Elephants...a special sight for most Indians still, these majestic animals appear to have fallen out of favour in more elite circles. Many critics now routinely carp at India being commonly characterized as a ‘lumbering elephant’. This label may be traced to media reports from the late 1970s, when several South East Asian nations began rapidly industrializing, and China began its ascent to economic superstardom. Experts soon began conjuring up an entire menagerie of beast metaphors. Booming East Asian ‘tiger economies’ were contrasted with a ‘slow’ Indian ‘elephant’, hobbled by its infamous ‘Hindu rate of growth’. Thirty years later, much is now made of competition between a roaring Indian economy and the mighty Chinese ‘dragon’. Many feel a tiger would now be a better symbol for a new India. Such angst is misplaced. For a nation vast in every way, the elephant metaphor is apt. Besides, while the elephant is a substantial reality, the dragon is a mythical creature — an appropriate comment on some of China’s economic statistics?
Unlike the larger African elephant, fiercer and notoriously untamable, the Indian elephant (elephas maximus indicus) — distinguished by its smaller ears and prominent forehead — has always been easier to domesticate. That’s largely why it has had a special hold on the subcontinent’s collective imagination. Mythology, religious tradition and history here positively abound with distinctive elephant motifs — usually representing divinity, strength and fortitude. One strain of divinity leads to Ganesha, elephant-headed destroyer of obstacles and lord of good beginnings. Pot-bellied with a taste for sweets, and granted a rat as vahana, Ganesha’s symbolism is as diverse as his many depictions. The elephant and the rat denote the overcoming of opposites — a richly meaningful theme in Hindu tradition. Not surprisingly, Ganapati is one of India’s most popular deities. Elephants are everywhere in other Hindu myths too. Lakshmi is often depicted with elephants, hence Gajalakshmi. Airavat, Indra’s winged white, four-tusked vahana, was one of eight ashtadikpalakas created by Brahma from a ball of mud to guard various celestial realms. In one account, crimes of passion — involving the usual mix of comely apsaras, angry sages and guilty gods — led to a fall and the elephant’s arrival on earthly planes. The Mahabharata, greatest of Indian epics, is stuffed with the elephant motif. Ganesha, legend holds, played scribe to Vyasa — using a pen fashioned from his tusk. Mighty Bheema’s strength is often compared to many elephants. And, in Indian literature’s most infamous instance of distortion of fact, it is the death of an elephant named Ashvathama that enables the slaying of Dronacharya, leaving an indelible blot on Yudhishtira’s legendary truthfulness. Buddhism greatly reveres the elephant too. Tradition has it that the Buddha was conceived in a dream in which his mother was pierced by a white elephant with six tusks. Previous incarnations of the Bodhisattva were also born as elephants — a major reason Buddhist literature and art frequently depict elephants as symbolizing wisdom, steadfastness and strength. Grey elephants are said to symbolize an aspect of the untrained mind, unfocused and quick to anger; focused minds, trained in the dhammic tradition, are akin to white elephants. Worship has also made special place for elephants throughout much recorded history. Temple elephants are an old tradition in South India, where they’ve long been an integral part of everyday life. They may still be spotted on occasion, gently walking down old city lanes, offering blessings and receiving alms. In Kerala, annual displays of gloriously bedecked temple elephants are now a prominent tourist event. Mysore’s famous Dasara procession invokes a lineage that stretches back to the heyday of Vijayanagara. In addition to all the heavy lifting, elephants were also put to more martial work. Suited equally to the hunt and to most forms of warfare, they famously served virtually every major Indian ruler. The Western world first encountered real war elephants, famously, in 326 BC, when Alexander of Macedon waded across the Indus to fight Puru at Hydaspes. Those beasts left quite an impression, even in defeat. The tale goes that the Greek refusal to march on owed much to the prospect of facing more elephants in Magadha. The Greeks duly spread the word in Asia Minor and Europe. Indus Valley seals depict elephants, as do the Vedas, in dazzling verse. Ancient scholars, including Kautilya, wrote about their utility and majesty. A medical treatise, Palakapya’s Hastayayurveda, became a must-have user manual of sorts for ancient operators. Artists accorded the elephant a cherished place in Indian iconography, a tradition that continues till today. In battle they proved influential until, as with all weapons, technology overtook them. One skirmish in particular, at Panipat in 1526, brought about their slow retreat from Indian frontlines. Babur, shrewd general and ambitious conqueror, faced down a few hundred of Ibrahim Lodi’s elephants by scattering them with new artillery — a tactic he would use repeatedly. His descendants would do the same, even as they took to these noble animals and relished sport with them. Akbar so loved one of his pet elephants, Hiran, that he built for it a monument outside Fatehpur Sikri. Legend has it that Shah Jahan shifted Mughal India’s capital back to Delhi because his elaborate elephant processions could not wend their way through Agra’s narrow streets. That motif, of the elephant as a symbol of power in India, was an old and potent one that all invaders cottoned on to pretty quickly. They didn’t all ride elephants just to hunt tigers. It was a fact carefully noted by diligent English empire builders too. As one paladin after another swayed down boulevards in newly-built Indian cities, seated on elephants elaborately caparisoned in the local style, this motif was made amply clear to Indian masses: the British Raj was the new power astride the behemoth that was India. It was to be the last time such symbolism was invoked. Hathi Pull Independent India muted this motif and turned to regarding elephants as merely lovable beasts. The only major state-sponsored processions that take place today are at the Republic Day parade in Delhi. Children honoured for acts of bravery march down Rajpath on elephants, waving away. The 1980s were a good decade. TV brought wildlife programming into our living rooms, even if it was on DD. The IAF inducted the giant IL-76 transport aircraft and named it ‘Gajraj’. And Appu, a Guruvayur temple elephant, was chosen mascot for the 1982 Asian Games. His depiction as a cute dancing figure became a fond memory of that sporting event. Appu died in 2005, recalled in misty-eyed reports. Such elaborate symbolism is now in need of being recalled, since much appears to have been forgotten in western-inspired fussing about ‘slow’ and ‘lumbering’. Praised by Aristotle as “the beast that passeth all others in wit and mind”, a remarkably social animal, and justly venerated for its utility, the elephant is badly in need of an image makeover. Besides, as another Greek pointed out, slow and steady may not be such a bad idea in the long run. Naysayers may also look to this newspaper’s crest, where two elephants gently prop up a shield. The crest, for long, featured a pair of Britannic lions. Independence called for change. Elephants were probably an easy choice. Khalid haathivala couldn’t agree more. Such symbolism is not lost on him. “Sabse solid,” he smiles. His wards keep munching their fodder, their calm, stoic gaze firmly focused on the next bale.