Panel Six :

Looking Back in Time

Following thousands of years of complex human-elephant coexistence, this panel unpacks the wealth of trans-species fates and knowledges that have left their mark in archives,  works of art and  landscapes across the Asian elephant range.

This panel will be chaired by Bion Griffin, Professor Emeritus, College of Social Sciences, UH Mānoa.


Elephant Subjects - Animal Knowledge and Traditional Ethologies in Vietnam

Bradley Camp Davis

Eastern Connecticut State University

This presentation examines how multicultural knowledge about elephants circulated in imperial Vietnam before French colonial rule. With an empirical emphasis on the early nineteenth century, I argue that the subject status of elephants, including personal names and official titles, resulted from their importance to the imperial state as well as the limitations of human control.

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Kings, Forest People and Elephants in India

Thomas Trautmann

Departments of History & Anthropology, University of Michigan

In India the war elephant was till recently at the forefront of human-elephant relations. The war elephant was an institution built upon a collaboration between kings and what Indian texts call “forest people”, each possessing different skills and traditions relating to animals, the combination of which was necessary for the perpetuation of the institution. It has a long history, extending from about 1000 BCE to the twentieth century, spreading throughout India, westward to the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Carthaginians, and eastward to Southeast Asia, as far as Yunnan. War elephants are a liminal case of domestication, in that they were captured from the wild as adults, one by one over the millennia, largely because of the great cost of feeding them in captivity and their sluggish rate of reproduction. Under these circumstances the transition from forest to village was traumatic and dangerous for all parties. The paper examines what we know about the three-thousand year history of this formation, and what directions future research might take, as a collaboration between historians and anthropologists.

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Tusks of Wisdom: The Elephant in the Buddhist Art of Kanaganahalli

Srikumar Menon & Anindya Sinha

School of Humanities, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore
School of Natural Sciences & Engineering, NIAS, Bangalore, India

Anindya Sinha, In Lockdown, Bangalore, M

The Asian elephant has always occupied a prominent place in the art of the Indian subcontinent – from Harappan seals and prehistoric petroglyphs to the later plastic art of Buddhist stupas and temples of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths. In this paper, we discuss the representation of elephants at the Buddhist stupa at Kanaganahalli, in northern Karnataka, India.

This particular stupa, from the 2nd century BCE – 3rd century CE, features a great diversity of elephant sculpture on its various components. Elephants are depicted in contexts such as war, pageantry, veneration of relics of the Buddha and the Jataka stories, as well as part of the general embellishment of the stupa. It is noteworthy that several of the Kanaganahalli depictions are typical of the classical Indian ideal of the war elephant, including them being in a state of musth, to render them more effective in battle.

We examine and categorise the elephant depictions at Kanaganahalli from three perspectives: the natural history and biology of elephants; handling of and behaviour interactions with captive elephants, and the elephant as a symbol in Buddhism. Kanaganahalli boasts of some of the most accurate depictions of elephant morphology and natural behaviour in Indian art, as well as different facets of elephant handling, including harnesses and saddles or the use of goads. Most of the sculpture, in shallow relief on limestone, are also excellent examples of early Indian art and offer unique insights into the relationship between different human communities and the Asian elephant in the early centuries of the Common Era.