephant came to be domesticated by foragers and townsmen, though in this early period despite the intimacy one is left with an abiding sense of the rarity of this new relationship, something that would become vastly different later on.


The rest of this paper focuses on the early historic period (300 BC to 300 CE) and a discussion of texts from it. As an additional endeavour this discussion will be framed by an archaeological sidelights from the period just before the Mauryas and bracketed at the other end by a discussion on ivory.

But before anything else, we must pause to note the pervasive association which had already accrued around the elephant as a Buddhist symbol. The elephant was a symbol for the coming of the Buddha, for the Buddha himself, and for prosperity and peace. Asoka’s edicts at Dhauli are inscribed on a rock which is carved into the shape of an elephant at the other end. In terms of an early Buddhist theory of the state, of the saptaratnin, the hastin or elephant came second only to the cakra. This elevation displays not only the consideration of elephants as political factors but their indispensability to the ruler and his sovereignty.11 

The ‘infamous’ Arthasastra speaks in a completely different tone, but offers insight not only into its historical moment when elephants became generative of spaces and taxonomies, but in its close observations and despite its drive to win the war, the text provides some of the subtler observations of elephants. In the normative world of the Arthasastra there is an entire elephantine apparatus: a supervisor of elephants who reports to the king, a cook, a veterinarian and helpers and trainers and cleaners; there are forests reserved for feeding these animals; the animal is par excellance the steed of the king; there is envisioned the need to defend these forests when under attack. But much more than this, there is attention to a gestural economy of elephants, of what they start doing at what age and what that reflects about their temperament and suitability for training with humans. Thus is born a veritable varna system for elephants. Excellence in this scheme was described under the rubric of Hastikarma, or the set of exemplary battle actions, many of which only an elephant could achieve.12


Turning to comparative evidence from a dharmasastra text, Manusmriti; it summarizes its concern with war by simply saying in a single line that the king should use elephants when fighting in marshy lands. As a text the Manusmriti has what can only be described as an ambiguous attitude to an animal that only comes up as incidental to its programme and concerns. The king is given license to kill those who steal elephants and the killing of elephants is said to cause one to be thereafter treated as if one were of mixed caste – a fate meted out rarely in the punitive economy of the text.

Again at the very end, the text stresses that those who steal elephants are reborn as monkeys. But, equally, the text and its grammar of purity and pollution hold that the trainer of elephants not be invited to weddings. An initiate is not to recite the Veda on an elephant. But most concertedly, at the conclusion of the text, when the theory of sattva, rajas and tamas is outlined as a theory of the body, elephants are held to be tamas/low and dark. This is the image of the fear, power and uncertainty the animal continues to evoke well after its domestication.13 


The place of elephants in the world of the early historic period is further illustrated by the aggregate archaeological trends from the Ganga valley for a class of objects called animal terracotta figurines. Often dismissed as children’s playthings as compared to the human figures and figurines, which are often identifiable deities, there is a subtype of the animal figures which is notable for its larger size, fine finish (in the manner of preparation of the finest contemporary ceramic) and elaborate painted decorations. Only two animals are known to have been produced like this – the horse and the elephant – in the period between 600 BC and 0 CE. What makes the elephant terra-cottas of interest are the motifs of the cakra and the pipal leaf which appear only on it, and no other figurine. All such figurines have been found concentrated in the region between Allahabad and Benaras in particular. At the same time, when such similar figures are found in Mathura they are devoid of such decorations.14 

One must imagine here a world where the early Buddhist laity and the rich amongst it chose amongst their other practices and observances to take these figurines home and presumably worship them. Yet, elsewhere at the same time they found other competing meanings. It is in this way, as a media, that elephants came to take on meanings that were mobilized and used to draw and redraw social boundaries.


It is by the time of the early historic period that the question of ivory acquires importance. While ivory objects predate the period by several thousand years, nothing prepares one for the scale and grandeur of ivories crafted in this period. At Begram near Kabul, was located the summer capital of the Indo-Greek and later Kusana kings. Exceptionally, during the excavations carried out in 1937 and 1939, the excavators found what were royal storehouses and a massive collection of ivory carvings – of deities, animals and of other more secular themes. This has given rise to much speculation on the nature of their production, their likely relationship to the Ganga valley via craftsmen and on ways to understand such extraordinary accumulation of wealth.15

One way to understand the place of ivory in the period comes to us from the existence of an equally exceptional document, in Greek, likely from the early centuries CE, which lays out a trading and loan agreement between two merchants, one based in Muziris on the Kerala coast and the other in Greco-Roman Alexandria in Egypt. The document provides us with the manifest of the ship as it was to leave India: Gangetic nard, fabric, miscellaneous parcels and 78 talents or 2432 kilograms of ivory promised to be delivered on one ship alone.16 

While regular statistics may not be available as they are from the early colonial period onwards, these two examples of Begram and Muziris certainly suggest that the delivery and consumption of ivory reached proportions few suspected.


Lastly, it is important to stress that over the last 2000 years and more elephants and humans intersected and interacted with each other at locales markedly different in terms of landscape and ecological factors. While we don’t have the level of detailed palaeo-ecological information to model these interactions for any discrete period, there are nonetheless literary fragments which give us a sense of the diversity of such human-elephant relations and their character.

The Arthasastra for example, emphasizes that forests rich in elephants are found in almost any direction. Across these varied forests the channels of intersection were regularly at the edge of thick cover, where grassy patches proliferated and where people sometimes grew paddy. This image, of the lover standing tall and proud, defending the paddy from elephants while his love pines for his return, comes from the early Tamil Sangam poetry.

Another image comes from early medieval subhashita collections, which alongside other texts of the period repeatedly emphasized a connection between wild elephants and the Vindhyanchal region with its swathes of wild rice. A tender and acute expression of this is formulated in a subhashita as follows: An ascetic watches tremulously from the edges, as he spies that the elephant he had once hand fed is now fully-grown and musth, and he cannot but look upon him with both pride and fear. On these grounds it appears that elephant-human ecologies were as varied from the temple and the king’s household to the ashrama secluded and outside the city, and even to the deep forest.

By way of conclusion one may reflect upon the heritage of the elephant. In snapshots through time this essay has attempted to show how some of these were made and unmade. One constant, however, seems to be that as king of the forest, the elephant was intimately and invariably associated with the king as his steed. To consider what has endured, the scene is set a hundred years ago in 1911 when Delhi was witness to the Imperial Durbar of George V. A nagging question posed itself to all as the royal procession marched past the thronging ‘natives’. If the emperor had actually come, which one was he, and had he passed this way at all, was the question many were left with as the procession started to draw to a close. Possibly the emperor following British custom rode a horse, not realizing that everyone waiting in Delhi on that day expected him to be on an elephant.

While the predicament of the elephant may be that it is seen as grounded in a royal culture, a loss of habitat, poaching and other factors in post-colonial times have given rise to concerns about its very survival. Nevertheless, its heritage, and the various pasts which constitute it, leave us with a wealth of associations, relationships and sentiments that the elephant, and those who speak for it, can draw upon.



1. R. Sukumar, The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behavior and Conservation. Oxford University Press, New York, 2003.

2. Dhriti K. Lahiri-Choudhury (ed.), The Great Indian Elephant Book: An Anthology of Writings on Elephants in the Raj. Oxford University Press, New Delhi/New York, 1999.

3. T.E. Cerling et al., ‘Browsing and Grazing in Elephants: The Isotope Record of Modern and Fossil Proboscideans’, Oecologia 120, 1999, pp. 364-374 and citations therein. J.B. West et al., ‘Fetal Lung Development in the Elephant Reflects the Adaptations Required for Snorkeling in Adult Life’, Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology 138, 2003, pp. 325-333.

4. R. Dennell et al., ‘The Biostratigraphy and Magnetic Polarity Zonation of the Pabbi Hills, Northern Pakistan: An Upper Siwalik (Pinjor Stage) Upper Pliocene-Lower Pleistocene Fluvial Sequence’, Palaeogeography, Palaeo-climatology, Palaeoecology 234, 2006, pp. 168-185. A.C. Nanda, ‘Upper Siwalik Mammalian Faunas of India and Associated Events’, Journal of Asian Earth Sciences 21, 2002, pp. 47-58.

5. G.L. Badam, Pleistocene Fauna of India. Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute, Pune, 1979.

6. This information is very usefully summarized and considered in P. Chauhan, ‘Large Mammal Fossil Occurrences and Associated Archaeological Evidence in Pleistocene Contexts of Peninsular India and Sri Lanka’, Quaternary International 192, 2008, pp. 20-42 and citations therein.

7. S. Pappu et al., ‘Excavations at the Palaeolithic Site of Attirampakkam, South India: Preliminary Findings’, Current Anthropology 44(4), August-October 2003, pp. 591-598.

8. P.K. Thomas et al, ‘Faunal Remains from Damdama: Evidence for the Mesolithic Food Economy of the Gangetic Plain’ in J.N Pal et al. (eds.), Mesolithic India.

9. Dhriti K. Lahiri-Choudhury ‘Elephants and People in India: Historical Patterns of Capture and Management’ in Elephants and Ethics: Toward a Morality of Coexistence edited by Christen Wemmer and Catherine A. Christen. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2008.

10. J. Marshall, Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization: Being an Official Account of Archaeological Excavations at Mohenjo-Daro Carried Out by the Government of India Between the Years 1922 and 1927. Reprint: Asian Educational Services, Delhi, 2004, Vol II of III.

11. Xinru Lui, Ancient India and Ancient China. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1988.

12. AS: 4:153-156. I used the following edition: Vacaspati Gajraula, Kautiliya Arthasastram. Chaukhambha Vidya Bhavan, Varanasi, 2003.

13. P. Olivelle, Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmasastra. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006. References (in order): 7.192, 9.280, 11.69, 12.67,3.162, 4.120,12.43.

14. I have relied in this discussion on PratibhaPrakash, Terracotta Animal Figurines in the Ganga-Yamuna Valley. Agam Kala Prakashan, Delhi, 1985.

 15. S. Mehendale, ‘The Begram Ivory and Bone Carvings: Some Observations on Provenance and Chronology’, Topoi Orient Occident 11(1), 2001, pp. 485-514.

16. Lionel Casson, ‘New Light on Maritime Loans: P. Vindob G40822’, reprinted in Ranavir Chakravarti (ed.), Trade in Early India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2001, pp. 228-243.