The elephant and other animals


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THE Asian elephant shares its habitat with many animals – from small insects to species as large as the rhinoceros. Since it is has been tamed and held captive for human use, it also shares its man-made environ with many domestic animals. The elephant wouldn’t have otherwise had an opportunity to interact so closely with domestic animals like a horse, camel, dog or the cat. The common man, poets and bards have been observing this sympatricity in the wild and captivity and have used all possible associations between the elephant and other animals, be it a similarity or dissimilarity, to good effect as parables or similes to convey a message through poetry and proverbs.

The morphological and behavioural characteristics of elephants have been compared not only with other animals but also with certain species of plants, fruits, natural features, and even humans. As explained later, these comparisons or pairings with other species have borne out of either the linguistic characteristics typical to a language or the cultural and mythical conditioning of the people. Irrespective of the reason, the choice of the species is often used to convey a moral or ethical message. Moral lessons expressed could be about saving one’s reputation, self-respect, or to have patience and forbearance, or to be mindful of one’s strengths and weaknesses. When it is to compare and contrast the elephant from the other, the subject matter is the body size, inferior or helpless status and behaviour of one over the other.

A wide range of species from the animal kingdom have been compared and contrasted with the elephant in literature, but here I would like to restrict to the following seven commonly occurring associations: elephant and the crocodile; elephant and the tiger; elephant and the lion; elephant and the dog; elephant and the cat; elephant and the pig; and elephant and the bee.

Reproduced below are select verses that speak about these associations, comparisons or divergences from different literatures in Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Punjabi, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu, Assamese and Kannada.


Elephant and crocodile: In Indian literature associated with mythology and polity, the strength and weakness of the elephant and crocodile have been used to illustrate the importance of selecting a place for commencing or performing an action. Choosing the right time and place in a war is important and Indian writers cite examples of the owl and crow to underline the importance of choosing the apt time for an action, and the example of elephant and crocodile to illustrate the selection of a proper place. If the elephant is the lord of the jungle, the crocodile is a master in water. Either of them could prevail upon the other depending on the habitat they are in. This gave rise to a number of references in various works like Pancatantra, Nitisâstra, Hitopadesa etc.

In Hindu mythology, the episode of Gajendra moksha (Liberation of Gajendra) became popular due to its occurrence in Srimad Bhagavatam as one of the exploits of Lord Vishnu. Gajendra, the king of a herd of elephants, is once arrogantly bathing in the lake with the queen of elephants, when a crocodile catches him by the foot, and refuses to let go of it. After a long struggle, Gajendra calls out to the Lord for help, who eventually rescues him. The story appears not only in Vaishnavit literatures of various languages, but also in the sacred book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib.



He protected the elephant,

when the crocodile seized the elephant

And pulled it into the water;

He lifted him up and pulled him out.

(Guru Granth Sâhib, page 982, line: 5)



Desirous of plucking fresh lotus flowers for worship

The wild elephant-devotee entered the fish-pond,

Then raised his trunk and sent out a tremendous bellow

When his leg fell into the jaws of a crocodile.

To rid the elephant of his distress, the Lord rode on his Garuda,

Arrived on the scene and wielded his discuss.

(Tirumankai Âlwâr in Tivya Pirapańtam, 2.3.9)



If an elephant is dragged into the water by a crocodile,

the king will be destroyed.

If on the other hand, the elephant should drag the crocodile from water,

the king would be victorious (and prosperous)

(Varâhamihira, Brhat Samhitâ, 94.14)



Hear me, O warriors, have a care,

I warn you all, ‘Beware!’

In shallow water ankle-deep.

Muddied by the play of village urchins,

Might lurk a crocodile

Which could attack and drag down

A mighty elephant and kill it too.

Even so is my chief

If you ponder not on his deeds of valour,

And scorn him as young in years,

I warn you all, you will surely rue it.

(Avvaiyâr, Puranânűru, 104)



In exile one can easily

Be slain by foes insignificant

A crocodile, though small it be,

In water, drowns the elephant.

(Nârâyana in Hitopadesa, IV.50)



In water a crocodile can grab an elephant;

Out of water, even a dog can humble it.

The power is of the place, not one’s own.

(Selected Verses of Vemana, 30)


Elephant and tiger: The elephant and tiger share the same habitat in most part of its distribution range in India. Not surprisingly, the tag ‘lord of the jungle’ is applied to both the elephant and the tiger. The Tamils looked upon elephant and the tiger as beasts of strength and might.

Tamil poets, especially of the Sangam period (200 BCE to 400 CE), depict the elephant to be in constant enmity with the tiger. Their fights happen invariably in the mountainous landscape (Kurinji) during the wet and dry season. As the Tamils could not clearly decide on who will prevail over the other, they were skeptical of giving a clear verdict to any one of them. The result is that we see an almost equal number of poems, favouring both the tiger and elephant. All the following citations are from Tamil literature.


The lovely elephant flies into fury,

As the tiger confronts it

Lurking behind its winnowing fan-like ears,

And settles the score tearing open the tiger’s breast

By goring it with the sharp ends of the long-grown tusks.

(Kapilar in Kalittokai, 51)


A lordly tusker of flawless white tusks,

After having charged and killed with its tusks

A mighty tiger of glowing hue

That had earlier escaped from its tusks.

(Mâműlanâr, Akanânűru, 251)


The tiger in the forest will blow down the outrageous elephant,

But will succumb to hunger should its prey fall on its left side.

So also, if self-respect is injured

Upright people will never do things below their standard,

Even though the heaven will be available as reward.

(Nâlatiyâr, 300)


You tread during densely dark midnight, a fearful path

Where a bent-eared elephant withdraws

And walks away in gentle steps,

After having escaped from the grip of a tiger

With curved stripes on its body.

(Mâran Poraiyanâr, Aintinai Aimpatu, 16)


Has he (our hero) now returned to his native place

Through a path well-nigh impassible

Where a long-trunked tusker

With rutting cheeks buzzed by a swarm of bees

Smites to death a huge tiger on the hill?

(Ilattu Putan Tevanâr, Akanânuru, 88)


The path he (the hero) intends to travel on

Is amidst the mountains with cloud-capped peaks.

There, a mighty tiger had wounded

With its sharp claws, the head of an elephant;

Pain-struck the beast, out of thirst,

Bent its knees and searches for water

Stretching its goodly and long tongue

Into the dried-up spring and heaves hot sighs, disappointed.

(Kutavâyil Kirtanâr, Akanânuru, 119)


With flaming heat,

A tiger kills a huge tusker in a fight and eats its flesh,

And the remains are picked up

By the dinsome brigands with the help of iron rods;

What is still left out is collected by gregarious Umanas

To exchange the sea-born salt for food grains;

They roast the flesh in the fire killed by their churning sticks

And cook it with rice and water, sweet, secured from the spring.

(Tonti Amur Sâttanâr, Akanânuru, 169)


Elephant and lion: In literatures originating from North India, be it Sanskrit, Rajasthani, Hindi, or Prakrit, the enemy of the elephant is not the tiger, but the lion. In Tamil literature, on the contrary, the encounters between a lion and elephant are rare. Similarly, the tiger-elephant encounter is rare in literatures originating from northern languages (Indo-Aryan languages of India to be precise). This is surprising considering the fact that the tiger is also distributed in the North, and also it is only with the tiger that the elephant would have shared its distribution range most than with the lion in the past. However, the presence or absence of a species in an area is not the justification for inclusion in literature or local legends (the lion in Sri Lanka and the yak in Tamil literature, for instance). But unlike the elephant of the Tamils, that of the Aryans stand no chance in front of a lion. Even lion cubs are depicted to have prevailed over the elephant. Not suprisingly, one of the names for lion in Sanskrit is dvipâri which means ‘foe of the elephant’.



We are all creatures of habit.

Look at the lion who is noble, strong and a leader,

Who delights in making a meal

By attacking a roaring elephant in rut,

On his forehead, from the front.

(Bhartrhari, Nitisatakam, 29)



It is the power of the wielder of the thunderbolt

That enables his protégés to subdue his enemies.

Strolling near his mountain cave

The lion has only to roar

And its echo scatters the elephant herd.

(Kâlidâsa in Vikramorvasiyam, Act 1)



Both are born in the forest,

But it is only the elephants and not the lions

That are captured and imprisoned.

For men of high would sooner die

Than allow themselves to be subjected to humiliation.

(Vajjalaggam, 203)



No matter where they go, the deer

Can pass their days and live

On grass of any kind;

But for lions, who eat elephants

They hunt themselves, a livelihood

Is very hard to find.

(Bhattârka, Subhâshitâvali, 957)



The eagle always has a claim over the snake family,

King lion has claim over the elephant family,

Indra has a claim over the mountain family,

Hawk has a claim over the bird circle.

Says Bhushan, in the indivisible nine parts of the universe,

The rays of the sun has a claim over darkness.

From east to west and south to north,

Whereever theirs is kingship, the claim is that of Shivaraj.

(Bhűsan in Granthâvali, 4)



Not the wounds, I ween, that my body suffers from my tight bonds,

Nor the blows of my master’s hook,

Nor the shame of bearing him on my shoulders and enduring his strokes,

Nor the loss of my home, bring such sorrow to my heart as the thought

‘To whom can the young calves,

terrified to death by the lion’s onslaught,

now have resort for aid?’

(Ascribed to Pampaka in Cridharadâsa, iv. 214)



The name of Lord Madhava rings aloud in the holy forests of merits.

All the demerits are frightened away by that sound,

Just as elephants take their heels hearing the roar of the lion.

(Mâdhavdeva, Nâmghosâ, 25)


Elephant and dog: Dogs have the habit of howling at full moon and barking at elephants. As said by the wise, neither does the moon stops shining nor the elephant changes his gait because of the howl and bark of the dog. In case of the elephant, a mere trumpet would be enough to make dogs run helter-skelter. This behaviour has been used as an allegory to compare the reactions of the learned wise men to the abuses ignorant people hurl at the learned. Thus the popular proverb in India, ‘the man who has mounted an elephant will not fear the bark of the dog.’

Some poets have used the behaviour of the dog and elephant to emphasize the value of friendship and choosing friends. The dog and the elephant are generally not compatible species. While some dogs are inquisitive to go close and investigate an elephant, the elephant in general does not appreciate the company of a dog. However, the Buddhist Jâtaka tales have the story ‘Elephant and Dog’ to show that even traditionally incompatible species can become good friends. One poem in Tamil uses the behaviour of the dog and elephant towards their caretakers as an example to illustrate the kind of friends one should choose.

Given below are some select quotes from Tamil, Sanskrit and Kannada.



Riding an elephant, don’t be

Startled though lakhs of dogs may bark.

(Kabir, Sakhi, 29:4)



A dog barks when an elephant walks along the street,

If an elephant barks like a dog, it is the elephant that loses its face.

(Sarvajna, Tripâdi)



Avoiding the friendship of those who resemble elephants,

Seek the friendship of those who resemble dogs;

For an elephant will kill his mahout whom he has known for a long time,

But a dog will wag his tail while the spear thrown at him is still in his body.

(Unknown, Nâlatiyâr, 213)



A dog tries to please its master,

It wags its tail, rolls at his feet,

Lies on its back exposing its hungry belly,

And extends its paw to ask for food.

But the elephant, look, it casts

A steady and calm glance at the man who feeds him;

It doesn’t cringe, rather it takes its own time.

It wants to be pampered, entreated to have its meal.

(Bhartrhari in Nitisâtakam, 31)



Honour due for elders and the wise,

If bestowed on the young and immature,

Will be like putting the padded mattress

Of the elephant on a dog’s back.

(Palamoli Nânűru, 105)


Elephant and cat: The tradition of comparing the elephant with a cat comes from the Tamil land and is purely because of the rhyming common words for the elephant and cat in Tamil (yânai and pűnai respectively). Most of these are typical proverbs, some of which crept into literature where poets employed them as metaphors or similes. In many of these proverbs, as we see below, the cat is an insignificant being while the elephant is great and worthy.


When the elephant guards the entrance of a temple,

the cat is busy guarding rotten fish.

If there a time for the elephant,

so will come a time for the cat.

Can’t we find food for a cat in a house

where elephants are fed?

Can you burden a cat with the weight

carried by elephants?

Should one seek remedy for a cat

by selling the elephant?

(Tamil proverbs)


The elephant may have a long trunk,

but that does not mean it is generous and charitable;

The cat may be seen closing its eyes,

but that does not mean it is meditating and compassionate;

Saints may be seen roaming aloof,

but they are beyond pain and pleasure.

(Ativîrarâma Pântiyar, Naruntokai, 41-43)


Elephant and pig: ‘What has a pig got to do with an elephant?’ one may ask. For pundits and bards, it does. Next to the elephant, the boar is the only animal that has a dental extension to be called a ‘tusk’. Thus in Tamil the word ‘kôttumâ’ means both the elephant and pig. Similarly in Sanskrit, the word visâna refers to both the species. Most of the poems reproduced here focus on the dissimilarities between the boar and the elephant. While the elephant is multiparous, the other is uniparous. Though of the same colour, one is small and the other huge. One is a scavenger and the other is not. All these quotes are from Tamil.


When a rut elephant with his long trunk steers clear of an unclean pig,

It is not out of fear of the pig.

Likewise, cultured people avoid the company of the unlettered,

Because of their design to tramp the path of righteousness.

(Unknown author, Nîtivenpâ, 37)


Your elephants look more like pigs

With their shortened tusks –

Their tips broken in their spirited attempts

To ram the doors of the ramparts

Of the enemy king.

(Kumattűr Kannanâr, Patirruppattu, 16)


The deeds that men of birth do even in their poverty,

The worthless do not even while well placed;

Though bound with rings on the tusks,

The boar does not become a warlike elephant.

(Unknown, Nâlatiyâr, 358)


Ichor-dripping elephants denuded of their trunks

stood now as mere swine;

Their toe-nails gleamed on earth as light

streaming from the full moon;

The eyelets of lance-wielding heroes

were not gouged out be crows;

A variety of spears drew out the intestines

of immense, killer elephants.

(Villipputűrâr, Villipâratam, 61)


Oh, charming slender-waisted maid!

It is better to bring forth a song of spotless character and wisdom

Than a large number of sons without either.

What does a pig gain by bringing forth a large number of piglets?

The elephant bearing a single offspring is far happier.

(Unknown author, Nîtivenpâ, 37)


Elephant and bees: Bees are used to deter elephants that approach croplands in Africa, as a conflict mitigation strategy. Villagers in return also earn a few bucks from honey keeping. Though proven effective in controlling damage to cultivable lands, the method is yet to take a firm foothold in India. What works for the African elephant should in principle work for the Asian elephant also, since captive elephants attacked by bees have been known to disappear into deep forests only to return months later. Bees may deter elephants, but they also get attracted to male elephants in musth.

Biologist Rasmussen and her colleagues showed that the secretion from the temporal glands of the male Asian elephant acts as a pheromone to convey the message of its status to other elephants. But why does it attract insects like bees, to the extent of their swarming around the elephant? They analyzed the musth secretions (often referred as ichor) and found it contains compounds known from bee honey and bee pheromones!

Indian poets have not failed to observe this phenomenon in elephants and used it to good effect while composing poems that frequently mention the elephant. Poems across many languages of India contain this information.



A bee, tempted with the sweet odour of the ichor,

And a thirst for drinking it,

Receives for all its troubles,

Lashes from the elephant’s ears

That are moved with great difficulty.

(Kâmandâkiya, Nitisâra, I.45)



Leaving the other kings, the eyes of the citizens were now turned on

Raghu’s son, as black bees, seated on flowers, fly off to the temples

of wild elephants seated with temporal juice.

(Kâlidâsa, Raghuvamsa, Canto VI.7)



These elephants exuding rut which draws bees and filled with rage

Do pose a problem to their keepers who send their cow elephants

To tame the rogues which mate with them;

But still untamed, they rage about, as reckless giants, in the army camp.

(Patirruppattu, 82)



Like a wild tusker bathed in the heavenly pool

And adorned with floral pollen accompanied by buzzing bees,

Drugged with the fragrance of rut and shaking big trees along the way

The breeze sped down around the hermitage.

(Kannasa Râmâyanam, Bâlakânda, 220)



The elephant is coming with his slow and majestic gait,

The juice is oozing out of his neck, and like the jingling of bells,

The black bees are buzzing around him.

(Bihari Satsai, 388. Tr: Satyadev Choudhary)



Where the elephants stand tied to their posts,

Bursting with strength as they shift in place,

Trunks swaying, with high-stepping gain and ripples of bells,

Uplifted tusks, foreheads like the crescent moon,

And angry stares, giant feet, huge necks,

The fragrant fluid of musth humming with bees

As if they were mountains flowing honey.

(Puranânűru, 22)