Asian Elephants in History and Culture: An Overview

in Overview
Published on: 24 September 2019

Dr P.S. Easa

Dr P.S. Easa holds a Ph.D. on Elephant Ecology and Behaviour and has about 40 years of experience in wildlife research and management. Currently, he is the Chairman of Care Earth Trust, an NGO in Chennai, Chairman of Evaluation Committee of the new zoo in Thrissur, Technical Committee Member of Elephant Rehabilitation Centre at Kottoor in Neyyar and Member of IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group and EIA-related committees in Kerala.

For millennia, humans and elephants have shared the earth and lived together in harmony. In fact, elephants have attracted humans from time immemorial; at first with astonishment for their size, tusks and unusual trunks, and then admiration, devotion and fear. Elephants have come to be seen as symbols of strength. The adjective ‘elephantine’ is used to mean something huge and monumental. The affection for elephants has led to a number of plants and animals being named after them due to their shape, size, or strength: among plants examples include elephant garlic, elephant pepper, elephant tree, elephant apple or wood, elephant ears, elephant-head amaranth, elephant-foot yam, elephant grass, elephant thorn, elephant tusk, ivory tree, elephant’s root, elephant corn and elephant’s trunk while among the animals there are elephant shark, elephant tortoise, elephant dung-beetle, elephant weevil, elephant bug, elephant’s-trunk snake, elephant louse, elephant ticks, elephant bot-flies, elephant hawk-moth, elephant snout-fish, elephant shrew, elephant seal, ivory-billed woodpecker and elephant-tusk shell.

Elephants in Mythologies
The elephant is central to many Buddhist and Hindu mythologies. The Burmese, Thai and other Southeast Asian Buddhist cultures cherish several myths associated with elephants. The most significant legend is Queen Maya’s dream—after being childless several years into their marriage, one day Queen Maya dreamed of a white elephant with a lotus in its trunk that went into her womb. She conceived the young Siddhartha soon thereafter who grew up to become the Buddha. White elephants are since regarded as symbols of power and fertility and as most auspicious of all animals in Laos, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. Such elephants are called chang samkan, meaning important or significant elephant. The notion of Airavatha, the grand white elephant of Indra with four tusks, as described in the Matangaleela and other Hindu epics and myths is also important here.

Elephants in Ancient Art
The motif of the elephant is prevalent in ancient Indian art.[1] During the Gupta Empire (third and fourth centuries CE), artists borrowed several motifs from nature to depict divine figures. Some of the more well-known similes used in poetry were ‘eyes shaped like the curve of a little fish or a lotus petal’, ‘eyebrows like an archer’s bow’, ‘lips like lotus blossoms’, ‘chin like a mango stone’ and ‘arms like an elephant’s trunk.’ Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and beauty, is sometimes shown flanked by two elephants who honour her by pouring water over her head with their trunks. With his elephant head, Ganesha is the most beloved of all Hindu deities.

Steatite seals discovered in the ruins of ancient sites in Pakistan and North India portray elephants, lions, rhinoceroses and bulls.[2]  A stela of a four-armed Vishnu depicts him in the centre holding his usual attributes whereas “the outermost panel shows the typical pile-up of elephants surmounted by fantastic composite lion-goats (vyalis) and makaras (elephantcrocodiles)”.[3] The carved wooden dome of a meeting hall with miniature balconies in a Jain temple in Gujarat shows a parade of elephants along with several other carvings.

Elephants in War
Elephants are present in almost all narratives of battles in ancient Asia.[4] War elephants wearing heavy armour were described as crushing the enemy under their feet and their size and stature had a significant psychological effect on opponents. Off the battlefield, they could carry heavy material and thus provided a useful means of transport. According to Avantika Das, a scholar on modern as well as ancient warfare in the subcontinent, dynasties of the past frequently possessed elephants as part of their army, along with cavalry, infantry and chariots, including the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Rashtrakutas, the Chalukyas and so on. The well-known story of the war between King Porus and Alexander the Great along the Indus River depicts several battle-trained elephants as part of the former’s fleet. Several ancient texts, including the Mahabharata, have references to elephants in war.[5] The Mughal Empire had about 130,000 elephants.[6] During the British Raj, elephants were used in logging, for war and for religious ceremonies; they were also traded throughout Asia.

Elephants in Sport
Elephants have been also used in a game called ‘Elephant Polo.’ The Scotsman James Manclark is credited with the invention of elephant polo in the 1980s. In fact, a World Cup is held every year at Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Elephant polo is popular in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal and is a major tourist attraction three times a year. In Thailand, the game is played with three elephants in each team. Nepal, with a larger field, has four in each team. Each team member is accompanied by a mahout who steers as the players focus on hitting the ball.

The first law pertaining to elephants in India was written in the Arthasastra by Kautilya. Modern legislation by the British in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century includes the Government Forest Act, 1865, the Bengal Act 2 of 1866, the Bengal Act 4 of 1866, the Bengal Regulation 5 of 1873, the Madras Wild Elephant Preservation Act of 1873 (The Madras Act 1 of 1872), the Indian Forest Act of 1878 (Act VII of 1878), the Elephant Preservation Act of 1879 (Act VI of 1879), the Bengal Act 5 of 1898, the Mysore Games and Fish Preservation Regulations of 1901, the Wild Birds and Animals Protection Act of 1912 (Act VIII of 1912) and the Indian Forest Act of 1927 (Act XIV of 1927).[7]

The Acts of 1879, 1912 and 1927 remained the major laws for protecting elephants in most parts of the country until 1972. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, with its amendments, strengthened the protection extended to elephants in India. The Indian elephant is currently in the most protected group, in Schedule I of the Act. The export of elephants and ivory was banned in 1978. Domestic trade in ivory from the Indian elephant was banned in November 1986. The Act recognises a domesticated elephant both as a ‘captive animal’ [Section 2(5)] and a ‘wild animal’ [Section 2(36)]. The term ‘vehicle’ as defined in the Act also includes the elephant [Section 2(33)]. Kerala additionally enacted the Rules for Captive Elephant Management. However, these legislations can only strengthen conservation initiatives for elephants if they secure their habitat and address the challenges of human–wildlife conflict.[8]

Conservation Initiatives
Asian elephants in their natural environment are threatened by habitat loss as well as fragmentation and degradation of habitat. At present, about 42,000 elephants are distributed in thirteen range countries (Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia). Except for a few populations in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand, the other populations face serious conservation issues. The Wayanad–Bandipura–Nagarahole–Mudumalai landscape of about 12,700 sq. km. roughly contiguous forest houses around 6,000 elephants and is the largest habitat of Asian elephants.

Elephants are found in south, east, northwest and northeast India. The southern Indian population is distributed in the forests of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra and to some extent in Maharashtra. The populations in Andhra and Maharashtra are breakaway groups, which moved from the adjacent states. The habitat of the southern population is not contiguous and exists as several populations with no connectivity, the only natural barrier being the Palghat Gap. The populations are threatened by human settlements and rampant development programmes. However, compared to many other populations in the country, habitat connectivity in the south is comparatively better as evidenced by the number of elephant corridors identified by experts.

The eastern population consists of elephants in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and part of West Bengal. Here, fragmentation and habitat degradation are major issues and populations are highly fragmented and seriously threatened by development programmes, especially mining.

The northwest population is largely confined to Uttarakhand and is contiguous with the population in Nepal with occasional movements between Nepal and the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar.

The northeast population in Assam, North Bengal, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, part of Mizoram and Tripura is contiguous with Bangladesh and Bhutan. Habitat loss leading to fragmentation of populations and high human–elephant conflict are the major conservation issues in the region. Priority should be given to ensure larger areas by securing the identified elephant corridors.

The Asian Elephant Specialist Group, an initiative of the World Conservation Union, attempts to assist in scientific management of elephants in the range countries by providing expertise and organising financial support wherever necessary. The Government of India established a conservation programme under Project Elephant in 1992 and declared most of the elephant habitats in the country as Elephant Reserves. Project Elephant aims to conserve elephants both in the wild and captivity supporting states in various manners. With all these protection measures in the forests, elephants are still threatened by poachers. The Report of the Elephant Task Force appointed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has put forward several suggestions for conservation of elephants in India in a report titled Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India and published in 2010. Based on the recommendation of the Task Force, the elephant has been declared a Heritage Animal.[9]

Ever-increasing development programmes in the form of linear infrastructure (the railways and the roadways) fragment habitats, disrupt communication and even cause deaths of elephants in accidents. There has also been debate about human settlements within the habitats competing for meagre natural resources and restricting free movement of wildlife. An attempt is being made to secure the 108 elephant corridors identified in different parts of the country. These pressures have harmed human–wildlife co-existence culminating in situations where loss of human life has led to elephant mortality in retaliatory killings. There is also the problem of emergence of new diseases like the Herpes virus.

The Specific Situation in Kerala
In Kerala, the elephants have become a symbol of culture and religious festivities and have now also become a part of smaller processions and marriages. This cultural relationship with elephants is seen in literature as well with the best and probably the oldest such example being Aithihyamaala written by Kottarathil Sankunny.

The most well-known traditional use of elephants in Kerala is with temples and pageantry. Of late, this use has transcended religion and become a part of festivals in churches and mosques as well. Elephants are beautifully decorated with fineries when taken out for festivals. The articles on decorating and finery of pageant elephants and on temple festivals elaborate on this further.

In Kerala, wild elephant populations exist in the larger fragments of Agasthyamala, Periyar, contiguous areas in Munnar–Malayattur–Parambikulam–Anamalai (Anamalai or Anamudi population) and the Nilambur–Wayanad population with connectivity through the contiguous forests in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The only isolated elephant population in Kerala in a fragmented habitat is in Idukki Wildlife Sanctuary and adjacent forests, which is comparatively smaller in extent and elephant numbers.

Elephant corridors have a significant connection to the well-being of wild populations. Experts argue that human–elephant conflicts disrupt walking patterns and hence divide the herds.[10] While corridors are necessary to ensure connectedness between habitats, too many corridors suggest that the habitat is far too severely fragmented to maintain healthy populations. Ideally, therefore, the fewer the number of elephant corridors in a forest region, the better will be the health of the population with a wider natural range for the herds. In Wayanad and adjacent areas, there are only a very few corridors indicating comparatively better status of the habitat in the region. However, corridors do not reflect either the degradation status of the habitat or other conservation challenges. There are newer initiatives to improve the situation too.[11]

Methods of Capture, Training and Care of Captive Elephants
The history of capturing elephants and raising them in captivity can be traced back to about 6000 BC. The first species to be tamed was the Asian elephant, primarily for use in agriculture. References to the taming of elephants have been found in Vedic literature, such as the Rig Veda, the Upanishads and the Gajashasthra.[12] Kautilya’s Arthashastra (300 BC–300 CE) describes the duty of the overseer of elephants to take care of training the elephants.[13] The book also prescribes setting up elephant sanctuaries on the periphery of the kingdom, which are to be patrolled by guards. Any person who killed an elephant within the sanctuary was to be put to death. It also prohibited the capture of elephant calves, tuskless bulls or those with small tusks, sick elephants and cows with suckling calves. During the reign of Emperor Ashoka (273–232 BC), the elephant became a symbol of Buddhism. In the Ashokan edicts, references are made to the construction of hospitals to treat elephants and other animals. Gajatame, a sculpture at Kalsi, built during Ashoka’s reign, also serves to reinforce the sacredness of the elephant. Later on, in the early centuries of the modern era, the Hindu pantheon also witnessed the rise of the classic elephant-headed deity Ganesh across the subcontinent.[14]

In a nutshell, it can be postulated that the capture and training of elephants began and flourished with the arrival of the Aryans and the rise of the first kingdoms in northern India. The practice reached its peak during the age of the Mauryans.[15] Northeast India also has a long tradition of capturing and taming wild elephants. According to the mythology of the region, Palapakapya, the author of Gajashasthra, was born to an elephant and lived among them. In the Mahabharata, King Bhagadatta of Kamrupa (present-day Assam) joined the Kauravas in the battle of Kurukshetra with about 10,000 elephants.[16]

The methods used to capture and train elephants varied across different geographical regions in India. Popular in southern India was the ‘pit method’, while other, different parts of India employed methods such as the khedda method (using a stockade), with several regional variations. Lahiri-Choudhury (2008) has traced the history of these methods in great detail. It has also been recorded by Megasthenes, the Greek envoy to the court of the Chandragupta Maurya (third century BC). The method of mela shikar (noosing a wild elephant from the back of a trained elephant) is a popular technique used in Northeast India. Furthermore, the use of female elephants as decoys, and the use of concealed nooses placed on the ground have also been observed in Sanskrit literature including Matangaleela.

The traditional art of elephant capture has almost vanished, especially with the ban on elephant capture. At present, elephants are to be captured only if they are declared problematic or if a captive elephant runs out of control. Chemical capture is used on such occasions and the well-being of the animal is given priority in present-day capture method.

Elephants in captivity also face serious issues. The number of elephants in captivity in Kerala, which once had the highest number in the country, is dwindling. Most of the captive elephants are males and there are no females of prime breeding age. With fewer captive elephants and an increase in the number of festivals, the animals are overworked, raising concern among Animal Welfare Groups. There is also the problem of human deaths during festivals.

Management of elephants in captivity also involves management of their health. Prescriptions in historic texts like the Hastyayurveda and Matangaleela are currently supported by modern diagnostic methods. The article on elephant treatment or gajachikilsa deals with different aspects of elephant health management.

Elephants require extensive areas to meet their requirements and considering that they feed on a variety of plant species in large quantities, the most important challenge before the conservation world is to ensure large, disturbance-free habitats for the animals to roam and feed at will. The need is to ensure that the habitats are protected for naturalness and contiguity. It is also important to streamline development programmes to prevent further fragmentation and degradation of the habitat. The challenge of human–wildlife conflict also must be addressed with support of all stakeholders. It is also important to ensure the well being of the captive elephants.

All these attempts need the support of people not only because the elephant is a Heritage Animal, but also because it is an umbrella species in forest ecosystems and an animal closely associated with human culture.

To sum up, the module offers an array of perspectives on the physical, historical and cultural life of elephants in India, especially in Kerala. There are two articles on the capture and training of wild elephants which discuss the history of the process and the legal and methodical shifts that took place. Another article gives us a scientific understanding of elephant treatment from both ancient and modern medical perspectives. Two related articles describe the seminal role elephants play in temple rituals and festivals of Kerala along with numerous images of the fineries they are adorned with. The module also contains three interviews with experts from various fields of elephant conservation, training and healing. This module attempts to present a succinct idea of the presence of elephants in our nature and culture.


[1]  Kossak, The Art of South and Southeast Asia.

[2]  Kossak, The Art of South and Southeast Asia, 59.

[3]  Kossak, The Art of South and Southeast Asia, 78.

[4] Kistler, War Elephants.

[5] Lal, ‘Elephants in Ancient Indian Warfare’.

[6] Choudhury, cited in Jayawardene, Endangered Elephants.

[7] Bist et al., ‘The Domesticated Asian Elephant in India’.

[8] Bist et al., ‘The Domesticated Asian Elephant in India’.

[9] Rangarajan et al., Gajah, 5.

[10] Menon, ‘The March of the Elephants’.

[11] Manoj, ‘Path Being Cleared for Elephant Corridor Project’.

[12] Chowdhury, cited in Jayawardene, Endangered Elephants.

[13] McClish and Olivelle, The Arthaśāstra.

[14] Choudhury, cited in Jayawardene, Endangered Elephants.

[15] Sukumar, cited in Jayawardene, Endangered Elephants.

[16] Sarma, cited in Jayawardene, Endangered Elephants.


Bist, S.S., et al. ‘The Domesticated Asian Elephant in India.’ (Paper presented at the international workshop 'Giants on Our Hands: Proceedings of the International Workshop on the Domesticated Asian Elephant', Thai Elephant Conservation Center, Lampang, Thailand, February 510, 2001).

Jayewardene, Jayantha, ed., 'Endangered Elephants – Past, Present and Future.' (Paper presented at the symposium 'Human Elephant Relationships and Conflicts', Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust, Colombo, Sri Lanka, September 2003).

Kistler, John M. War Elephants. Bison Books, 2007.

Kossak, Steven M., and Edith W. Watts, eds. The Art of South and Southeast Asia: A Resource for Educators. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.

Lahiri-Choudhury, Dhriti K. 'Elephants and People in India: Historical Patterns of Capture and Management.' In Elephants and Ethics: Toward a Morality of Coexistence, edited by Christen M. Wemmer & Catherine A. Christen, 149. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Lahiri Choudhury, D.K. ‘The Indian elephant in a changing world.’ In Contemporary Indian tradition: Voices on culture, nature and the challenges of change. edited by Carla M. Borde. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Lal, Avantika. ‘Elephants in Ancient Indian Warfare’. Ancient History Encyclopedia. June 11, 2018. Accessed September 13, 2019.

Locke, P. ‘Explorations in Ethnoelephantology: Social, Historical, and Ecological Intersections between Asian Elephants and Humans.’ Environment and Society: Advances in Research 4, (2013): 7997.

Manoj, E.M, ‘Path Being Cleared for Elephant Corridor Project.’ The Hindu. Kalpetta, August 13, 2017. Accessed September 13, 2019.  

McClish, Mark and Patrick Olivelle. The Arthaśāstra: Selections from the Classic Indian Work on Statecraft. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2012.

Menon, Vivek, R. Sukumar and Ashok Kumar. A God in distress: Threats of poaching and the ivory trade to the Asian elephant in India. Asian Elephant Conservation Centre, Bangalore, 1997.

Menon, Vivek. ‘The March of the Elephants.’ Wildlife Trust of India. 2017. Accessed on September 13, 2019. 

Rangarajan, Mahesh, Ajay Desai, R. Sukumar, P.S. Easa, Vivek Menon, S. Vincent, Suparna Ganguly, B.K. Talukdar, Brijendra Singh, Divya Mudappa, Sushant Chowdhary and AN Prasad. Report on Gajah. Securing the Future for Elephants in India. New Delhi: Ministry of Environment and Forests, 2010.

Sukumar, R. and Easa, P.S. 'Elephant Conservation in South India: issues and recommendations.' Gajah 25, (2006): 7186.