Elephants at Sonepur Fair, Bihar, 1952

May 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

The annual fall cattle fair at Sonepur draws thousands of buyers and sellers from all over India. Although the sale of elephants is officially illegal, they still change hands.These photos are from a 1952 LIFE magazine photo story.

The Ivory Palisade

May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

War Elephant frieze-Hampi

“sicut quadripedum cum primis esse videmus
in genere anguimanus elephantos, India quorum
milibus e multis vallo munitur eburno,
ut penitus nequeat penetrari:
tanta ferarum
vis est,
quarum nos perpauca exempla videmus.”

“We see that in classes of quadrupeds,
above all with snake-handed elephants,
whose many thousands keep India fenced in
 with an ivory wall,
so there is no way 
one can move into its interior—
that’s how numerous those wild creatures are.
Yet we see very few examples of them.”
-Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book II

“The ivory wall defending India has been interpreted as 1) a legend referring to an actual wall of ivory or a living barrier of elephants 2) an exaggeration of the practice of using elephant tusks as palings or incorporating them into buildings 3) a metaphorical allusion to the use of elephants in warfare.”
-Robert Brown, Classical Philology, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Oct., 1991) Chicago

Rama going into Battle

Mammoth Bone House

Ivory Wall

Gods in Chains

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Elephants have a long history of use in temples. However, their roles in most temples have changed significantly over time. Hundreds of years ago when elephants were used in warfare, they were kept in temples -in between battles- as symbols of strength and victory. The practical decision to keep elephants in temples when they were not used led to the cultural and religious belief that elephants were an essential part of Kerala’s historical culture. People began to donate them to temples as symbols of one of the most popular Hindu deities, Lord Ganapati. Now even temples that have no relation to Lord Ganapati keep elephants: they are looked upon as symbols of status by the temples to encourage more donations. In recent years, churches and mosques have also started using elephants at major occasions. Politicians often donate elephants to boost approval ratings. Temples in Kerala have significantly more elephants that anywhere else in India. The nationally renowned Guruvayoor temple houses 63 elephants, all given as gifts. The area around Thrissur in Kerala has over 500 temples, with approximately 250 captive elephants available for functions. Each temple has 2-5 major festivals between November and May, resulting in a strong demand for pachyderms.”

Rhea Ghosh, Gods in Chains

“Whenever we speak about elephants, we invariably take pride in the long cultural relationship between elephant and people in the country. There is no other example of a relationship between an animal and humans that is so remarkable for its splendor and contrast, of an animal that has been slaughtered and, at the same time, deified. This relationship goes back at least 4000 years to the Harappan period and almost certainly beyond.”

“To shackle such a god, to illtreat it or, worse, to ignore its plight would be a tragedy that history would not forgive our nation.”

Raman Sukumar, from the forward to Gods in Chains, Rhea Ghosh

Photo by Vinoth Chandar

Shiva and Dionysus

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Herodotus writes that India, the most remote, fantastical and climatically harsh place on Earth, is the nation that lies farthest to the east, and that beyond it lies desert, a wasteland of giant ants but abundant gold. While Roman writers would associate the Greek god Dionysus with the Hindu Shiva, Herodotus, though he writes nothing about Indian deities, establishes the possibility of an intermediary figure between Dionysus and Shiva: the Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris. He states that Dionysus is called Osiris in Egypt, is believed to rule the underworld, and is the only deity other than Isis who is worshiped throughout Egypt, and that his son, Horus, is Apollo.” (1)
“Several classical European authors even believed that such ‘Hindu’ ideas as metempsychosis [that the souls of animals travel into the bodies of other animals after death] had been brought back to Europe by the Greek gods themselves. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and mystical ecstasy was purported to have journeyed to India, subdued the Aryan and Dravidian peoples, absorbed their philosophies, and returned to Europe with their chief ideas. Euripides describes Dionysus in Bacchae (406 B.C.) as a provider of knowledge and the conqueror of Arabia, Persia and Bactria”. (2)
“The triumphal march of Dionysus (or Bacchus, as he was generally known in Rome) through the lands of India was equated in Roman thought with the triumph of the deceased over death. His mythical victorious return from India on an elephant’s back, or in a chariot drawn by elephants, was shown in sculpted sarcophagi. Since Dionysiac processions symbolically reflected the joy of victory over death, the presence of elephants, which were believed to be favorites of the Sun-god gave further point to the triumph of light over darkness.” (3)

(1) Cowan R. The Indo-German Identification: Reconciling South Asian Origins and European Destinies, 1765-1885.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Scullard H.H. The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World.
Images:  Shiva, contemporary chromolithograph; Bacchus, Caravaggio, c.1595; Sarcophagus, Roman, c.190

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