The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

Follow the Elephant

Surabhi Sanghi, Class of 2020

On 6th February, Ashoka University hosted Professor Thomas Trautmann, the professor emeritus of history and anthropology in the University of Michigan to deliver a lecture titled ‘Follow the Elephant’. With vast experience in the study of ancient India and environmental history, his book — ‘Elephants and Kings An environmental History’ published in 2015, talks about the elephant as the main subject matter and its importance in civilization and the making of the history of kings. Elephants are not unique to the history of India but have been mentioned in other cultures and civilizations as well including Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, etc. However, they have a unique connection to India as the use of these elephants by the royalty and the nobility was structured in a very different way owing to the geography and the climatic conditions of the subcontinent.

Picture Credits: Maitreyi Mittal ‘20

Professor Trautmann structured the lecture into four segments- nature, invention, spread and legacy of the war elephant, to give his audience a better understanding of his work in the limited time span. He started by explaining the cover of his book and the symbols associated with royal war elephants, which were derived from verses from various texts such as the Vedas and the Mahabharata. It is known that elephants existed in India even before the Vedic period as there are seals from the Harappan civilization with its depictions. But the elephant gained importance for war purposes most likely after the rig Veda was written down. It is also assumed that the spread of the elephants was from the north to the south since we do not have conclusive evidence to support the fact the elephants have been always present in the southern region. A reason stated by Professor Trautmann for this spread was extensive interstate and inter-region wars.

The elephant has managed to leave its mark behind in the art and crafts that were specific to different areas, from India to China to Cambodia. Texts from the Indian subcontinent mention how it was one of the greatest crimes to kill an elephant. As one of the duties of the king was not only to protect the elephant from being slaughtered but to also severely punish the one who did in fact decided to take such a bold step. This legacy continued all the way from before the Mauryan period till during the Mughal and late Mughal period. In the question-answer session which followed the lecture, students raised some intriguing. The questions were not just about the elephant but also the environmental conditions that prevailed and the amount of authority royal orders had in sustaining both.

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