My lord, the elephant


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WHILE the Asian elephant is listed as an endangered species, its relatively successful survival in India is largely attributed to the important cultural role it has played for thousands of years and continues to play today. India’s many languages and literatures over millennia are full of idioms and literary figures of speech referring to the elephant that suggest ways in which elephants are imagined and thought about, as emblems of royal status and aesthetic delight and how people and animals, the home and the world, are imagined.

India has a vast literature devoted to elephants. For example, there are scientific treatises, or shastras, collectively known as the Gajashastra, ‘Elephant treatises’, which are not just about how to care for the elephant’s physical well-being but also its mental welfare and emotional equilibrium. Religious texts and mythological stories abound – Hindu, Buddhist and Jain – in which elephants play important roles, ranging from creation stories and cosmologies to Shiva’s killing of the elephant demon and, of course, Ganesha, the god who has an elephant head.1

This presentation focuses on a small sample of some of the most celebrated secular, imaginative literature from the abundance of texts produced in India. Their primary purpose is aesthetic, namely to engender emotions in those who listen to them, see them performed or read them. These texts and the language and imagery they deploy reveal to us the ways elephants feature in imagined worlds over the last two millennia. I concentrate mainly, though not exclusively, on a few major literary cultures and within those on some key texts. I have quoted mostly published translations even for languages I know, such as Sanskrit.


The ancient Indian books of animal fables which have made their way around the world, are actually books of advice to young princes, Nitishastra or treatises on Niti, virtue, that include the Sanskrit texts the Panchatantra, Five Topics (c. 4th C), and the later Hitopadesha, Advice for Welfare, with embedded stories peppered with verse maxims. Elephants are among the many animals that feature in these tales, where they talk, have names (Karpuratilaka – one who has an auspicious mark of camphor on his forehead) and receive their just desserts. The elephants in the fables are imagined differently from the ways they are today: they are not wise but are tricked by the smarter jackals and hares; they behave badly, whether because they are arrogant or merely clumsy. Yet the aphoristic verses show a division familiar even today: the captive elephant is obedient, hard-working and intelligent while the wild elephant is a dangerous animal.

Much of the Sanskrit literature from the first millennium is associated with the royal courts, so it frequently features the elephant, the royal animal who embodies wealth, strength and power: ‘The king’s elephant is an expression of the people’s welfare and king’s virtue.’2 As the king of the gods, Indra has a white elephant, Airavata, so an earthly king, an intermediary between the gods and his people, has an elephant, who invites comparison with the divine elephant. War elephants – rutting, angry, powerful, and dangerous tuskers –symbolize royal power directly as they form one of the divisions of the Indian Army, manifesting the king’s prowess on the battle-field and on his marches of world conquest (digvijaya), such as the famous Raghuvamsha, the Lineage of Raghu, by the greatest Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa, (c.4th C) or in Bilhana’s eulogy of Vikramaditya VI, Vikramankadevacharita (11th C).


Executioner elephants feature in Dandin’s Dashakumaracharita, Tales of the Ten Princes (7th C), where a killer pachyderm called Mrityu Vijaya – Victor over Death – is frightened by our hero. Also, kings hunted elephants such as in Bhasa’s play, the Pratijnayaugandharayana, the Vow of Yaugandharayana (c. 2nd C), where King Udayana of Kausambi (Vatsa) is captured by his enemy, the King of Ujjayini, using a decoy elephant, a kind of Trojan elephant, as it were.

The king himself is like an elephant and in the most famous text of Sanskrit literature, Kalidasa’s drama, Shakuntala, he is likened to a giricarin or mountain elephant: a wild elephant, frightened by the king’s chariots, disturbs the ascetics and the king protects them; the ascetics themselves are associated with the gentle deer, a symbol of the wild forest, very different from the elephant and the king’s horses.

The elephant himself is also regal in his demeanour, unlike the servile dog, in Bhartrihari.

…the lordly elephant-bull

Views all with aloof disdain and devours

His food while others bear him flattery.3

While the association with kings is not surprising, elephants also feature in other ways in Sanskrit poetry that may be unexpected. One is that love makes the wild forest male elephant gentle and devoted. In Kalidasa’s Vikramorvashiya, Act 4, the mortal king, Pururavas addresses an elephant in his soliloquy or in Bhavabhuti’s play, MalatiMadhava (c.8th C), the hero, Madhava, is driven mad with the anxiety of separation from Malati and talks to the animals in the jungle, including peacocks and monkeys, but his longest addresses are to elephants:

To close her eyes in ecstasy by using the point of his tusk to scratch her,

To fan her soothingly by flapping each ear in turn,

To keep up her strength with half-chewed shoots from the gum-tree

Are all familiarities this lucky jungle elephant can practise.4


Unlike the modern western concept of nature as something apart from humans – or at least until recent reconsideration by ecologists and environmentalists – in Sanskrit poetry people and animals inhabit the same natural world. Elephants add to the aesthetic pleasure of the landscape, augmenting sound, sight, smell and touch as in the Malati Madhava:

The lord of a rutting herd, delighting the ears of his mate with the deep sweet rumble of his voice as he plunges and sports in a lake whose waters he colours with the thick exudation of his cheeks, an ichor as coolly fragrant as fresh-flowering kadamba. His plunge has reduced a bed of lotuses to a chaos of scattered leaves and filaments and fibres and suckers and roots and shoots, and the ceaseless flapping of his ears has whipped the rippling waves into a fine mist, till cranes and ospreys rise up in fright.5


Elephants are associated with rain in mythology, where Indra, the king of the gods who rides Airavata, is also the god of rain who unleashes the waters that have been trapped by the demons. In the poetic imagination, elephants look like clouds – large and grey, thundering, their tusks like lightning – and they love lotuses and lotus stalks that grow in waterbodies. In Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara, The Gathering of the Seasons, Canto I, Summer, elephants gather in the mud of dried up lakes, and cool off in rivers (vs 19, 27), while in Canto II, The Rains, clouds trumpet like proud tuskers (vs 1), prompting the elephants themselves to trumpet (vs 15) as their temples pour out ichor which attracts bees as if to lotuses. This common poetic idiom is that bees hover around the temples of rutting elephants which exude must secretions, or ichor, as this is supposed to smell sweeter than flowers, is a further image of fertility associated with elephants.

Perhaps the most famous poem of all in Sanskrit is Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, The Cloud Messenger, in which many elephants feature. A yaksha (a demigod) who is a servant of Kubera, the god of wealth, has been exiled. Some commentaries specify that his punishment occurred because he was so preoccupied with his lover that he neglected his charge of Kubera’s garden and groves, so Indra’s elephant, Airavata, trampled the golden lotuses of Lake Manasa. The exiled yaksha sees a cloud, heralding the beginning of the rainy season, the season of lovers’ reunions, and asks it to take a message to his beloved, describing in great detail the land over which he will pass. There are many elephant images in this lyric poem, notably the cloud on a mountain looking like an elephant playing on a hill (1.2); a bright river flowing on a dark mountain reminiscent of paint on an elephant (1.19) and so on.


Beautiful women are compared to elephants, with the famous comparison of gajagamini, she who walks like an elephant, which does not seem to be found in Kalidasa (as the popular association after M.F. Husain’s film) but in older texts such as the Puranas, while other similes are found in poets such as Bhartrihari, where women have breasts like elephants – and thighs like elephants’ trunks.6 

Another image of the elephant is found in Sanskrit poems of renunciation, where the mind is a wild elephant that has to be controlled. Bhartrihari:

[I have never met a person]

Who could really bind

To a post of self-restraint

The raging elephant of his mind

With its drunken desire to court

The world of the senses.7

Classical Tamil poetry, Sangam literature (1-4th C), has different genres and forms from Sanskrit, with poems of Akam and Puram, Inner and Exterior, but similar idioms concerning elephants. In the Puram poems, elephants, such as those of the Pandyan prince, embody royal might and power:

The stylus: his tusk

The palm-leaf scroll.

The broad chests of enemy kings

With spears burning with valour.

This war elephant

Of our spear-wielding Maran

Writes this document declaring:

‘The whole world is ours.’8

They are also like the king himself. The Chola king’s elephants return from battle war-weary, with their tusks and toenails damaged:

Ashamed to present themselves

before their females

in such bad shape

they lingered

outside the gates.9


In the Akam poems the love-hate relationship of humans and elephants is compared to that of lovers:

The drum-footed black elephant’s calf,

its crown still soft,

runs and plays

with the gypsy woman’s boys,

their bodies all tiny joints,

boys from the seaside

where liquor is plentiful;

is sweet one day

but devours their millet the next;

so too, his game and laughter

turn to hate.10 

The literary traditions of the Sultanate and other Mughal courts which derive from Persian, also use imagery similar to that found in Sanskrit poetry; for example in the 13th century, Amir Khusrau writes about the elephant in battle:

The rank of elephants was like a line of baneful clouds,

Each cloud with lightning to attack, swift like the wind,

In its swift motion each elephant like a splendid mountain,

The armour upon it like the cloud upon a mountain.11

Nimat Khan, d.1121, a courtier of the Emperor Aurangzeb, composed Persian verses showing his affection for his pet baby elephant which he must have wanted the world to know about and express it:

This elephant washed my heart’s sorrow

and quelled the dust of sadness on my brow.

Its body a cloud, its voice thunder, its gait lightning,

its trunk is a spout for the rain of mercy.12


The British colonial period witnessed a major change in the economy of the elephant, which while still used in war, at least as a draught animal, was trained to toil in the forests. The elephant still retained its ceremonial power, being ridden by Lord and Lady Curzon at the 1903 Delhi Durbar and carrying the golden howdah at the Mysore Dassara. The British brought with them their own views of animals and the world, an obsession with hunting which later prompted an interest in conservation.13 

The British saw the elephant as an obedient, wise and noble animal, but one that needed indigenous knowledge in order to manage it successfully. The most famous literary British elephants were those of Kipling. Lockwood Kipling wrote ‘My lord, the elephant’, who puts his might at the service of the Queen, but it was his son Rudyard whose 1894 Jungle Book created an immortal world of talking animals where the wise wild animals follow the law of the jungle while the captives are part the chain of command of the British Indian Army. Memorable elephants include Hathi, the wild elephant leader who represents patience, order and obedience, all qualities recognized by British writers on elephants. However, the elephants are not meek and mild, as they destroy a village of people who have captured other elephants (‘Letting in the jungle’); Two-tails, the army elephant, whose wisdom is indicated by his claim that he can ‘see inside his head’, that is imagine and remember; Kala Nag, who is commanded by Toomai, a ten-year old mahout, played by Sabu Dastagir in the 1937 film Elephant Boy, dir. Robert Flaherty and Zoltan Korda. One of Kipling’s best known ‘Just So Stories’ is ‘The elephant’s child’ which tells how the elephant got his trunk when a crocodile pulls it, an image which recalls the legend of Gajendra Moksha, the Liberation of Gajendra, an elephant saved by Vishnu from a crocodile attack.


Elephants also feature in folk tales and folk songs, such as the songs of the mahouts themselves, those who look after the elephants. The best known are the Golparia songs from lower Assam, made famous by Pratima Barua Pandey and Bhupen Hazarika which are sung by the mahouts about missing their lovers and the beautiful women they encounter in the jungle. Folk tales from the region include the legend of the unhappy wife, Joymala. When the king of the elephants finds out that the river is salty because of her weeping, he turns her into an elephant. India’s famous film industry features many elephants as working animals, devotees of God, and characters who take major roles. The most famous of these is Haathi Mere Saathi (The elephants are my friends, dir. M.A. Thirumugham, 1971, Hindi), which blends many views of the elephant, as loyal animal, connected to Ganesha, who are morally superior and more loyal than human creatures.14 A recent film, Kumki (Captive elephant, dir. Prabhu Solomon, 2012, Tamil), shows how elephants continue to suffer at the hands of humans.


The elephant has survived well in India in part because of its religious and cultural role whose deep resonances are felt in the imaginary worlds of poetry, drama and film. It also play an important role in Indian tourism while questions about its future raise issues about the environment and ecology as well as animal welfare and human-animal relationships. A study of ancient traditions found across India’s literature and cultures, from Sanskrit and Tamil classical cultures to those of the contemporary indigenous forest peoples, may allow the development of alternative ways of thinking about animals and the environment not only in India but also in other parts of the world. The elephant, much loved and much troubled by humans, provides an excellent focus for these questions on which the future of the planet itself depends. It is continuing its role known from Hindu mythology where the eight dikpala elephants guard the eight corners or directions of the world.


* Paper originally prepared for the E 50:50 conference, New Delhi.


1. R. Sukumar, The Story of Asia’s Elephants. Marg Publications, Mumbai, 2011.

2. P.B. Courtright, Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. Oxford University Press, New York, 1985, p. 28.

3.Bhartrihari and Bilhana: The Hermit and the Love-Thief. Translated from the Sanskrit by Barbara Stoler Miller. Penguin, New Delhi, original 1967, 1990, vs 57, p. 52.

4. Three Sanskrit Plays. Translated by Michael Coulson. Penguin, London, 1981, Act IX, 32, p. 404.

5. Three Sanskrit Plays, Act IX, 34, pp. 404-405.

6. Bhartrihari and Bilhana, vs 90, p. 63 and vs 139, p. 80; vs 159, p. 87.

7. Bhartrihari and Bilhana,vs 176, p. 93.

8. Red Lilies and Frightened Birds, Muttollayiram. Translated from the Tamil by M.L. Thangappa; edited and introduced by A.R. Vankatachalapathy. Penguin, New Delhi, 2011, vs 14, p. 17.

9. Red Lilies and Frightened Birds, Muttollayiram, vs 72, p. 77.

10. From Kuruntokai by Kuriyiraiyar, 394, trans. A.K. Ramanujan, Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. Columbia University Press, New York, 1985, p.18.

11. S. Digby, War-horse and Elephant in the Delhi Sultanate: A Study of Military Supplies. Orient Monographs, 197, Oxford, p. 53.

12. Personal communication; trans. Sunil Sharma.

13. D.K. Lahiri-Choudhury (ed.), The Great Indian Elephant Book: An Anthology of Writing on Elephants in the Raj.Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000.

14. R. Dwyer, ‘The Biggest Star of all: the Elephant in Indian Cinema.’ In Thomas Dähnhardt and Fabrizio Ferrari (eds.), Charming Beauties and Frightful Beasts: Non- Human Animals in South Asian Myth, Ritual and Folklore. Equinox Publishing, Sheffield. Special issue of Religions of South Asia, 7, pp. 195-210.