Elephantology and its Ancient Sanskrit Sources

by Geetha N. | 2012 | 36,369 words

Elephant is considered as an inevitable part of Indian community. So they developed the study of Elephant which is based on Hastyayurveda and Matangalila. Even from the ancient time Indians were awareness about their hygiene and health. They were protected against diseases. They protected not just their own race but also plants and animals. Therefo...

Chapter 9 - Elephants In Kavyas

Elephant holds a special place in the mind of Indians. Puranas, Shastras stories and poems have narrated Elephants. Bhimas strength is equal to that of ten thousand elephants. Ashtadiggajas shines like the balefares in Lanka. Ravana was believed to had an elephant chariot. Ramayana describes Airavata, Mahapadma and Vamana are the chief elephants in Ayodhya. Vedic god Indras vehicle is Airavata.[1]

Itihasas, Puranas, Arthashastra, Brihatsamhita, Pancatantra, Jatakastories Hitopoadesha, Sangasahityas, Kathasaritsagara Aithyamala etc., are narrates elephants. All most all poets illustrates elephants in their kavyas. They narrate the elephant as a symbol of splendor, beauty, valiance, prosperity manea, love and anger etc.

Pancamahakavyas, Kalidasas three Natakas, thirteen plays of Bhasa, two Khandakavyas (Meghaduta and Ritusamhita and Ithihasas are selected for writing.

Elephant is a symbol of Royalty

Elephant is considered as royalty of peoples like magnates and kings. Their victory, lordship, wealth etc., are indicating through the narration of elephant.

Blind ascetic's boon towards Dasharatha

A myth is connected with Dashratha famed in Ramayana. The story is indicated below:

Once Dasharatha goes alone to the forest for hunting. The king needed only to hear the slightest sound of an animal made and he send his arrow to its mark. After a while, he heard a gargling sound and assumed it was an elephant sucking water into its trunk. He shot an arrow where the sound heard but instead of the trumpeting of a wounded elephant, he heard an anguished human cry suddenly he know that the sound he had mistaken for the elephant drinking was the gargling sound of water vessel that the ascetic had come to fill. He was the son of the blind parents and he begged him to pull the arrow and let him die.

With great reluctance, Dasharatha pull the narrow from the body of the sage and soon he passed away. Then Dashratha refilling the water vessel and carried it to the ascetics hut, where the blind couple was waiting. Hearing his footsteps, they assumed that it was their son, but after giving them water to drink, he revealed that what is happened. On hearing this fact, the parents compelled him to prepare to made for a cremation, at last they threw themselves on to the burning fire. They cursed Dashratha, because of his actions. Their boon was this 'he too, would die of grief over the loss of his son'.

After many years this curse became true, when Rama left Ayodhya to the forest living in 14 years for protecting Dasharathas words to Kaikeyi. After which the king collapsed in sorrow and breathed is last, the loss of his dearest son Rama.

The ascetic's death was an accident, for which he King bears responsibility, but his true intention was to kill an elephant, which also caused his fate, so as it is a symbol of royalty.

Elephant in army (four fold division)

It is considered that Elephant, horse, chariot and infantry are the fourfold division. Elephant in first is indicated that it is the important component of the military force (army)

The great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata reveal it in the same.

In Ramayana elephant is narrated as:—

varahamukhyaca shataso niryashcadyaia sankashsah
raja dharasthadha amatah sena hastyashvapattayah
radha kunjara vajistha avatiryamahim gatah
dadrishuste vimanasthan janasoma mivambard

About ten crores of monkey forces went and plastered the asura guard of the palace and all the horses and the elephants they found there.

That group consisted of a hundred of thousand horses, thousand elephants and ten thousand chariots with golden decoration. The people following were all carrying objects fit for presentation to royalty.

In Pancaratra, Bhasa illustrates that:—

Krityanila nagah sharashata nipatena kapita
hayo vayodho vaana vahantina kashcitccarasatam
sharasishcanna margah sarvati
dhanurgram shsaradadhim

Thousands of black coloured elephants are became reddish by shot the arrows in the war. In past times elephant are captured for using in the war. In the battle field of Rama & Ravana thousands of elephants are participated. Mahabharata war also indicated that 27,000 of elephants are appeared in that army.

Puranas indicates 'Akshouhinippada', which includes 21,870 elephants, some number chariots, 65,610 horses & 1,09,350 infantry. Mahabharata describes one Ashvathama, a grand father and an elephant in the same name 'Ashvathamahatah' this elephant had an important role in this war.

Valiance of elephants

For the service of the King valiant soldiers and elephants are take importance

Prajapataye purushanhastina alabhate vace
plushtishcakshushe mashakashcrotraya brringah

The brave soldiers and elephants should be secured, white ants for eloquence, mosquitoes for fight, black bees for hearing for the service of the king.

Just as the drivers strikes his sharp good in the head of gambhiravedi elephant, who is not easily sensitive to pan, similarly Raghu, a mighty warrior plants his mighty prowess on the head of the mountain mahendra which is not easy to be conquered.

Sapratapam mahendrasya
murdhini tikshnam nyaveshacyat
angusham dviradasyeva

Here prince Raghus courage is imagined an elephant.

This elephant is categorised gambhiravedi, and its characteristics are in the Matangalila is below:

tvagvebhedashconitasaravanmamsasya kradhanadapi
atmanam yo na janati sa syat gambhiravedinah

cirakalena yo vetti shiksham paricitamapi
gambhiravedi vinjeyah sa gajo gajavedibhih

An elephant who is slow in understanding even well-awaring matter signs is also called gambhiravedih.

The valiance of elephant is describing in the malavikagnimitram. i.e.,

na hi kamalinim drishtva grahamavekshate matangajah[7]

The elephant is slopping the lake and eat lotus, he is not fear of the crocodiles.

The Atharvaveda describes elephant as a superior animal among the wild beasts.

Hastimriganam sushatamatishtavan babhuvahi[8]
aditya yat tatvasshmbabhuva[9]

May the vast glory, born out of the body politically possessed by the commander-in-chief, strong like an elephant, separated in the whole world.

The valiance of elephant is described in Atharveda

"May the vast glory, born out of the body politically possessed by the commander-in-chief, strong like an elephant, separated in the whole world."

Ya hastini dvipini ya hiranyenvishirapsugoshuyapurusheshu
Indram ya devi subhaga jajana sa na ete varcasasamvidina

All energy of elephant and panther all halo and insture of gold, men, kin and waters and the blessed spiritual force that makes a ma, king, may that come unto conjoined with strength and vigor.


Bhavabhuti in his Uttararamacaritam narrates the young elephant had scored the victor over the tasks, which indicates the victory of Lava and Kusha over Rama, their father.

Yenotgaccat bisakisalaya snigda dantankaran
vyakrishtaste sutanu lavalipallavba kannmulat
sosyam putrastava madamucam varananam vijeta
yatkalyanam vayasi tarune bhajanam tasya jatah

The young elephants were attacked by huge tasked. Rama goes ahead to rescue him, when Vasanti enters and tells them that the young elephant had scored a victory over the tusker. Then they all process the bank of the Godavari, where they find the young elephant courting his mate.

Narration of nature's symbol

Vailoppilli Shridharamenon narrates the elephant as a symbol of Nature. In festival occasion, the elephants are layout with decoration. The poet explains it thus:—


Here the poet describes the elephant is same as a huge blackstone. The stone is a part of nature which stands in the lap of the earth, like her son elephant is standing in the temple is a stone.

In Kiratarjuniya the beauty of nature is thus:—

madasikta mughairmrigadhipah
karibhirvartayate swayam hatah
laghayam khali tejasajaganna
mahaniccantoi bhuutimanyatah

The lion is dead, elephant stood like as musted, the earth is like in this way. In Avimaraka, Bhasa describes elephant as

Shailendra kalobhopama
jaladhya kriidatatakopama


The angry of an elephant is seen in Malavikagnimitram (mm) i.e,

Anyonya kalahapriyayormatiahastinoreka
tarasminna nirjite kata upashamah

It explains that, if the musted elephant tuskers are angried, they do not become back track their steps until one of them is failed.

Various shapes appears as Elephant in poets imagination of a cloud is in the view of Magha in his Shishupalavadha

gajakadamabka mecakamuccalcair
nabvhasi vikshya navambudamambare
abhisasara navallabhamangana
na caka me cakamekarasam baha

Clouds assume various shapes sometimes. A fantastic shape of an elephant is described here according to the view of Magha.

Kalidasa in his Meghasandesha also describes the cloud like the peak of mountains, elephant is stooping in down in his butting sport against the bank.

Ashadhasya pradhama divase megha maslishtasanum
vaprakriidaoarinatagaja prekshaniyam dadarsha

The clouds resting the peak of mountains are imagined to be peak of as an elephant stooping down in his batting sport against the bank.

Puranasarvasva illustrates elephants shape is like a baffaloes, pigs, and the like.

"Mahisashca varahashca mattamatangarupinah"


The bark of the birch trees, red in colour with characters written on them by Vidyadhara ladies, with mineral fluid are imagined to resemble the red spots on elephants.

nyastakshara dhaturasena yatra
bhurjatvajah kunjarabindhushonah
vrajanti vidhyadharasundarinam
an angalekha kriyayopago gam

The Vidhyadhara ladies wrote letter in bhurjrapatra, which is imagined as the beauty of an elephants spotted trunk.

In Abhishekanataka Bhasa imagined Balis beauty is like on elephant.

karikarasadrishau gajendragamin
stava ripushastraparirakshitangau ca
avanti talagatau samikshya bhahu
harivara! ha patatir mesdhya cittam

Like the elephant's trunk Bali's hands are as the same long whose walk is like an elephant's walk, and the like.

In Madhyamavyayoga, Khatotkaca is imagined as the same:—

kalabhadashanadamstra lagalakaranasah
karivara karabhahur nilajimutavarnah
huta hutavahadipto yah stito bhati Bhima
stripurapura nihantuh shankarasyeva roshah

His (Khatotkaca's) dhamshtra (teeth) is like the tusk of baby elephant, nose like plough, hands like the trunk of a leader elephant colour is like dark cloud, anger is the same as Shankara (Shiva) = Ugrakopi) so that is structure is imagined as monstrosity.

Shelter (Refuge)

In Pratimanataka elephant is imagined as a shelter, to a husband for his wife.

Anucarati shashankam Rahudoshepi Tara
patatica vanvrikshe yati bhumim lata ca
tyajati na karenuh pankalagnam gajendra
vrajatu caratu dharmam bhartrunadhahinaryah

Lakshmana supports sita's intention intention to follow Rama to the forest by saying that Tara, wife of Chandra follows him even he was devoured by Rahu. The creeper accompanies the following forest tree and an elephant cow never abandons the mudded elephant, even if it is cowered with dirty with soil. Hence go and perform your duties because husband is the only shelter for the ladies (wife's)

Here Chandra is compared with a dirty elephant and Tara became the she-elephant.

Procession (March)

In Raghuvamsha, Raghus march is imagined with an elephant.

kurushva tarat karabharuipashcat
marge mrigraprekshini, drishtipatam
esha viduribhavatah samudrae
sa kanana nishpatativa bhumim

tyajitaih phala mutghatatair-
bhagnaishca bhahudha nripaih
tasyasidudbano margah
padapairiva damtinam

Raghu cleared the root for the troops like a leader elephant. Here Raghu is imagined as an elephant chief.

Must (Manea)

Musted elephant is an imagination of poet in many ways. In the state of must is described in Raghuvamsha. King Raghu is imagined as the elephant which is below:

sa nyasta cihnamapi rajalakshmim
tejo visheshanumaitam dadhana
ntarmadavasta iva dvipendrah

In this shloka, the poet explains the King Dilipa, which is to have followed the path of a cow. He castaside its royal insignia. But his kingly fortune could be inferred from the super eminence of majesty. He, therefore, can be well compared to be like the elephant who is in orderly in condition of rut but without the line of inchor manifested externally.

In Megasandesha, the poet says that, the way of elephant is indicating the path of the cloud.

nipam drishtva haritakapishsam kesarairardharudam
ravirbhuta pradhamamukulah kandalishcanukaccam
jagdvasranyeshvadhika surabhim gandhamaradhyacorvyam
sarangaste jalalavamucaih sucayishyantimargam

Kadambha flowers are green and brown on account of half growth filements, eating the kandalis on mastery banks with the first buds appearing on them and smell the strong odour of the ground in the forest respectively, the beeds, and the elephants will indicate the path of you, showing drop water.

yam candrakairmadajalasya mahanadinam
netrashriyam vikasato vidatturgajendrah
tam pratya vapuravilambitamuttaranto
doutanga lagnaranilapayojapatraih

The eyes, formed by the oil-like musth fluid spreading into moon on water, with which the elephants were decorating the river, they were promptly getting back to them as they merged from water.


Elephants love is famous; it is a wise animal also. Kalidasa imagined elephants love in Kumarasambhava:—

dadan rasat pankajarenugmthi
gajaya gandushajalam karenuh
ardhopayaktena bisena jayam
sambhavayamasa rathangananam (angananam

The female elephant with love, gave the elephant, a task full of water scanted with the pollen of lotuses.

In Vikramorvashiya the warmth of kindliness showed by the elephant below.

sahayo nagarajastishtati

This statement proves that the elephant also aware of his wife's mind.

Love with other animal is shows in Ritusamhara:—

trisha mahatya hatavikramodyamah
shvasam mahar duravidaritananah
na hantya durespi gajan mrigeshvaro

With all the energy and valour killed by great thirst with his mouth open and panting that lion does not kill the elephants though they are so close to him he only licks his lips again and again with his tongue.

This stanza states that, even the lions are enemies of the elephant, even though here they are so love with each other. The symbol of love beautifully portrayed by Kalidasa in his verses.

Elephant in Festivals

Not only in past days decorated elephants are a best sight of human beings in their festivals.

At the time of Rama's unction, the city of Ayodhya is filled with decorated elephants.

brahamanah kshatriyah vaishyah kanyakastratha
cchatram camaram divya gajorajo tadai va ca
abhishiktam samayatam gajarudam stitanvitam
shvetashcateeradharam tatra lakshmanam lakshitanivtram

When it was day break, there assembled at the central gate all who had been ordered to do so by Vasishta, citizens of the four classes maidens, those holding superb ceremonial umbrellas and chowris, elephants and horses, dancing girls and general residence of the city and the village.


Elephants are often mentions in Bible. The portion of Lisyaess second attack. King of Yudas had 32 elephants and each of them contains Ambari (a tent made up of timber) which prevents the soldiers from the attack done by enemies. `Four soldiers and one Indian mahout (elephant drivers) are included each of the Ambari.[31]


Quran contains a chapter on describing elephant army. Ethyopyan emporor's governor Abrahath, ripping 'Kabah' in Makka, stir into Makka, with C.6000 elephants. But this armies are destroyed by some small birds, their lips and legs have had sweltering (red hoted) stones, which are fallen on the body and enegma (nucleus) of the elephant and they died soon. From this incident is calculated 'Anakkalahavarshsam' or (elephant quarrel year). After some year Hijjara is considered to calculate the year. In Khuran elephant is known as pheel.[32]

All these references will enable to argue the significance of this animal.

Footnotes and references:


Rigveda (RgV) 1.4.69.


Adhyatma Ramayana (A.R) Y.K. 14-74. 15-22. 955-956.


Pancaratra. 2.22. 344.


Yajarveda. 3.28.312.


Raghuvamsha (Rg) 4.39.936.


Matangalila. 8.21.86.


Malavikagnimitra (MM). 1.236.


Atharvaveda. 3.22.6.


Ibid. 3.22.1


Ibid. 6.38.1407.


Uttararamacarita. 1.9.22.


Sahyante makan. 3.3.69.


Kiratharjuniyam. 2.18.85.


Avimarakam. 4.11.660


Malavikagnimitram (mm). 1.200.


Shishupalavadham (Spv). 6.26.164.


Meghasandesha (MS). P.M. 2.6.614.


Kumarasambhava. 1.7.192.


Abhishekanatakam. 1.22.158.




Pratimanatakam. 1.25.42.


Raghuvamsha 13.18.1140.


Ibid. 4.33.934.


Raghuvamsas (Raghuvamsha). 2.7.890.


Meghadootam Poorvamegha. 21.41.


Shishupalavadham. 5.40.144.


Kumarasambhava. 3.37.736.


Vikramorvashiya 4.136.


Ritusamhara. 1.24.10.


Adhyatma Ramayana (A.K.). 1.36-40. 187-188.


Makkabayar (6). 30. 33-38.


Surah 105. Alpheel (Elephant)

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