372 pages, 42 b/w photos and b/w illustrations, 1 table
Because of their enormous size, elephants have long been irresistible for kings as symbols of their eminence. In early civilizations – such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Civilization, and China – kings used elephants for royal sacrifice, spectacular hunts, public display of live captives, or the conspicuous consumption of ivory – all of them tending toward the elephant's extinction. The kings of India, however, as Thomas R Trautmann shows in this study, found a use for elephants that actually helped preserve their habitat and numbers in the wild: war.
Trautmann traces the history of the war elephant in India and the spread of the institution to the West – where elephants took part in some of the greatest wars of antiquity – and Southeast Asia (but not China, significantly), a history that spans 3,000 years and a considerable part of the globe, from Spain to Java. He shows that because elephants eat such massive quantities of food, it was uneconomic to raise them from birth. Rather, in a unique form of domestication, Indian kings captured wild adults and trained them, one by one, through millennia. Kings were thus compelled to protect wild elephants from hunters and elephant forests from being cut down. By taking a wide-angle view of human-elephant relations, Trautmann throws into relief the structure of India's environmental history and the reasons for the persistence of wild elephants in its forests.
"With substantial and wide-ranging scholarship, Trautmann lucidly presents the elephant's history in India, illuminating the important role of the war elephant and its powerful links to Indian kingship. The result is a unique and original work."
– Rachel Dwyer, SOAS, University of London and author of Bollywood's India
"In Elephants and Kings, Trautmann's singular range of erudition traces the military, political, and cultural roles of royal war elephants from their origins in ancient India across the wide region from the Mediterranean through Southeast Asia. Graceful prose, startling insights, and beautiful illustrations mark this extraordinary fusion of political and environmental history."
– Richard P. Tucker, author of A Forest History of India
"Elephants may be ubiquitous across cultures of Southern Asia, but their presence has a literal and metaphorical past that may hold clues to their continued survival in these often densely populated lands. Trautman's tour de force spans much of Asia, and his story stretches into the Egypt of the Ptolemeys. At its core is the story of three millennia of taming and centuries of honing this huge animal as a war machine. India emerges at the center of the story for its pioneering role in elephant taming, keeping, and its royal protection of elephant forests over two thousand years ago. No reader will ever view the animal or its human benefactors (or exploiters) again without reference to this fascinating work."
– Mahesh Rangarajan, author of India's Wildlife History
"The elephant in Asia is remembered as a royal mount, but it was more effectively used as a crucial constituent of the army, not to be replaced until many centuries later by artillery. Trautmann, drawing on his impressive and extensive scholarship, provides a unique perspective of the Indian past, analyzing the connection between kingship, the elephant in warfare, and the environment."
– Romila Thapar, author of The Past as Present
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Thomas R. Trautmann is professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of many books, including Dravidian Kinship, Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship, Aryans and British India, and India: Brief History of a Civilization.