The elephant, like no other animal, has dominated the cultural and religious landscape of India for more than three millennia. Valued for their strength, intelligence and nobility they have been carved onto the wall of our greatest temples and eulogized in epic, religious and secular literature. In fact one can state with authority that the history of Indian civilization and that of elephants are intricately intertwined together — however that is beyond the scope of the present article and best left to another discussion.

Both the free roaming population and the captive elephants of India have experienced elaborate forms of management since ancient times. There exists a whole body of literature, both in Sanskrit and other languages such as Tamil and Assamese, which deals extensively with the subject. Humans and elephants can, at times, be considered to be collaborators rather than as competitors and the elephant in India can be looked upon or can be endowed with three attributes — as an animal (as in the wild), as a person or individual with unique personality traits (captive elephants) and as divinity (in three of the major indigenous religions of India — Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism). The same cannot be said for any other animal in India or probably the world. These three traits are the bedrock of the complex relationship that humans and elephants have in India.

Elephants were an extremely important component of the armies of ancient India. The traditional army as described in the Puranas had four main arms or divisions: elephants, cavalry, horse drawn chariots and infantry. The rise of Magadha in ancient India is often attributed to its proximity and hence easier access to the elephant forests of the East.

This military structure survived more or less intact (the only causality being the horse drawn chariot) till the time of the Mughal Emperor Akbar when the decline of the elephant started due to the use of artillery and muskets on a larger scale. The elephant however continued to be used to carry both Kings and commanders into battle, as battering rams and for transport and haulage. As the elephant decreased in military significance it increased in ideological value as a symbol of Imperial authority. The British Indian Army continued to use elephants for haulage well into the twentieth century.

In medieval India there was a thriving trade in elephants. The three principal exporters were Kalinga (present day Orissa), Pegu (part of present day Myanmar ) and Ceylon( present day Sri Lanka) and their clients included Vijayanagara, Bijapur, Golconda, Thanjavur, Madurai and Bengal. Elephants from Ceylon were considered the best war elephants and Ceylon ivory was thought to be of superior quality. Pegu was known as the land of the white elephants and Vijayanagara was a prominent client.

The elephants from Pegu, though larger than the Ceylon elephants, were not considered superior. Ceylon had a very small percentage of tuskers among their native elephant populations and used to import tuskers for ceremonial use from both Pegu and Kalinga. India was a huge market for Ceylon elephants. The Portuguese captured the trade from the Sinhalese and used their superior ship building skills to monopolize it. After them the Dutch took up the trade in Ceylon.

While there is a lot written on the international trade in horses given their importance in warfare and the difficulty and importance of maintaining a regular supply, there is precious little awareness on the parallel trade in elephants. As elephants are indigenous to India and were captured in fairly large numbers the story of their trade seemed to have slipped through the cracks of history.

In Hampi, Vijayanagara the story of the trade in horses, first monopolized by Arab traders and then by the Portuguese, gets a lot of purchase especially of the lengths to which the Vijayanagara Rayas went to ensure a regular supply including paying in gold and also for any deaths that may have occurred during transit. It is even believed that the entire Vijaya Vittala Bazaar was dedicated to the trade in horses. This despite the fact that the elephant dominates the carvings on the temple. One glance at the carvings is all that is needed to realize that the people of Vijayanagara had an intimate knowledge and relationship with the elephant.

The Elephant Stables of Hampi — Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa


The famous Elephant Stables of Hampi stand testament to the importance the Vijayanagara Rayas placed on them. Built to house the Royal elephants, it is an elaborate rectangular structure with a row of eleven doomed chambers each built to house two elephants. It is one of the finest examples of Indo –sultanate architecture still standing in Hampi.

Intrigued by this ‘absence’ I set out to trace the trail of the elephant in Hampi. I had two reference points — written records left behind by foreign visitors and the elaborate carvings that adorned the temples in Hampi. Let us first take a look at the written records.

Abdul Razak, an envoy from the Persian Court of Shahrukh in Herat, visited Hampi in 1443 and left the following account — opposite the minister’s palace are the elephant sheds. The large elephants are specifically reserved for the palace. Between the first and second enceintes of the city, and between the northern and western faces the breeding of elephants taked place. Each elephant has a different stall, the walls are very strong and high . The chains on the necks and backs of elephants are firmly attached to the beams above.

He goes on to mention a magnificent white elephant which was led out before the monarch every morning as the sight of it was meant to be a happy omen. He also recorded how the royal elephants were fed khichri laden with butter twice a day and the various punishments that the king meted out to mahouts for the smallest of mistakes.

Domingo Paes, a Portuguese visitor to the court of Krishnadeva Raya describes the Mahanavi festival in detail which includes this passage on elephants — ‘A battalion of war elephants covered with caparison of velvet and gold, with fringes and rich cloths of many colours and bells so that the earth resounds and on their heads are painted faces of giants and other kinds of great beasts. On the back of each are three or four men, dressed in their quilted tunics and armed with shields and javelins.’

Duarte Barbosa who visited in 1501 states that the king had more than nine hundred elephants of great size and beauty which were used for both war and state. Fernao Nuniz a 16th century Portuguese visitor describes the war elephants of Vijayanagara thus — ‘on their tusks have knives fastened’. He also writes that ‘when the King so desires, he commands a man to be thrown to the elephants and they tear him to pieces’.

As the most powerful empire in the south in the 14th to 16th centuries, Vijayanagara had its own extensive elephant forests and elephant trapping systems. During the heydays of the Vijayanagara Empire the elephant still held its own in military terms and would have constituted a large part of the Vijayanagara army. Besides this it would have fulfilled an important ceremonial role as well. It was quite common at that time to declare all elephants ‘Royal’ property to kept and maintained at the pleasure of the reigning monarch. Among the rival kingdoms of the Vijayanagara Empire was the kingdom of modern day Orissa. Its ruler was referred to as ‘Gajapati’ of the king of elephants. This was because Orissa or Kalinga was prime elephant country and his army had probably the best elephant corps of his time.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Vijayanagara would have a large elephant corps of its own, considering that it controlled all the major elephant forests of south India and had easy access to Ceylon where the most sought after elephants were found. Imported elephants must have constituted a small fraction of the total elephants.

Evidence of the trade in elephants can be found, hiding in plain sight, among the numerous elephant carvings found all over Hampi. These carvings include the different activities of a working elephant and daily scenes of elephant husbandry .The Mahanavmi Dibba has carvings of elephants being used to hunt tigers — the elephants being used not as mounts for the hunter but as beaters. Elephant fights were another royal pastime and carvings of elephants versus elephants or other animals like tigers, lions , bulls and bears adorn the walls of Hampi. The Mahanavmi festival with its contingent of marching elephants is carved onto the outer walls of the Hazara Rama temple.

In one corner of the Vijaya Vittala temple, the epicenter (supposedly) of the horse trade in Hampi, is a panel that depicts a merchant offering for sale a set of elephants to a seated figure. It is clear from the clothes worn by the merchant that he is from European stock and in fact closely resembles the more numerous figures of Portuguese’s horse traders. Another such panel can be found in the Achyutaraya Temple complex. 


Elephant being offered for sale, Vijaya Vittala Temple, Hampi — Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa


In another panel, unrelated to this topic but interesting nonetheless, I found the only depiction of an elephant calf. The Arthashastra, an ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, forbids the capture of young and pregnant elephants except for entertainment (it is not clearly stated for whose entertainment but one can guess that it was for the royalty and nobility). The panel shows the calf accompanied by a richly caparisoned female elephant and, strangely, two jousting males.

It is thus very apparent that the elephant held an important place and fulfilled both a military and ceremonial role. This is in keeping with the times when the decline of the role of the war elephant had not yet begun.