WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Elephant lore - in myth, legend, religion and war

Even today the elephant has a prominent place in Buddhism unlike other animals. It is the only animal possessed of grace to carry the sacred reliquary containing the 'Danta-dhatu' (Tooth-relic) of the Buddha, in the annual Esala Perahera in Kandy. All Buddhist temples follow the same procedure in choosing an elephant to carry the relics in procession, as no major Buddhist procession is complete without at least a single elephant, ornately caparisoned to walk majestically through the streets.

‘The torn boughs trailing o'er the tusks aslant,
The saplings reeling on the path he trod;
Declare his might: our lord the elephant, Chief of the ways of God’.
(Rudyard Kipling 1865-1936)

by Ariyadasa Ratnasinghe

The life and habitat of the elephant are provocative of wonder and demand our reverence, since both its evolution and influence upon mankind have always been found to be most fascinating, bewitching, enchanting, charming and delightful.

The interesting roles it has played in myths, legends, religion, history, folklore and war, notwithstanding its recent prominence in politics; its association with man and the services rendered to him from remote antiquity; the symbolic splendour of its colossal body, let alone flesh, to be balanced on bones; its place in circuses and menageries, in wildlife sanctuaries and zoological gardens and, above all, its graceful and majestic appearance have been well attested, expressed and documented in various works of art and literature down the ages.

The elephant belongs to the animal order Proboscidea (possessed of a trunk) and to the sub-order of ungulates (hoofed digitigrade mammals). The  two species of elephants now extinct are the mammoth (Elephas premiginius) and the mastodon (Elephas odontos). The two existing species are the Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus) and the African elephant (Elephas africanus).

Ivory
The elephants found in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Indo-China, Malaya, Myanmar, Borneo, Sumatra and other regions of South-East Asia belong to the Asiatic species, and have comparatively flat foreheads, small ears and shorter tusks. Their average height rarely exceeds 10 feet, the female being somewhat shorter than the male. They have a thick, grey and wrinkled skin, and their upper incisors (tusks), grow to a considerable length, sometimes exceeding 6 feet, and are a source of ivory valued for its hardness and durability.

The elephants found in the dense forests of Africa, from Gambia to Ethiopia, towards the south of the Union of South Africa, in the forests of the Guinea Coast, the inner Congo Basin, and from the Niger to the Ubangai-Congo North-South Divide, belong to the African species. They have  remarkable physical features which differ chiefly from their Asiatic kind: the most notable being the huge size of their ears which, when in repose, completely cover their shoulders. Their skin is somewhat dark-grey in colour and their disposition is fierce. Hence it is difficult to domesticate them nor to harness them for work, unlike the Asiatic elephants, as they are by nature morose and recalcitrant to obey the command of man.

The most remarkable organ of the elephant is its trunk which is long, flexible and prehensile. It is also its nose. At the bottom end of the trunk lies  the nostril (finger), and it is so sharp that an elephant can pick up small objects and even a needle from the ground quite easily. The trunk serves dual purposes, i.e. to convey food and water to the mouth and to heave heavy logs at lumber sites, and haul them to places where transport facilities are available. When heavy duty machinery cannot cope with such laborious task, the elephant comes into the scene.

The elephants are herbivorous and therefore, they have no canine teeth. In the young the tusks are tipped with a kind of enamel but it soon wears  away, and then they consist of ivory along. The feet are broad and have 5 toes in each foot of which the middle toe is the largest. Although the elephants chiefly subsist on roots, twigs, leaves and young shoots, they relish to eat fruits, specially the 'divul' (Feronia elephantum), and bananas are their delicacy.

Dignity
Historians, travellers, poets, biologists and even philosophers have hymned and marvelled at the elephant, as the matchless symbol of strength, greatness and dignity, either divine or humane, endowed with super intelligence, rarely found among other beasts of the animal kingdom. The Greek historian Polybius (BC 201-120), the Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254-1324), the British poet John Donne (1571-1631), the British writer Rudyard
Kipling (1865-1936), the Russian poet Firdousi (940-1020), and the British novelist David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930), have admired the elephant as the most marvellous creature in creation.

The Roman writer Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79), writing about the elephant says 'When an elephant happens to meet a man in the desert and merely wandering about, the animal shows both mercy and kindness to him and even points the way out. But, the very same animal, if it sees the traces of a man before it meets the man himself, trembles in every limb for fear of an ambush, stops short, scents the wind, looks around and snorts aloud with rage'.

The best Sanskrit work on ephantology, written by the great Indian scholar and poet Neelakanta Sastri is known as 'Matanga Leela' (Elephant Sport). It deals with the mythical origin of the elephant, its habits and characteristics, how it should be treated, how it eats, drinks and breeds, and  of its obedience to human masterdom. It is said that the 'creation of the elephant was holy and meant for the profit of sacrifice to gods, and specially  for the welfare of kings'.

 In the ancient days, before the invention of munitions of war, elephants were used in both offensive and defensive warfare. When Alexander the Great (BC 356-323), the Macedonian king and conqueror of the Persian Empire, invaded North-West of India in 327 BC, he was surprised to see the mighty elephants of the Indian kings trained in battle to fight the enemies. He was informed that the emperor of Magadha, 'had an army of two hundred thousand foot soldiers, twenty thousand cavalry, two thousand chariots and four thousand elephants of war'. Alxander defeated Porus at the battle of Hydaspes and advanced to Hyphasis, but his army refused to go further, through fear of the marauding elephants charging like bullets.

 At the end of the 4th century BC, one of Alexander's captains, Seleukos Nikator, tried to invade India. After an unsuccessful campaign, he was glad  to escape by ceding all his provinces west of the Indus, by giving his daughter in marriage to the victorious emperor in exchange for 500 elephants of war.

In 250 BC, Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus (now North Albania), with an army of 25,000 men and 20 elephants won a hard-fought victory over the Romans at Heraclea. At a crucial phase of the battle, Pyrrhus ordered his elephants to charge and it was too much for the Roman legions. The Romans who had never seen elephants before called them 'Lucanian Cows'.

The Carthaginian General Hannibal (BC 247-182), crossed the Alps with his army and 38 elephants, having conceived the bold design of attacking the Romans in Italy. But the difficulties of the terrain and the climate proved too hard for the bulky-bodied elephants and many of them perished on the way. But Hannibal's military genius and Carthaginian fortitude triumphed in the end. When the Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio (BC 185-129) invaded Carthage and defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in BC 202, the Carthaginians found their elephants to be more a liability than an asset.

According to Indian mythology, the white elephant Ayravana was the 'vahana' (vehicle) of god Indra alias Sakra, and it was the first divine elephant created by Brahma. Legend has it that after 'the mythical sunbird Garuda alias Gurula (the demi-god with part man and part bird), the vehicle of God Vishnu, came out of an egg, Brahma sang seven holy hymns over its two halves while holding them in his hands'.

It is said that suddenly 16 elephants sprang up there from, and out of them 8 were females, and all of them were led by the elephant Ayravana. The 8 females known as Pundarika, Vamana, Kumudu, Anjana, Pushpadanta, Sarvabhauma, Supratika and Aparanta became caryatid supporting the earth on their shoulders, having taken their position at eight cardinal points. There is also a legend which says that originally the elephants had wings and flew in the sky.

To the north of the Himalayas there was a banyan tree (Ficus bengalensis), of great height. One day, a flying elephant, while passing over the tree, swooped down and alighted upon one of its old branches to rest awhile. The old branch, unable to bear the massive weight of the elephant, a once crashed and fell on the hermit Dirghatapas seated beneath the tree engrossed in meditation. The hermit immediately cursed the elephant bird and deprived of its wings, and so others of its kind, making all of them earthbound. This story is reminiscent of the 'raja-aliyas' of Sinhala tradition and supposed to have flown in the sky even carrying humans as prey.

In Buddhism, the dream of queen Mahamaya, the consort of king Suddhodana, confers honour upon the elephant. The dream was that a young white elephant, holding a lotus flower in its trunk, entered her womb from the right. This prognosticated dream was interpreted to mean that she had conceived a son. Many years later, it was an elephant that looked after the Buddha, providing him with food and shelter in the sylvan solitude of the Paraleyya wilderness. Again, it was the elephant Nalagiri that charged furiously at the Buddha, only to fall prostrate at his feet in complete subjugation.

The Caddanta Jataka story refers to an earlier birth of the Buddha, Asian elephant with six tusks and was the leader of the herd. The rock engravings of the chetiya at Barhud in India, depict the story. When Arhat Mahinda, the Apostle of Buddhism, made his spiritual conquest of the  island in the 3rd century BC., the first sermon he preached to king Devanampiyatissa was Culahatthipadopama Sutta, based on the parable of the elephant's footprint.

Even today the elephant has a prominent place in Buddhism unlike other animals. It is the only animal possessed of grace to carry the sacred reliquary containing the 'Danta-dhatu' (Tooth-relic) of the Buddha, in the annual Esala Perahera in Kandy. All Buddhist temples follow the same procedure in choosing an elephant to carry the relics in procession, as no major Buddhist procession is complete without at least a single elephant, ornately caparisoned to walk majestically through the streets.

Old Testament
In the Old Testament to the Holy Bible, there is reference to the elephant, but calls it 'behemoth'. According to Douay's version behemoth refers to the elephant. 'Behold behemoth whom I made with thee. He eateth grass like an ox. His strength is in its loins, and his force in the navel of his belly.

He setteth up his tail like a cedar, the sinews of his testicles are wrapped together. His bones are like pipes of brass, his gristle like plates of iron. He sleepeth under the shadow in the cover of the reed. Behold! He will drink up a river and not wonder that the Jordan may run into his mouth'. (Job 40:10-18).

The English poet John Milton (1608-1674) in his work Paradise Lost, suggests that behemoth refers to the elephant. He says 'Behemoth, biggest born of earth, unheaves his vastness'. The British lyric poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in his play Prometheus Unbound, calls of the elephant 'Of earth convulsing behemoth which once were monarch beasts'. The lion and the elephant are said to be traditional enemies, though they do not show their prowess, as one is afraid of the other.

There is an interesting Israeli legend which says how the two animals were taken together during the sojourn of Noah, the son of Lamech and father of Shem, Ham and Japheth. Noah built an ark (vessel), so that he and his family, and each of all the existing animals might survive the Great Deluge (the Flood), and how he found grace in the eyes of the Lord (Genesis 6:8). According to Babylonian version, the hero was not Noah but Ut-napishtim. With all the animals in the ark, it was 'on the point of capsizing, owing to huge deposits of dung on one side'. This disturbed a large number of rats. They came out of their hiding places and began gnaw holes in the ark.

In order to prevent the ark from damage caused by rats, Noah was advised to smite the lion on its nose with a hard blow. When he did so, two cats were thrown out with the sneeze, and they began to kill the rats at once. Thus the ark was saved from further damage. The elephant and the lion stood together, without fighting, and from that day they never fought each other. This story tells us that the elephant had used its wits, not to fight the lion on board the ark, which would result in its capsizing in the high sea and drowning all its occupants.

In 1955, a gigantic elephant was shot down near the Cuando river in South Africa. It measured 13 feet and 2 inches at the shoulder, weighed 15 tons, and each tusk measured 14 feet from base to tip. It is said that a mounted specimen of this huge tusker could be seen at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, US. Generally, most African elephants have long tusks weighing about 400 lbs. each. The tusks of old elephants are said to contain a kind of pearl known as 'gaja-muthu' and believed to be the most durable of pearls. Pearls are calcareous (chalky) substances that grow from lustrous globules or granules, and such concretions of nacre found with the tusks are highly priced for their beauty and quality.

Sexually active
Healthy and young male elephants usually suffer from a glandular disorder known as 'musth', a word derived from the Hindi 'masthi' (intoxicated). It is an abnormal and frenzied condition which makes the animal to become boisterous and dangerous. During this period, the temporal glands on  either side of the head above the cheekbones, discharge a thick, dark and odourous substance of bitter taste. As the liquid drips down the cheeks  and enters the mouth of the elephant, it becomes restless and sexually active.

On the other hand, the scent of the 'musth' attracts the female. Although it is considered as a prelude to mating, even those not in 'musth' also mate,  which is typical of four-legged animals, but the duration of mating is very short which does not exceed more than five minutes, or even less. The  period of gestation is about 20 to 22 months (the longest among land animals) and the life-span of an elephant rarely exceeds 70 years.

An average elephant eats about 300 lbs. of green food per day. Unless on the move, it spends most of the time in filling its belly, which is similar to a wasteful factory consuming more fuel than necessary. The intake of water is also high, and an elephant siphons about 20 gallons of water at a time by making use of its trunk. During drought, herds of elephants move in search of water to quench their thirst and also to squirt water over their  bodies beaten by the hot sun.

The large scale destruction of wild life began with the British occupation of the island, and led, inter alia, to the scarcity of the tuskers valued for their ivory. Major Roger, who served as an Assistant Government Agent, testified that he had 'killed at least fourteen hundreds elephants, including sixty tuskers, which was his sport. His house was filled with ivory, and at each door of his verandah stood huge tusks! Before the advent of the British, the Dutch who occupied the maritime provinces, smuggled elephants through the Jaffna peninsula to India, where they were highly valued.

The Ceylon Wild Life and Nature Protection Society was established on May 23, 1894, 'to prevent the elimination of games in Sri Lanka, by the destruction of animals for trading purposes', and especially the elephants killed to procure their tusks.

The Wild Life Department was created in 1948. The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (Cap. 469), has provision to deal with the protection of elephants. Under the law, it is a punishable offence 'to shoot, injure or capture any tusker or elephant without a special permit from the Warden'.

The milk of the elephant is very rich in its nutritional value. Therefore, no man or any other animal can drink it. According to Dr. Ian Sanderson, the formula of a single meal of elephant' milk constitutes '6 bottles of fresh cow-milk, 1/2 bottle of ghee, 27 eggs minus yolk and 2 measures of boiled rice'. Such a composition is hard to digest in view of its strong quality.


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