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War Elephants at the Battle of Takkolam

War Elephants at the Battle of Takkolam

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Asian Elephants in History and Culture: An Overview

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 (elephant – crocodiles)”. [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.

Elephants in Ancient Indian Warfare

This war scene shown in a temple frieze in the Kailashanatha Temple depicts the use of chariots and elephants in warfare during the period of the imperial Rashtrakutas (eighth to tenth centuries CE). Location: Ellora Caves, Aurangabad, Maharashtra. / Photo by Sengai Podhuvan, Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Indians continued to believe in their efficacy even when the ground results showed otherwise.

By Dr. Avantika Lal / 06.11.2018
Historian, Independent Researcher

Elephants were used in the ancient Indian army, irrespective of regions, dynasties, or points in time their importance was never denied and continued well into the medieval period as well. The ready availability in the subcontinent of the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus), one of the three recognized subspecies of the Asian elephant and native to mainland Asia, led to its gradual taming and use in both peace and war. Capable of fulfilling a variety of military functions, the most important of which was the psychological impact it could cause, nonetheless, the elephant was both a boon and a bane. Despite the defects, the ancient Indians continued to believe in their efficacy even when the ground results showed otherwise. One main reason was the concept of military prowess associated with possessing and employing these huge beasts.

The Elephant on the Battlefield

Virtually every ruler in India possessed elephants and used them to further his own ambitions. These included:

  • kings belonging to various dynasties ruling Magadha (6th century BCE to 4th century BCE)
  • dynasties of the Mauryas (4th century BCE to 2nd century BCE)
  • Guptas (3rd century CE to 6th century CE)
  • Pallavas (3rd century CE to 9th century CE)
  • Cholas (4th century BCE to 13th century CE)
  • Rashtrakutas (8th century CE to 10th century CE)
  • Chalukyas of Vatapi (6th century CE to 8th century CE)
  • Western Chalukyas of Kalyani (10th century CE to 12th century CE)
  • Palas (8th century CE to 12th century CE).

In ancient India, initially, the army was fourfold (chaturanga), consisting of infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. While the chariots eventually fell into disuse, the other three arms continued to be valued. Of these, the elephants had a prime place. The elephant corps was deployed in a battle in a block or a line, as per the overall army formation (vyuha) decided upon by the commanders. The Mahabharata mentions the use of elephants in battle, though secondary to the chariots which were the preferred vehicle of the warriors, especially the elite ones. King Bimbisara (c. 543 BCE), who began the expansion of the Magadhan kingdom, relied heavily on his war elephants. The Nandas of Magadha (mid-4th century BCE – 321 BCE) had about 3,000 elephants. The Mauryan and Gupta empires also had elephant divisions Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BCE), had about 9,000 elephants. The army of the Palas was noted for its huge elephant corps, with estimates ranging from 5,000 to 50,000.

Each kingdom had its own elephant corps headed by a commander or superintendent. In the Mauryan Empire, where the 30-member war office was made up of six boards, the sixth board looked after the elephants, which were headed by the gajadhyaksha. The Gupta elephant commander was known as the mahapilupati. In some cases, however, the cavalry and elephants belonged to a single division as in the case of the Western Chalukyas of Kalyani (present-day Basavakalyan, Karnataka state), where the officer in charge bore the combined title of kari-turaga (patta) sahini. In his work Manasollasa, the Kalyani Chalukya king Someshvara III (1126 CE-1138 CE) states that the general (senapati) should be an expert in riding both horses and elephants.

A lot of attention was given to the capture, training, and upkeep of the elephants. Many treatises were written on these subjects, and many important works of the ancient period, like the Arthashastra of Kautilya (c. 4th century BCE), give a lot of information on different kinds of elephants, breeding, training, and their conduct in war. The Buddhist Nikaya texts mention that the royal elephant should be trained to tolerate blows from all kinds of weapons, protect its royal rider, go wherever commanded to, and be able to destroy enemy elephants, infantry, chariots, and horses. The elephant was supposed to engage in battle with its trunk, tusks, legs, head, ears, and even its tail.

The importance of elephants, especially royal ones, can be gauged from the fact that in the Harshacharita, the biography of his patron Emperor Harshavardhana (606–647 CE) of Sthanishvara (modern Thanesar, Haryana state), the author Banabhatta (c. 7th century CE) devotes many pages to describing the elephants possessed by his master and, in particular, his favourite war elephant named Darpashata who is described as the emperor’s “external heart, his very self in another birth, his vital airs gone outside from him, his friend in battle and in sport, rightly named Darpashata, a lord of elephants” (Banabhatta, 52). Banabhatta further states that an elephant provides protection like a hill fort (giridurga), but with the advantage of being mobile (sanchari). It is formidable with tower-like high temple bones (kumbhakuta), i.e. resembles a hill fort, which is formidable with kutas (sloping earthen mounds at the gate). Also, the elephant was strong and dark like an iron rampart (prakarah) and served to protect the earth akin to a rampart.

Strategic and Tactical Uses

The main use of the elephant was for its routing ability at one sweep it could get rid of a number of enemy foot soldiers, scare away horses, and trample chariots. Thus, it was also about the psychological impact it could have, i.e. the shock value. The enemy forces would be scattered, leading to a breach of formation, which could then be exploited. The possession of a number of elephants added to the ruler’s prestige and was believed to create a psychological effect on his enemy’s minds, who could be thus be prompted not to challenge him or to submit.

The practice of intoxicating elephants was resorted to as it brought out the ferocious nature of the animals, which increased their capacity to wreak destruction on the enemy troops. An inebriated elephant could cause much more panic and thus break enemy formations, especially of infantry, by trampling them mercilessly. The Chalukyas of Vatapi (present-day Badami, Kanataka state) were well known for their use of drunken elephants manned by equally (or less) drunken warriors, which caused the enemy to retreat within the walls of his capital. The idea behind employing both drunken men and animals was to make them attack en masse and thus trample everything down without much thought, causing panic and loss of both morale and enemy numbers. In the words of historian John Keay, because of “his champions and their punch-drunk elephants” (Keay, 170), the Chalukya king could afford to treat his neighbours with contempt.

Details of what chariots, war elephants and cavalry would have looked like in the 5th century BCE. In all probability, this is how the Magadhan soldiers looked. Details taken from the “War over the Buddha’s Relics” sculpture. Location: South Gate (rear bottom architrave), Stupa no.1, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India. / Photo by Dharma, Wikimedia Commons

Besides actual field deployment, the elephants carried out many functions. These included clearing the way for marches, fording the rivers that lay in their paths, guarding the army’s front, flanks, and rear, and battering down the walls of the enemy.

The elephants were also used as command vehicles, i.e. the preferred mount of the commander enabling him to have a commanding view of the battlefield. The kings and princes were supposed to be well-trained in handling war elephants. The Buddhist texts mention some such royals like the Kuru king and thus show that in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE such trends were prevalent. The princes of the Western Ganga Kingdom (4th century CE – 11th century CE) were also similarly well-trained, and some of them even wrote treatises on the science of elephant management.

War elephants were also seen as prized booty the historical instances are replete with the victors capturing the enemy war elephants after a battle, as Prasenajit (c. 6th century BCE) of Koshala did after defeating King Ajatashatru (492 BCE to 460 BCE) of Magadha, for example. Invaders could also be thus bought off, and the invasion thus stalled the Rashtrakuta emperor Dhruva Dharavarsha (780-793 CE) abandoned his attack on the Pallava Kingdom after he was offered an indemnity of war elephants.

Arms, Armour, and Riders

According to the Mahabharata, the elephants were provided with armour, girths, blankets, neck ropes and bells, hooks and quivers, banners and standards, yantras (possibly stone-or-arrow-hurling contrivances) and lances. The riders were seven: two carried hooks, two were archers, two were swordsmen, and the last one had a lance and a banner. In the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, the elephants carried rugs on their backs, called hatthatthara in the Buddhist Pali works. The Mauryans used three riders, all archers, with two shooting from the front and the third from the back, as can be seen from the sculptures at the Sanchi stupa and in the frescoes of the Ajanta caves.

A section of the mural at Ajanta in Cave No. 17. depicts the ‘coming of Sinhala’. The prince (Prince Vijaya) is seen in both of groups of elephants and riders. This mural also depicts the soldiers of the Gupta/Vakataka period (4th to 6th centuries CE). Location: Ajanta Caves, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India. / Photo by MediaJet, Wikimedia Commons

While the riders initially used both missile and short arm weapons, from the Gupta period onwards, the main weapon seems to have been the bow. The elephant driver was called as ankushadhara (Sanskrit: “holder of the hook”) as he carried the ankusha or a two-pointed hook or goad to control the elephant. The elephants continued to be decorated with ornaments.


Despite all the training, the elephant could not be taught to override its moody nature it remained ungovernable, and this nature showed when the elephant was either too wounded or prompted to anger. In such cases, the elephants did more harm than good they trampled their own troops, ran amok, and could even carry the commanders riding them away from the battlefield, which could be interpreted as flight, making their soldiers panic and flee, or simply give up the fight.

In the Battle of Hydaspes (326 BCE), King Porus (Sanskrit: Puru or Paurava Greek: Poros) (c. 4th century BCE) staked everything on his elephants to defeat the Macedonians being personally led by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). His 200 elephants were posted along the front of the infantry, like bastions, in order to scare away the enemy. Alexander, however, proved to be more than a match. He focused on destroying the other arms posted at the flanks. As the Indian cavalry, infantry, and chariots were gradually routed, the elephants though managing to cause initial havoc, went berserk due to their wounds inflicted by the enemy and trampled anyone they could find, which, in this case, were mostly the Indians themselves. Porus thus lost many of his numbers himself fighting on an elephant, he also got wounded and was taken prisoner.

This is a contemporary depiction of the Battle of Takkolam (949 CE) as it is shown on a pillar of a temple built by Butuga II (939-960 CE) of the Western Ganga dynasty (a Rashtrakuta empire vassal) as a fitting finale to his victory over the Cholas of Tanjore at the Takkolam battle. The reliefs on the circular pillars of the Nandi Mandapa depict the defeat of Chola commander Rajaditya by Butuga Il who fought for the Rashtrakutas. Location: Arakeshwara temple (also spelt Arakeshvara or Arakesvara) in Hole Alur, Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka state, India. / Photo by Dinesh Kannambadi, Wikimedia Commons

The situation did not change with time. Astute commanders continued to challenge the use of elephants as battle-winners as well as their rivals’ skills in elephantology (gajashastra). Dhruva Dharavarsha defeated and captured the Western Ganga ruler Shivamara (788-812/16 CE), the author of a treatise on war elephants (the Gajashataka). The Kalyani Chalukya king Vikramaditya VI (1076–1126) steadied his troops and won the day against his brother and rival Jayasimha (c. 11 century CE), whose elephant corps had brought about an initial success in the battle.

When using the elephant as a command vehicle, the commander was a sitting duck and could easily be targeted by enemy soldiers his death or falling from the seat (howdah) would create undue panic and turn the tables. In many cases, the royal elephant was expressly targeted for this reason. In one instance, at the Battle of Takkolam (949 CE), the Chola crown prince Rajaditya (c. 10th century CE) was attacked by the enemy his elephant was killed, the enemy got into his howdah and killed him then and there. The disheartened Chola army fled in disorder, leaving their opponents, the Rashtrakutas, victorious. Thus, the elephant did not exactly provide protection to a commander the rider(s) remained vulnerable. In the Battle of Koppam (1052/54 CE), the Chola prince Rajendra (1052/54-1063 CE) killed many of the enemy warriors who had mounted his elephant after first showering it with a rain of arrows, while his brother, the Chola king Rajadhiraja (1044-1052/54 CE), died of mortal wounds inflicted when his elephant was similarly assaulted.


The overemphasis on elephants led to heavy reliance on them through the course of ancient, and even medieval Indian history. The Turkic and later the Mughal invaders too adopted the use of elephants once they had established kingdoms in India. However, the increasing employment of horse archers, firearms, and later artillery, made the elephants redundant as an effective field force.

This is a Chola artist’s depiction of the king Rajendra I (1014-44 CE) fighting his enemies, including elephants, in a Chola-built temple “almost a thousand years ago” (Exact date not known). Location: Kolaramma Temple, Kolar, Karnataka, India. / Photo by WestCoastMusketeer, Wikimedia Commons

The elephants thus did not leave much of a legacy—part of a particular military system developed by the ancient Indians, they could not cope with, let alone counter, different styles of warfare brought in by different invaders at different periods of time, which included ultimately the European infantry and artillery-based warfare of the 17th and 18th centuries CE. The very nature of the elephant, being resentful of too much control and discipline and revolting when too hard-pressed, implied that the elephant corps could never be drilled to the same level of efficiency as the infantry and cavalry. To make matters worse, out-of-control elephants caused much more damage (again due to their size and power) to their own side than other arms in similar panic.

The Indian rulers and military thinkers of the ancient period nonetheless felt that a strong initial elephant charge could break the enemy morale and formation and thus pave the way for other arms to move towards victory. However, able generals could easily outwit elephant experts, outmanoeuvre the elephant corps and blunt the initial shock and awe, which they did all through the course of ancient Indian history.

2 Answers 2

War Elephants in the west were a military fad that started with Alexander the Great's encounter with them at the battle of Gaugamella. They became popular for a while, but their ineffectiveness for Hannibal at Zama 113 years later spelled the beginning of the end for the fad. The extinction of the Syran and North African species iced it. By the beginning of the Common Era, the Romans were no longer employing them. The Parthans continued to use them for a time, but had to import them all from India. The Ethiopians continued to use them at least until the birth of Mohammed.

Thermopylae was a few generations before all this. There's no record of war elephants being used there, and this is certainly something one would expect a record of had it happened. Elephants are, after all, the prototypical example of "something that cannot possibly be missed, if it is there".

It's tempting to think of war elephants as some kind of super cavalry, but in reality they were far from that. War elephants were unpredictable and hard to control. At times they were as dangerous to your own troops as they were to the enemy. They were primarily a psychological weapon and used as such. You line them up and send them running at the enemy lines. You're not trying to kill people, you're trying to scare them, and against untrained soldiers this had the possibility of routing a unit or sowing disorder. Against well trained armies, however, they were almost always ineffective.

As far as Thermopylae goes, I don't think Xerxes' army included elephants, which would make the point moot, but supposing it had I still find it incredibly unlikely that you could convince an elephant to charge up a narrow mountain pass like that, and against trained soldiers like the Greeks the risks would have outweighed the rewards of trying a strategy like that.

War Elephants at the Battle of Takkolam - History

War elephants were not raised from infancy. Most were captured in the wild with techniques which still survive today. In India, a large ditched enclosure was constructed and tame cow (female) elephants were chained inside. Their scent attracted bulls - the best elephants for warlike purposes - and once they entered the enclosure, they would be trapped. They would be worn down by thirst and hunger and forced to fight tame bulls to further exhaust them.

A wild bull was reckoned to be sufficiently tamed once he allowed a human driver (mahout) to sit on his back. Then the process of turning a gentle, peaceful creature into a beast of war could begin.

Elephants would be lightly struck with swords, spears and arrows to inure them to pain, whilst drummers would hammer drums and cymbals to teach them to ignore noise. They were also trained to attack dummies.

Some elephants were clad in vast caparisons of metal plate armour. In India, where the use of war elephants became something of an art, lengths of chain, maces or swords were fastened to the beasts trunk. Some had specially designed swords attached to their tusks.

There were no fixed preferences concerning the amount or type of soldiers that could be crowded onto an elephants back. An elephants height makes it an obvious platform for archers and javelin throwers.

The elephant in battle

The use of troops on elephants was largely spurious, because the main purpose of a war elephant is to terrify the enemy and smash through the ranks of their army, creating terrific carnage. In this, the elephant enjoys an advantage over horses: no horse will charge home into a bristling wall of sharp points, but a phalanx-style formation will not halt an elephant’s charge. Also, horses fear the smell of elephants and the presence of elephants on a battlefield often rendered cavalry useless.

A fully grown bull elephant can pick a man up with his trunk and hurl him 30 feet into the air. They can kneel on a prostrate victim to drive a tusk through his body. The sheer bulk of war elephants made them difficult to kill: there are accounts of elephants surviving up to 80 arrow hits. The downside of using elephants was their tendency to go berserk when subjected to too much pain or the loss of their driver. When this occurred, they became as much a danger to their own army as to the enemy.

The damage an elephant - let alone several hundred - could inflict was enormous, but first the beast had to be compelled to fight. In ancient Carthage, elephants were sometimes given copious quantities of wine to drink - elephants enjoy alcohol - and then their legs were prodded with red-hot irons. This helped work the beasts into a rage. Carthaginian drivers carried a spike and mallet - if the elephant became uncontrollable, they would kill it by hammering the spike into its brain before it did too much damage to its own army.

Until the advent of gunpowder artillery, there was no easy solution for dealing with war elephants. At the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, the Romans made gaps in their lines and herded the animals through their formations whilst showering them with javelins. Most of the elephants on the Carthaginian side were poorly trained, but nevertheless, they still managed to inflict heavy casualties before the Romans won.

When Alexander the Great fought the Indian King Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes in 325 BC, his infantry suffered horrendous casualties from the onslaught of Indian war elephants. Alexander won, but at a great price.

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The Battle of Ipsus wiki page, a conflict between some of the successor states of Alexander the great, has an interesting passage on elephant-cavalry interactions:

"The ancient sources repeatedly emphasize the effect of elephants on horses, which are alarmed by the smell and noise of elephants and are loathe to approach them. Demetrius would not have been able to take his horses through the line of elephants, nor maneuver around such a large quantity of elephants."

The Battle of Heraclea shows an even more effective use of elephants during the Pyrrhic War:

"Unable to make any significant gains in action, Pyrrhus deployed his elephants, held in reserve until now. The Roman cavalry was threatening his flank too strongly. Aghast at the sight of these strange and brooding creatures which none had seen before, the horses galloped away and threw the Roman legion into rout."

You'll notice in the next battle Rome deployed many anti-elephant devices and anti-elephant chariots. They famously mastered anti-elephant tactics come the Battles of Zama at the end of the 2nd Punic War.

It seems elephants has success against cavalry were used most effectively against close formation infantry, using their weight to break lines in a way horses could not, being the "shock troops" of these ancient battles. The wiki page on War elephants, tactics section is useful on this. You'll notice I concentrated on the classical period, but the list doesn't stop until the 18th century and they were even used in Italy up to the 13th century.

I looked at the Indian battles and they seem to mostly fill the role of shock troops again, but at the Battle of Ngasaunggyan they had success against cavalry (it doesn't say the composition of the mongol armies, but I bet there were many cavalry) until countered by archery (unfortunately for the elephants, the mongols being feared and successful horse archers).

[edit] Etymology and names

The word oliphaunt was used by Hobbits. [4] In the tongue of the Haradrim, oliphaunts were known as mûmakil (singular mûmak) this word was adopted by the Men of Gondor. [1] In Sindarin, the beast was known as the annabon, and in Quenya andamunda, both terms meaning "long-snout". [8]

Oliphant/olifant/olifaunt had been archaic words for elephant and their ivory. The most famous use of the oliphant (as in horn) is in The Song of Roland "The oliphant is set to Roland's Lips" Roland fails to call for help at the Battle of Roncevaux in 778 until it is too late for him and his comrades.

Oliphant in English is derived from Old French olifant and Old English olfend from Old High German olbenta'camel'. [9]

Gandalf mentions elephants once in The Hobbit [10] so perhaps "oliphaunt" is a Hobbitish corruption of this original word. But whether these two creatures are the same cannot be said with certainty.

Battle Forces and Tactics

Babur's Mughal forces consisted of between 13,000 and 15,000 men, mostly horse cavalry. His secret weapon was 20 to 24 pieces of field artillery, a relatively recent innovation in warfare.

Arrayed against the Mughals were Ibrahim Lodi's 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers, plus tens of thousands of camp followers. Lodi's primary weapon of shock and awe was his troop of war elephants, numbering anywhere from 100 to 1,000 trained and battle-hardened pachyderms, according to different sources.

Ibrahim Lodi was no tactician his army simply marched out in a disorganized block, relying on sheer numbers and the aforementioned elephants to overwhelm the enemy. Babur, however, employed two tactics unfamiliar to Lodi, which turned the tide of the battle.

The first was tulughma, dividing a smaller force into forward left, rear left, forward right, rear right, and center divisions. The highly mobile right and left divisions peeled out and surrounded the larger enemy force, driving them towards the center. At the center, Babur arrayed his cannons. The second tactical innovation was Babur's use of carts, called araba. His artillery forces were shielded behind a row of carts which were tied together with leather ropes, to prevent the enemy from getting between them and attacking the artillerymen. This tactic was borrowed from the Ottoman Turks.

In Ancient Rome flaming war pigs were used to counter elephants

It’s known that early man used animals in ancient warfare. Horses, elephants, cats, dogs, monkeys and even Rhinos were used in the battlefields. As well as beeing turned into weapons, they have been used transportation for personnel and equipment, as well as troop morale-boosters in the role of mascots. But who would believe that even pigs were used as a war weapon in ancient times?

Appearing about 240 BC, pigs were an interesting weapon thought to have been utilized in ancient Roman warfare. War pigs are pigs reported to have been used in ancient warfare, mostly as a countermeasure against war elephants.

Carthaginian war elephants engage Roman infantry at the Battle of Zama (202 BC). Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

The property that made pigs useful as a tool of war was their ability to terrify elephants. The concept was to cover the pig in tar and a flammable substance and, when lured close enough to the advancing or defending enemy the pigs would then be lit on fire.

According to Pliny the Elder, “elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog,” a fact backed up Aelian, who confirms that in 275 BC the Romans exploited squealing pigs as a counter-measure against the war elephants of Pyrrhus. The hope was that pigs would run uncontrollably into the ranks of the opposing force, causing a certain level of confusion.

Pyrrhus and his Elephants. Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Incendiary pigs or flaming pigs were not used as a military weapon only by the Romans. Historical accounts of incendiary pigs were recorded by the military writer Polyaenus and by Aelian. Both writers reported that Antigonus II Gonatas siege of Megara in 266 BC was broken when the Megarians doused some pigs with a combustible pitch, crude oil or resin, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy’s massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming, squealing pigs, often killing great numbers of their own soldiers by trampling them to death.

Coin of Antigonus II Gonatas. The Greek inscription reads “ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΓΟΝΟΥ” meaning “of King Antigonus”. Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

In “The wars of Justinian” the late antique historian Procopius chronicles the use of pigs in battle. When Khosrau I, king of Persia, besieged the Mesopotamian city of Edessa in 544 A.D., one of his war elephants nearly overpowered the enemy and got into town. Pigs ended up saving the day. “But the Romans,” wrote Procopius, “by dangling a pig from the tower, escaped the peril. As the pig was hanging there, he naturally squealed, and this so irritated the elephant that it, stepping back little by little, withdrew.”

The elephants, though highly trained, would not obey orders. They were frightened by the squealing pigs. Later on, elephant trainers kept their young elephants with baby pigs so future generations would be unafraid of them, thus robbing their opponents of their battle tactics.

End of their use

While elephants were a powerful tool for centuries, the advent of gunpowder saw their effectiveness on the battlefield dwindle, and the use of vehicles and alternate transport options saw their role as transporters become obsolete.

This was typified in an exchange between President Abraham Lincoln and Thailand’s King Rama IV the Thai King offered elephants to the President in 1862 to help with the civil war effort, but the President graciously turned down the offer, explaining the steam power on water and on land rendered their uses obsolete.

Watch the video: Elephant war battle with war elephants - Surin Elephant Festival 2020 - Surin - Thailand 2020 4K (May 2022).