Of elephants and the environment


K. R. A. NARASIAH, THe Hindu

Date Published
A fresh breeze of a book that relates the entirety of an elephant’s life — both in forest and in captivity — in relation to kings and the environment
In this extraordinary work, Thomas Trautmann, an Emeritus Professor of the University of Michigan — no stranger to India and more known in Tamil Nadu for his research on the life and work of Francis W. Ellis and his Dravidian proof — studies the elephant-king relation in India. He expounds upon how this relation helped preserve the species from extinction and in the process how the environment has been preserved. The author says, “The ancient Indian kingdom was tied to the forest by the institution of the war elephant”, a very important observation especially in the current focus on environment.
Kings used the elephant as a symbol of power and, because of its size alone, it became an object of awe and glory.  At the same time it was not economically possible to raise them from birth, as elephants are useful only when they attain adulthood. For domestication, Indian kings captured wild adults and trained them. This helped preservation of forests as it was in the forests that the elephants naturally grew. Therefore, the study forms an important part of environmental history. Again, catching elephants was not an easy job as it required great manpower that only kings could afford. Trautmann traces the history of elephants in relation to kings of not only India but other eastern countries as well — probably the Indian model being adopted elsewhere. This leads naturally to the war history of elephants as elephants provided the might of the army.
Thus, the study at once becomes that of the role of elephants in military, political and cultural history of the times dealt with, as the author uses the relation between king and the elephant as a thread that connects kings not only to the elephants but also to forests and forest people. It is important to note that the tribesmen of forests were also thus protected.
In an interesting observation, Trautmann explains how India got to 31 elephant reserves at present from the eight elephant forests in ancient India. He starts from Arthasastra and goes through the A’in Akbari (1598) where there is a lot of information available about elephants, and quotes from the narrations of European travellers. With illustration, the distribution of elephant population in India over a time frame is explained.
He quotes extensively from Sanskrit literature — especially the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata — facts about war elephants in relation to kingships. The story that impresses is when Rama enquires of his brother Bharata about the welfare of the elephants and the forest. The ideal war elephant was a male with large tusks at the height of its power at age sixty. Here we understand that the elephants lived longer under the care of the kings, as he again quotes from Sanskrit verse that a sixty year-old elephant was among the richest gifts. According to scholarly literature available on Indus civilisation, “though the reading of the available material is ambiguous at best”, Trautmann believes that Indus people were familiar with elephants and elephants played a substantive role in their thoughts.
He quotes Iravatham Mahadevan — a researcher of Indus script — that there are a number of images of elephants in the seals and copper tablets to show that Indus people indeed knew about elephants quite well. He adds, “the evidence of captivity and display in Egypt and Assyria is certain, and for the Indus civilization it seems good”.
The conclusion of elephants being used as vahanas for Gods, by him through the texts of early and later Vedic literature is highly impressive.
Interesting to read is the chapter on the structure of use of elephants, which quotes elaborately from Indian ancient Indian texts such as Arthsashtra. The elephant’s role in warfare is discussed in detail in this chapter, comparing with horse and chariots as vehicles of kings and warriors. He takes pains to describe the Vyuhas and breaking them, quoting extensively from Sanskrit literature.
In ‘Elephant Knowledge’, the entire process of capture, training, use and maintenance, is described in detail. He ends on an optimistic note, saying “judging from the increase of wild elephant number in India, it appears the nation-state can secure the future of elephants”. The added strength of the book is the delightful colour plates and comparative pictures of elephants from different areas. This book is a departure from ordinary history of kings or animals; it comes as a fresh breeze in its entirety of the animal’s life both in forest and in captivity in relation to kings and the environment. The book is an asset to both animal and environment lovers’ library.
Elephants and Kings: An environmental History; Thomas R. Trautmann, Permanent Black, Rs.995.