Matangalila and Hastyayurveda (study)

by Chandrima Das | 2021 | 98,676 words

This page relates ‘Summary of the Matangalila’ of the study on the Matangalina and Hastyayurveda in the light of available epigraphic data on elephants in ancient India. Both the Matanga-Lila (by Nilakantha) and and the Hasti-Ayurveda (by Palakapya) represent technical Sanskrit works deal with the treatment of elephants. This thesis deals with their natural abode, capturing techniques, myths and metaphors, and other text related to elephants reflected from a historical and chronological cultural framework.

Summary of the Mātaṅgalīlā


Mātaṅgalīlā, is said to have been composed by Nīlakaṇṭha, this text is no doubt the best available Sanskrit work on elephants. It is a brief and succinct treatise in 263 stanzas, divided into twelve chapters of uneven length. Mātaṅga-līlā was first edited and translated by Gaṇapati Śāstri in 1910.[1] The original palm leaf manuscripts of this work are as follows: Two in Malayalam script and one in Tamil Grantha characters. Of these, the one Malayalam and one in Tamil Grantha characters were obtained from the Palace Library and the third was lent by Brahmaśrī Keśavar Saṅkara Nārāyanar, Kalpakamaṅgalamatham, Manalikkara. These manuscripts are about two centuries old and are not free from errors.[2]

Nevertheless, as Edgerton argues, the elephant lore of Sanskrit texts shows a strong connection with practical knowledge and is by no means the learned imagination of literatures. On the contrary the high degree of specialised knowledge that readers of these texts would have obtained is impressive. Edgerton gives a long glossary of specialized terms in the elephant lore i.e. the Mātaṅgalīlā, the meanings of which are not found in existing lexicons, neither in the ancient Sanskrit lexicons nor the modern scholarly ones.[3] His overall argument about the closeness of the elephant knowledge of the Mātaṅga-līlā to that of practitioners, except in places where well known topics of Sanskrit learning are evident, is convincing. It is much the same, one can add, in artistic renderings of elephants from ancient times to the present: Indian representations of elephants, almost all them, show familiarity with live elephants, unlike, say, East Asian representations[4].

These specialised treatises reflect a tendency towards the reinterpretation and theoretical elaboration of practical knowledge. A clear example is the explanation of the origin of the four classes of elephants in terms of theory of the four yugas that is found in post-Vedic Sanskrit texts, and the three dispositions (guṇas), namely lightness (sattvas), energy (rajas), and dullness (tamas). Interestingly these are found in the Śāṅkhya School of philosophy. Both of these interpretive schemes fall within the expertise of the literate classes and would not have come from the elephant catchers or tamer class. Edgerton mentions that “the authors were evidently pandits, in some cases (notably that of the Mātaṅgalīlā itself) rather well trained in belles-lettres. There are some parts of the “science” which suggest rather the scholar than the elephant trainer.”[5] The composition of the Hastyāyurveda, a medical treatise for the elephants is an attempt to imbibe the compilation of medical knowledge in keeping with the medical texts for the treatment of humans. An example of such theoretical elaboration is may be cited in the description of the standard list of eight elephant forests mentioned in the Arthaśāstra which later acquires an additional list of secondary forests (upavanas) in subsequent texts for example in the Chapter IV of Gajaśāstra[6] . Another concerns the life phases of an elephant which is in multiple of twelve. In the Mahābhārata a sixty year old tusker is considered at the height of his power, and Trautmann noted that this may have to do with the fact that tusks never stop growing. But the fact that the last set of Molars is in place at sixty means that the elephant cannot last much longer than that age. Zoologists have attested to this fact in quite recent times. Nevertheless, according to Truatmann this adheres to the scheme of twelve cycles 12 year-long built upon the idea of five cycles of increasing power and five cycles of decline. However this seems to be derived more from theorising rather than from observing. In support of this one can mention the same scheme in the Mātaṅgalīlā where some of the names of the age-grades of elephants are without obvious etymologies in Sanskrit, and so probably derived from the “country” (deśi) terms of elephant handlers. Other names are transparent in Sanskrit, such as yaudha, “fighter”. The age grades from the sixth to the twelfth have no such special names and are simply numbered. Finally, the elephant science treatises show a multiplication of classifications of elephants from different points of view, some of which were surely derived from the intimate knowledge of handlers, while some of the others being artificial constructs by writers without practical knowledge of the matter.[7]

In the Mātaṅga-līlā, the magnum opus by Nīlakaṇṭha, we do not get any historical information. It is not known when and where the author Nīlakaṇṭha lived, according to Ganapati Shastri, he may be a native of Malabar as this work is widely known in Kerala[8]. In this context it is important to note that according to the interpretation of the text by Chiruvalli Narayanan Namboothiri, Mātaṅgalīlā dates back a few centuries from Malayalam Era (Kollavarṣam) 761.[9] But still the date of the treatise remains unsolved and needs a careful research. However a comparative study with other similar texts composed in this typical style leads us to date the text a little early. Probably the idea of the text originated in the early historic period.

Mātaṅgalīlā is an elementary treatise on the science of elephants. The writing style is highly cryptic and condensed which reflects the understanding and acquaintance of a class of people involved with elephants and the science of elephantology. The sūtra-like character of the verses at times makes their meanings obscure or at least doubtful.

There are twelve chapters (Paṭalas) in the text.

The first chapter:

The Prathamaḥ paṭalaḥ or the first chapter i.e. Nāgotpatyadhikāraḥ is introductory in nature and it tells how king Romapāda met sage Pālakāpya, who expounded to him the science of elephants. Then follows the mythic origin of elephants, a journey from divine to mortal animal can be traced here; the story that explains how they were banished to earth and deprived of their powers of supernatural locomotion; the marvellous birth of Pālakāpya himself; description of various “castes” of elephants, already referred to etymological explanations of the various Sanskrit terms for “elephant” such as: because they go everywhere they are called nāga (nāgāḥ sarvatra gatvā), gaja, because they conquer (ji) and likewise because they roar (garj) (gaja iti vijayād garnāñcaiva). They were termed as hastin because they were born from the hand (hasta) of the Creator (vedhohastaprasūtyā). They were also termed as Vāraṇa, because they ward off (vṛ causative) the hosts of hostile kings (paranṛpati ca mūvāraṇād vāraṇo api). They acquired the name Mātaṅga because of the muddiness (mṛt-tva) of their paths, implying–ga from gam, “go” (mātaṅgo vartmamṛttvādati). The term kuñjara was used because they wear out (jar) the earth (ku) with the pressure of their feet (jarayati kuṃ kuñjaraḥ pādatodāt). They are also called padmin, because they are fond of lotuses (padmī padmaprasaktyā). They acquired the name dvipa or “twice-drinking”, because they drink both with the mouth and with the trunk (dvipa iti mukhato hastato api prapānat).

Since they attack with trunk, tail, tusks and four feet also, therefore elephants are called “of eight blows”:

śuṇḍāvāladhidantaiśra caturmiśra padairapi /
praharanti yatastasmādaṣṭaprahaṇā dvipāḥ
: v.31.

They (i-me) are afraid (bhi) of all, and their form is superior (a-bhya-dhika) to all on the ground of beauty; so the great sages call them i-bha:

ime bibhyatiti sarvebhyaḥ sarbhevyo abhyadhikaṃ vapuḥ /
kāntatvāñca tathā prāhuribhānetān maharṣayaḥ
: v.33.

They are called karin because they are provided with an excellent “hand” (trunk, kara).

praśastakarasaṃyogāt karino

Dantin or is derived from tusks or tusked animal (dantinastathā) similarly sindhura, because of their delight (ram) in bathing in the river (sindhu)

sindhurāḥ sindhuramaṇādevaṃnirvacanakramaḥ[10].

Here we are appending a table words indicating the Sanskrit terms used for elephants and their implications:

[Table 1: Terms used for elephants and their implications]

Sl. No. Sanskrit terms for Elephants Reason for the usage of the term
1. Nāga Can go everywhere
2. Gaja Can conquer (ji) and also can roar (garj)
3. Hastin Born from the hand (hasta) of the Creator
4. Vāraṇa Those ward off (vṛ causative) the hosts of hostile kings
5. Mātaṅga Because of the muddiness (mṛt-tva) of their paths
6. Kuñjara Can wear out (jar) the earth (ku) with the pressure of feet
7. Padmin Fondness of lotuses
8. Dvipa “Twice-drinking”, drinking both with the mouth and with the trunk
9. I-bha They (i-me) are afraid (bhi) of all, and their form is superior (a-bhya-dhika) to all on the ground of beauty
10. Karin Provided with an excellent “hand” (trunk, kara)
11. Dantin Derived from tusks or tusked animal
12. Sindhura Delight (ram) in bathing in the river (sindhu)

The second chapter:

The second chapter (Dvitīyaḥ paṭalaḥ: Śubhalakṣaṇādhikāro) deals with identification of good quality elephants on the basis of their physiognomy, towards end of this chapter the author describes in details different sounds produced or made by elephants (v.13-17).[11]

The third chapter

The third chapter (Tritīyaḥ paṭalaḥ: Aśubhalakṣaṇādhikāra) deals with unfavourable marks and indicative factors defining the elephants of lower quality. The last verse of this chapter cautions against taking captive a female elephant that is with young calf, and says she should be brought back to a secure place or her own place, otherwise she fetches evil fortune–‘Potānvitā vā kariṇī sagarbhā/ labdhā bhaved vāhaṇakośanāśaḥ I/ tapovane vā svavane atha vāpi/ nitvārpayed diggajadevapūjām II (v.7).[12] Sanderson and Evan talk about the present day belief in both kinds of marks–favourable and unfavourable.

The fourth chapter

The fourth chapter (Caturthaḥ paṭalaḥ: āyurlakṣaṇādhikāra) deals with the longevity and character of the elephants in different phases of their life. It is worth mentioning here that the life cycle of an elephant has been classified into three categories which Edgerton mentions as ‘caste[13] but we would like to disagree with his view these are only based on the longevity of the animal and hence we mention them as class here. There are three classes the deer class, slow class and the state class. The deer class (Mṛgajātyasya) lives for 40 years, the slow class (Mandajātaysya) lives for 80 and the state class (Bhadrajātyasya) for 120 years.[14]

The fifth chapter

The fifth chapter (Pañcamaḥ paṭalaḥ: Vayolakṣaṇādhikāraḥ) describes the stages of life and their value for the human species. According to this chapter an elephant up to the age of twelve is worthless; in twenty-fourth year his value is of a middle level and up to the sixtieth year, in respect to age, he is considered as best (v.1). A special name is given to them in each of these periods up to and including the fifth decade, after which no names are given.

Such as he is called Bāla or infant in the first year–“Bālāhvayo ayaṃ prathame tu varṣe” (v.2),
in the second year he is called puccuka–“Varṣadvaye Puccuka” (v.3),
in the third year he is known as upasarpa–“Sarpastṛtīye” (v.4),
in the fourth year he has been named as barbara–“…..pṛthulaścatuṣṭaye manāk prarohadaśano hi Barbara” (v.5),
it is named kalabha when reaches the fifth year–“….eṣa Kalabhaḥ prāptaḥ samāṃ pañcamīm” (v.6),
in the sixth year it is known as naikārika–“Naikārikaṃ tamiha ṣaṭsamamāmananti” (v.7),
in the seventh year as śiśu–“…..saptavarṣaḥ Śiśuriti kathito asau….” (v.8)
and in eighth year as majjana–“praharaṇamṛduko asāvaṣṭame Majjanākhyaḥ” (v.9),
ninth year he is known as dantāruṇa -“Dantāruṇaṃ navasamāprabhavaṃ vadanti” (v.10)
and in the tenth year and the first stage of life, it is a vikka–“tejobalāḍhya daśame sukhādī yūthapraharṣī ca sa eva Vikkaḥ” (v.11).

From the tenth year he is named according to his stages of life. So in the second stage (dvitīyāṃ daśām) he is known as a pota or colt–“Potākhyaḥ smaravegavikramabalī yāto dvitīyāṃ daśām” (v.12). In the third stage (tṛtīyāṃ daśām) he is known as javana or swift one–“… eva Javano yātastṛtīyāṃ daśām” (v.13). He is named as kalyāṇa or fine one–“Kalyāṇo hyayameva vāraṇyuvā prāptaścaturthīṃ daśām” (v.14) in his fourth stage, and yaudha or fighter in his fifth stage of life–“Yaudho nāma sadā madāvilakaṭaḥ prāpto daśāṃ pañcamīm” (v.15).[15]

[Table 2: Showing the life cycles of elephants]

Sl. No. Age grades Type / Qualities/ Caste Value
1. 1-12 Inferior mṛga caste Useless
2. 13-24 Inferior mṛga caste Middling value
3. 25-36 Noble and best, mṛga caste High Value
4. 37-48 Noble and best mṛga caste High Value
5. 49-60 Noble and best manda caste High Value
6. 61-72 Not so superior bhadra caste Commencement of declining phase
7. 73-84 Not so superior bhadra caste Declining phase
8. 85-96 Not so superior bhadra caste Declining phase
9. 97-108 Not so superior bhadra caste Declining phase
10. 109-120 Not so superior bhadra caste Declining phase

[Table 3: Table showing the various stages of life of an elephant (first ten years and five stages)]

Sl. No. Months/Years Sanskrit terms Reference
1. First year bāla Mātaṅga-līlā, Chapter V, v.2
2. Second year Puccuka Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter V, v.3
3. Third year Upasarpa Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter V, v. 4
4. Fourth year Barbara Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter V, v. 5
5. Fifth year Kalabha Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter V, v. 6
6. Sixth year Naikārika Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter V, v. 7
7. Seventh year Śiśu Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter V, v. 8
8. Eighth year Majjana Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter V, v. 9
9. Ninth year dantāruṇa Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter, V, v. 10
10. Tenth year Vikka Mātaṅga-līlā, Chapter, V, v. 11. Completion of the first stage of life
11. Second stage Pota Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter, V, v. 12. From this period of time they were called by their life stages counted in decades. 11-20 Years
12. Third stage Javana Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter, V, v. 13. 21-30 years
13. Fourth stage Kalyāṇa Mātaṅgalīlā, Chapter, V, v.14. 31-40 years
14. Fifth stage Yaudha Mātaṅga-līlā, Chapter, V, v.15. 41-50 years
15. Sixth stage No specific name 51-60
16. Seventh stage No specific name 61-70
17. Eighth stage No specific name 71-80
18. Ninth stage No specific name 81-90
19. Tenth stage No specific name 91-100
20. Eleventh stage No specific name 101-110
21. Twelfth stage No specific name 111=120

Mention may be made that Gaja-śāstra also mentioned life circle of an elephant along with the references to other śāstras which includes first month to different stages. It shows the life circle of elephants which started from first month of an elephant. Mātaṅgalīlā mentioned names of elephants age up to fifth stage of their life circle. Following table shows a complete list of names of different stages of elephant’s age.

[Table 4: Showing different stages of elephant’s age]

Sl. No. Months/Years Sanskrit terms Reference
1. First month Śiśu, Viklaba Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.1 & 43
2. Second month Haṃsa, Maṇḍaka Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.2 & 43
3. Third month Yūthaniṣkrāmī Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.2 & 44
4. Fourth month Capalāṅga Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.3
5. Fifth month Viklabākṣa Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.3 & 44
6. Sixth month Lakṣopadaṃśa Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.4
7. Seventh month Laṇḍabhakṣa Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.4 & 46
8. Eighth month Capala Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.5 & 46
9. Ninth month Krodhana Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.6
10. Tenth month Mātṛvatsala Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.6 & 47
11. Eleventh month Vyaktatālu Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.7 & 47
12. Twelfth month Vinidra, Jātavarṣa Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v.7-8 & 47 (only Vinidra)
13. Second year Cūlika Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 54
14. Third year Romaśacūlika, Kṣīradanta, also Apasarpa Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 10 & 49, 56
15. Fourth year Paryasta, Barbara Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 11 & 49, 57
16. Fifth year Alpanidra, Kalabha Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 13 & 49, 58
17. Sixth year Vaikārika Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 49, 59
18. Seventh year Śiśu Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 50, 60
19. Eighth year Añjana, Añjanābha Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 50 & 61
20. Ninth year Prabhava Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 50,62
21. Tenth year Vikka Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 50, 64
22. From tenth to twentieth year Kalabha Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 51
23. Second stage Pota Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 66
24. Third stage Javana, Kūlaṅkaṣa Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 51& 67, 68
25. Fourth stage Kalyāṇa Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 52, 70
26. Fifth stage Yūtha Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 52, 72
27. Sixth stage Niḥsṛtadanta, Niḥsṛtadantamūla Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 52 & 73
28. Seventh stage Vivarṇaka, Vivarṇa Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 52 & 74
29. Eighth stage Viravi/ Viravī Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 53, 76
30. Ninth stage Purāṇa Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 53, 78
31. Tenth stage Sthavira, Vṛddha Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 53 & 80
32. Eleventh stage Pūrvaka Gaja-śāstra, Chapter V, v. 41 & 53

Chapter six

Chapter six (Ṣaṣṭhaḥ paṭalaḥ: Mānanirṇayādhikāraḥ), i.e., Determination of measurements of each of the three main castes; these agree quite well with figure given in other ancient sources and with the data of modern authorities.

The seventh chapter

The seventh chapter (Saptamaḥ paṭalaḥ: Mūlyaviśeṣādhikāraḥ) is the shortest, it deals with the price of elephants, but gives no specific information of interest or value.

The eighth chapter

The eighth chapter (Aṣṭamaḥ paṭala: Sattvalakṣaṇādhikāraḥ) is on “marks of character”. The major part of it consists of rather fantastic description of the “character” of elephants, based on physical and mental characteristics and classified as resembling supernatural beings of various sorts.

The ninth chapter

Chapter nine (Navamaḥ paṭalaḥ: Madabhedādhikāro) describes the stages of must i.e. the fluid which secretes mainly from the elephant’s temple, frontal globe and ears.

The tenth chapter

Chapter ten (Daśamaḥ paṭalaḥ: Gajagrahādhikāro) tells us the methods of catching elephants.

The eleventh chapter

The eleventh chapter is the longest one entitled (Ekādaśaḥ paṭalaḥ: Gajarakṣaṇadinartucaryādhikāra) -“On the keeping of elephants and their daily and seasonal regimen”. Interestingly this chapter respects the freedom of the elephant and clearly mentions that it is best in its natural environment and that captivity is bad for them.

Elephants’ disease and their medicines are also prescribed here. An interesting section of this same eleventh chapter is the group of verses describing the seasonal differences to be observed in the care of elephants in each of the six seasons of the Indian year.

The twelfth chapter:

The twelfth and the last chapter (Dvādaśaḥ paṭalaḥ: ādhoraṇaguṇāddhādhikāro) is miscellaneous, but is a very important chapter dealing primarily with the character and activities of elephant managers, trainers and drivers.

Footnotes and references:


Gaṇapati Sāstrī. ed.The Mātaṅgalīlā of Nīlakaṇṭha, Trivandum: Trivandum Sanskrit Series, No.X, 1910.


Ibid, p. Preface.


Franklin Edgerton. The Elephant-Lore of the Hindus, pp.113-125.


Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and Kings An Environmental History, Ranikhet: Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University, 2015, p.150.


Franklin Edgerton. The Elephant-Lore of the Hindus, p. 6.


Shri Mantramurti K.S. Subrahmanyaśāstri. ed. &tr. (in Tamil) with a summary in English by Shri S.Gopalan, Gaja-śāstra [Gajaśāstram] of Pālakāpya muni with extracts from other works and Coloured Illustrations, Chapter IV, v. 1927, Saraswati Mahal Series No. 76, Tanjore: T.M.S.S.M. Library, 1958, pp. 36-38.


Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and Kings An Environmental History, pp.150-152.


Gaṇapati Sāstrī. ed.The Mātaṅgalīlā of Nīlakaṇṭha, p. Preface.


Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan. Elephant in the Room II, C.N. Namboothiri. Mātaṅgalīlā, Arthavedīvyākhyānam, Kodungalloor: Santha Publishers, 2009.


Franklin Edgerton., pp.50-51 and Ga , p. 6.


Franklin Edgerton. The Elephant-Lore of the Hindus, pp.56-57 and Gaṇapati Śāstrī. ed.The Mātaṅgalīlā of Nīlakaṇṭha, pp.9-10.


Ibid., p.59 and p. 11, respectively.


Franklin Edgerton. The Elephant-Lore of the Hindus, pp.60-61.


Franklin Edgerton., pp.50-61 and Ga , pp.11-12.


Franklin Edgerton., pp.62-66 and Ga , pp. 12-15.

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