Matangalila and Hastyayurveda (study)

by Chandrima Das | 2021 | 98,676 words

This page relates ‘Training of Elephants’ 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.

Training of Elephants

As far as the matter of training of elephants[1] is concerned the texts provide interesting details. Verse 1 mentions that in front (of the elephant) three men should be placed, two at the ears and two behind–thus seven men should be placed in all. On both sides should be placed two well-trained females. The elephant should be controlled by the riders. The trainer of elephants should then teach the language to the elephants every day, untiringly, repeatedly so that they know their work. The language of training elephants as detailed by Pālakāpya and others thus was to be mastered by the trainers for best training of elephants. It is worth mentioning that the text directly refers to the use of Prakrit language and dialects for training the elephants in explaining the work[2].

Thus trained in who to be and who is not to be killed, the elephant, though alone, conquers many men, horses and elephants–

evaṃ saṃśikṣito nāgaḥ vadhyāvadhyeṣu karmasu /
jayatyekoapi saṃgrāme naravājigajān bahūn //

The elephants of many species trained in all works and with auspicious signs were used in battle by kings. In this context it is imperative to discuss the twelfth chapter of Mātaṅgalīlā[4] which primarily deals with the characteristics and activities of elephant managers, trainers and drivers. It first describes the qualities which are desirable in candidates for these posts. The supervisor of the elephants should be intelligent, kinglike, righteous, devoted to his lord, pure, true to his undertakings, free from vice, controlling his senses, well behaved, vigorous, tried by practice, delighting in kind words, his science learned from a good teacher, clever, firm, affording protection, renowned for curing disease in elephants, fearless, all knowing.

The text mentions–

nāgādhyakṣoâstu dhīmān narapatisaiśo dhārmikaḥ svāmibhaktaḥ śuddhaḥ satyapratijño vyasanavirahitaḥ saṃyatākṣo vinītaḥ /
tsāhī iṣṭakarmā priyavacanarataḥ sadgurorāttaśāstro dakṣo dhīraḥ śaraṇyo gadaharaṇcaṇo nirbhayaḥ sarvavettā // (v. 1)[5]

King’s elephant manager should be skilled in method of training, knowing the various methods of wielding hooks and sticks, well informed as to strength of elephant, and as to places and times for the various elements of their regimen, skilful in dealing with the must fluid, dexterous in the ways of mounting and dismounting, calm, knowing the stages of an elephant’s life and his vulnerable points.

śikṣāprakramadakṣamaṅkuśagadāsañcāraṇprakriyā--bhedajñaṃ baladeśakālanipuṇaṃ dānakriyādakṣiṇam /
āroheṣvavarohaṇeṣu kuśalaṃ śāntaṃ vayomarmaṇāṃ jñātāraṃ munayo vadanti nṛpaterāghoraṇaṃ dantinām //
(v. 2)[6]

An elephant driver may be of three categories: firstly as the best category -‘coming-up-tothe-scratch’ according to the qualities of his elephant, secondly as middling category -ingenious, according to those of himself and the elephant both and lastly as poorest category—powerful, depends upon his own wit, strength and powers alone.

Thus the elephant guards are to be conceived as best, middling, and poorest. Among these the last is to be avoided–

rekhāvānapi yuktimāṃśca balabān yenta tridhetyagrimo nāgasyaiva tu vartateânuguṇamatrātmebhayormadhyamaḥ /
pāścātyo nijabuddhiśaktivibhavenaiveti te hastipāḥ kalpyāścottama madhyamādhamatayā varjyoâtra teṣvantimaḥ //
(v. 3)[7]

Then follow, in rather minute and interesting detail, descriptions of the technique of guiding elephants–first by words alone (vv. 8-10)[8], then by prodding them with the feet (vv. 11-12)[9], and then–after a brief listing of the various ‘gaits’ of an elephant (v. 13)[10], and three verses (vv. 14-16)[11] on the ways of sitting on his back, of which there are no less than eight, three front and five behind–a dissertation on the hook or goad. There are four kinds of hook (v. 18)[12]; six parts of beast’s body to which they may be applied (v.19)[13]; the manner of applying tells the trained elephant exactly the direction in which he is expected to move (v.20)[14]; there are six degrees of severity of the goading, ‘from barely touching’ to the most violent thrusts after brandishing the hook (v. 21)[15]. Three verses (vv.22-24)[16] prescribe ointments or solutions which when rubbed on the hook; make it more effective in controlling an elephant. A stick may also be used; it is to be applied to five spots on the sides and rear of the elephant, which indicates that it was not used by the driver but by a rider sitting behind. There are eight ways of mounting an elephant, and ten of dismounting (v. 26-27)[17].

Gajaśāstra (Chapter 10) also provides further information regarding signs of seats, classification of seats of elephants, ways of driving them with goad and various commands, different ways to guiding with the foot and techniques of directing elephants with words. Experts in the elephant science have said about three kinds of seats on an elephant–excellent, medium and inferior (verse 1).[18] The excellent seat is level and firm, adhering, when knee-joints are placed, (is found) in the species such as Manda and in war (verse 2). The text mentions that in species such as Manda and in battle, that seat is considered as the best seat which is high and when one mounts it both his knees are bent (verse 4).[19]

In case of the Bhadra species a medium seat is to be selected. In the species such as Mṛga, when (the elephant) is eager and shaking its head, a low seat is advocated. For elephants in general when engaged in battle, the excellent seat is advised. For elephants in general when walking normally, the medium seat is advised. For elephants in general, when they are eager and shaking their heads, the low seat is advised. There were specific terms for seats depending on the postures while seated on an elephant. For example the text mentions that when one leg is stretched out and the other bent at the knee, wise men say it is pāścātyapada. If one knee is bent, that seat is ekajānuga.[20] The seat when two legs are stretched out and knees (of the other two) are bent, that uneven seat of the elephant is known as Utkaṭa. The Kūrma and the Utkaṭa, are mentioned as agile. When two knees are drawn up by both the sides of the body, that is maṇḍūkāsana, it is high and appreciated in case of a battle. When one leg is brought up to the neck and the other bent at the knee, that which a man does on the back is Kūrmāsana, Kūrma and Utkaṭa.[21] The various signs of the seats mentioned in the texts are as follows. There are three seats in front and five at the back. The best seat is between the neck and the back hump. The medium seat is on top of the back hump. The inferior seat is laid to be below the shoulders. The best seat is to be known on the elephant with a raised front part. The medium seat is prescribed to the elephant with level front. The inferior seat as prescribed on an elephant with a low front. The best seat is for the Bhadra in boxing where the seat moves.The inferior seat is for the Mṛga with uneven shoulders when it shakes its head, when there are wounds on its shoulders, and in controlling and directing (it). In the Manda with its long body and neck, there should be the medium seat. In blended types, the three said seats are prescribed.

Gajaśāstra gives detail of four ways of driving with goad and various methods of command elephants.There are four types of driving by the goad–first by Īṣatspṛṣṭa, second by Praṇidhāna, third by Pīḍana and fourth by Dṛḍhaghātana. Mere touching of the head with the goad is advised. The experts in driving know this as Īṣatspṛṣṭa. If the goad sinks half a finger into the elephant’s head, that is called Praṇidhāna. Shirking two to three fingers (into the elephant’s head) is called Pīḍitaka. Hitting head in anger with both hands is Dṛḍhaghātaka. When the goad is pushed forward, that is called Kṣipta. When it is drawn backwards, that is Atikṣipta (Pratikṣipta). When the goad is turned diagonally on both sides, the expert riders call it Pratoda. When it is raised and turned round and round, that is called Sṛṇisūkṣma. Training with the point of the goad is Ādiṣṭapraṇidhi.[22] The texts discusses in detail the signs of striking with the goad. The strike with the side of the goad is called tāḍita. Striking with the corner of the goad is known as toda.[23] Hitting by raising with both hands is known as utkṣiptaka. The lower part of the elephant’shead is ārakṣāwhere there are twelve kinds of strikes. On the top of the head is the head bumps, the central bump, vitānaka below that, and both sides outside the vitānaka are known as avagrahas. On the vitāna and the avagraha is the nidāna. The joint between the ear and the head is called śrotrasandhi.[24] Ahead of that is the karṇasandhi, behind that karṇamūlaka. To urge the elephant forward, one should pierce the forepart gradually. The strike at the base of the ear is called todanā by the experts. The goad should be applied at the vagraha and vitāna to urge the elephant backwards. Striking with the tip of the goad is called apakarṣa.[25] The elephant throws the strong rider, the rider throws the elephant, another takes it away with the stick, the weak is defeated[26]. Below we can see depiction of an aṅkuśa or elephant goad on a panel from Anuradhapura.

Elephant goad sculpture

[11. Elephant goad from a sculptural panel in Anuradhapura Sri Lanka. Courtesy: Susmita Basu Majumdar.]

If the elephant is hurt or injured due to the goad specific treatment are prescribed in texts. Gajaśāstra mentions ½ kuḍumba of crushed ink and one kuḍuba of ghee must be massaged on the head to heal wounds of the goad.[27]

Besides goad the texts also mention four other ways of guiding elephants with foot and three methods of directing with words. There are four types of driving with i.e. with the big toe, its centre, its lower part and the head. The elephant driver drives with both feet or pressing down a part on the side when it is to be (driven) forward. He should press hard with both big toes to send it forward. To make it draw back or stand still, press with the heels. He should strike the elephant with the foot to turn right. By touching with the left big toe, he should turn it from the right. If he wishes to make the elephant face downward, he should place his big toes down and press down with them. If the elephant wishes to make the elephant go up, he should raise its face upwards by touching with raised big toes.[28] There are specific terms for guiding an elephant by words. The first is Upalānana, the next Saṃjñāpanā, and the third, Santarjanā. For destroying the fear of the elephant and for appeasing his anger, the conciliation that is done with words is Upalālana. When the elephant does not understand the training by action, the driving that is done (with words) to indicate to it is called Saṃjñāpanā. If the elephant acts contrary, it should be reprimanded by words. That is called Santarjanā by the experts in elephant lore.[29]

Treatises like Mānasollāsa, Kalpanāratnam and many epigraphic references reveal that kings were completely aware about elephant science, training and so on. Arthaśāstra (Book 1, Chapter 5, V.12) clearly states that the art of training for using elephants, along with horses, chariots and weapons should be exercised by a prince in the first part of the day[30].

The texts also mention the various methods for mounting the elephant:

The texts divide the riders into three categories according to the marks, joints and power (of the elephant) they are: inferior, medium and excellent. The Best follows the will of the elephant, he is Rekhāvān. The one who follows his own will and the elephant’s is Yuktimān and the one that acts according to his own wit is Sattvavān. There are eight types of mounting and ten of dismounting–by both hind legs and both sides, with ropes, mounting by the face also dismounting.[31]

Qualities of the elephant-rider instructor:

Elephant riders or māhuts are of four kinds–

  1. Simple Māhuts,
  2. people who ride and own the elephant (māhut owners),
  3. māhut who own but do not ride the elephant (non-mahout owners) and
  4. people who are hired to ride the elephant (hired māhut).[32]

They also engage in taming the elephants. By the sixth century BCE the taming and domesticating of elephants became widely prevalent. Lord Buddha had an elephant; his brother Devadatta also possessed one. Buddha one day while trying his strength with an elephant, sized it by the trunk and threw it at some distance. The spot where the beast fail was turned into a well. The King Udayana had a huge elephant called “Nalāgiri”. Both he and Caṇḍa Pradyota had large elephant stables. They also had elaborate contrivance for capturing wild elephants.

The capturing and taming of wild elephants, the training of these animals for war, their treatment, etc.:

It is difficult to assume where did the idea originate? According to Shastri it may be Bengal which first subdued and tamed these huge beasts. The country which is bounded on the one side by the Himalaya and on two other sides by the Lauhitya and the Sea gave birth to what is called the “Hastividyā”, or the science about elephants. It was here that a great man (Pālakāpya) flourished, who from his childhood associated with elephants, moving, walking, living and eating with these beasts, nursing and treating them during their illness, serving them in every possible way, and, in a word, transforming himself into an elephant. He was, in turn loved, served and fed by these animals and nursed by them when he was ill.[33]

Footnotes and references:


Ibid., (atha gajaśāstrānubandhaḥ: atha gajaśikṣaṇam), p.148.


prākṛtābhiśca bhāṣābhiḥ deśabhāṣābhireva ca I Karmāvabodhakābhistu vāraṇaṃ pratibodhayet IIIbid., v. 4.


Ibid., v. 5.


Franklin Edgerton. tr. The Elephant-Lore of the Hindus, pp. 105 -112.


T. Ganapati Śāstri. ed. The Mātaṅgalīlā of Nīlakaṇṭha, p. 36. Franklin Edgerton. tr. The Elephant-Lore of the Hindus, p. 105.


Franklin Edgerton. tr. The Elephant-Lore of the Hindus, p. 105 and T. Ganapati Śāstri. ed. The Mātaṅgalīlā of Nīlakaṇṭha, pp. 36-37.


Ibid., pp. 105-106 and p. 37, respectively.


Ibid., p. 107and pp. 37-38, respectively.


Ibid., pp. 107-108 and p. 38, respectively.


Ibid., p. 108 and p. 38, respectively.


Ibid., pp. 108-109 and pp. 38-39, respectively.


Ibid., p. 109 and p. 39, respectively.


Ibid., p. 110 and p. 39, respectively.






Ibid., pp. 110-111 and p. 40, respectively.


., p. 111 and p. 40, respectively.


Shri Mantramurti K.S. Subrahmanyaśāstri. ed. &tr. (in Tamil), Gajaśāstra [Gaja-śāstram] of Pālakāpya muni with extracts from other works and Coloured Illustrations, p. 105.




Ibid., v. 5-8, p.106.


Ibid., v. 8-12, pp. 106-107.


Ibid., v. 13-19, pp. 107-108.


Ibid., v. 144, p. 127.


, v. 145-147, p. 128.


Ibid., v. 148-150.


Ibid., v. 150-151.


Shri Mantramurti K.S. Subrahmanyaśāstri. ed. &tr. (in Tamil), Gajaśāstra [Gaja-śāstram] of Pālakāpya muni with extracts from other works and Coloured Illustrations, (atha gajaśāstrānubandhaḥ: atha gajahāropayuktapadārthaguṇapramāṇabidhiḥ), v. 10, p. 178.


Ibid., (daśamaṃ prakaraṇaṃ: atha pādapraṇidhayaḥ), v.20-25, pp. 108-109.


Ibid., (daśamaṃ prakaraṇaṃ:atha vākpraṇidhayaḥ), v. 26-29, pp. 109-110.


R.P. Kangle. tr. The Kauṭilīya Arthaśāstra, Part II, p. 12.


Shri Mantramurti K.S. Subrahmanyaśāstri. ed. &tr. (in Tamil), Gajaśāstra [Gaja-śāstram] of Pālakāpya muni with extracts from other works and Coloured Illustrations, (atha gajaśāstrānubandhaḥ: atha gajārohaṇalakṣaṇam), v. 1-5, p. 149.


J. Schliesinger. Elephants in Thailand, Through the Ages, Vol.2, Bangkok: White Lotus Co. Ltd., 2012, p.10.


Haraprasad Shastri. ‘Contributions of Bengal to Hindu Civilization’, Journal of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society, Vol. 5, Part III, 1919, p. 310.

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: