The domesticated Asian elephant in India
       S.S. Bist, Jacob V. Cheeran, S. Choudhury, P. Barua and M.K. Misra


India harbours more than 50 percent of the wild elephant
population and about 20 percent of the captive elephant
population of Asia. The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)
enjoys a special status in the country and the elephant
symbolises the Indian ethos. It has been very closely
associated with the religion, myths, history and cultural
heritage of India for centuries. Protecting and ensuring the
survival of the elephant means much more to an Indian
than protecting just another endangered species. Although
the tiger has been designated as the national animal of
India, for most Indians the elephant is the de facto national
animal. It has been rightly said that one cannot imagine
India without the elephant (Anon., 1993).

India has a fascinating history of domesticating wild
elephants. Lahiri Choudhury (1988) has traced, on the
basis of rock paintings, the history of domesticated
elephants in India to about 6000 B.C. Seals of the Indus
Valley civilization (2500-1500 B.C.) also suggest the
presence of domesticated elephants in India at that time.
Aryans, who are believed to have entered India about
1500 B.C., picked up the art of domesticating elephants in
the process of assimilating the culture of the country they
had adopted. Ancient literature, such as the Rig Veda
(1500-1000 B.C.) and the Upanishads (900-500 B.C.),
which is associated with the Aryans, contain many
references to trained elephants. Vedic literature also
confirms that by the sixth century B.C., the taming and
catching of elephants had become quite a refined art.

The earlier literature reveals that kings and senior
administrators were duly instructed about the art of
handling elephants and about various aspects of the
physiology and health of the elephant. Knowledge about
elephants was considered as a part of ‘Arthasastra', the
science of statecraft. In the Kautilya's Arthasastra (300 B.
C. to 300 A.D.) there is a reference to the duty of the
overseer of elephants to take care of the training of
elephants. It prescribes the setting up of elephant
sanctuaries on the periphery of the kingdom that were to
be patrolled by guards. Anyone killing an elephant within
the sanctuary was to be put to death. It also prohibits the
capturing of elephant calves, tuskless bulls or those with
small tusks, diseased elephants and cows with suckling
calves. During the reign of Emperor Ashoka (273-232 B.
C.) the elephant became the symbol of Buddhism. The
Ashokan edicts refer to the setting up of hospitals for the
treatment of elephants and other animals.

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