Elephants in Art, Architecture and History of Orissa, Part 2


BY: SUN STAFF - 12.2 2020

Elephant and giraffe in the royal court Sun Temple, Konarka
Orissa, 13th century AD

The last in a two-part exploration of the importance of elephants in Orissan art and religious culture, by Debabrata Swain.

The earliest representation of Ganesha seems to be that of the Amaravati coping (Maharashtra) and it is, therefore, highly probable that sometime about the 1st century AD the figure of Ganesha was improvised by some artist in the south (Sen, supra). The extant reliefs and single sculptures of Ganesha give us an idea about the iconography and typical Orissan mode of representation (Behera, 1983).

Ganesha usually appears as a Parswadevata in Siva temples and his depiction without Mooshika, his carrier mouse, seems to be an earlier convention. Panigrahi (1961) states that the mouse as the distinctive feature of Ganesha first occurred in the Mukteswara Temple of Bhubaneswar, which was probably constructed not later than the first half of the 11th century AD. But Ganesh's mouse vahana is not known to have been associated with the South Indian images of Ganesha before the 12th century AD (Sen, 1972).


Kharavela, the mighty ruler of Kalinga (1st century BC), had a large army consisting of cavalry and elephants. With his mighty forces, Kharavela could extend the territory of Kalinga from the River Ganga to River Godavari as evident from the Hatigumpha (elephant cave) inscription in the Udaygiri hill near Bhubaneswar. The monarchs of Kalinga, on account of their large elephant army, were styled in their inscriptions as 'Gajapati' or Lord of Elephants'.

Das (1986) states that Chodaganga Deva (1078-1150 AD), the founder father of the imperial Ganga dynasty of Kalinga, is styled as Nava navati sahasra kunjaradhiswara (Lord of ninety-nine thousand elephants) and Kapilendra Deva (1435-1467 AD), the founder of the Gajapati dynasty, inherited two hundred thousand elephants at the time of his accession to the throne.

In the Arthashastra of Kautilya (c. 300 BC) the elephants of Kalinga are admired as the best of the type in India. For at least seven centuries after Kharavela there is no account of the historical events of Orissa. Yuan Chwang, the Chinese pilgrim, visited Orissa and the neighbouring countries in AD 639. It appears from his account that Kalinga produced large dark elephants, which were prized in the neighbouring countries (Panigrahi, 1986). The Muslim geographers of the ninth and tenth century AD also testify that large elephants were one of the chief commodities of trade in Orissa of the Bhauma period (AD 736- 940).

The geographical work of Ibn Khurdahbih (9th century AD) mentions that elephants were carried in fresh water (evidently the rivers) to the samudra (sea) from places 15-20 days distant from the latter. Ibn Rusta, another Arab geographer who completed his geography in AD 920, also speaks of Orissan elephants as the tallest elephants of the region.

The latest Muslim geographer, the anonymous writer of Hudud-alalam, who began his work in AD 982-983 for Abul Harith Muhamad Iban Ahmad, Prince of the province Guzgan or Guzganan which lies in the northwestern part of present day Afghanistan, mentions about Orissa, "Extremely large elephants are found there, such as in no other place of India" (Panigrahi, supra).

Two elephant guards in front of Ganesh gumpha
Udayagiri caves, Bhubaneswar, Orissa

Elephants of Orissa were so much prized that in AD 1353, Shamsud'-din llyas Shah invaded Orissa and he retreated only after obtaining a few elephants. In AD 1361 Sultan Firuz Shah Tughluq invaded the Ganga Kingdom during the reign of Bhanudeva III. The Sultan concluded his victorious campaign by an elephant hunt at Padmatola in old Baramba State. Bhanudeva III made a treaty with the Sultan by offering twenty big elephants and agreeing to supply annually to the Sultan a number of elephants as an annual tribute (Panigrahi, supra).

During the reign of Bhanudeva IV (AD 1414-1434), the son of Bhanudeva III, Orissa was raided many times by outsiders to obtain elephants. Citing Muslim chronicles, Panigrahi (supra) stated that Hushang Shah, the Sultan of Malwa, was in need of elephants for his war with Gujarat, and since Orissa was the fabled country of the best elephants, he led an expedition to it in the guise of a dealer in horses. The Sultan brought with him horses of different colours which the king of Orissa prized most. When Bhanudeva IV with a small band of followers wanted to examine the horses brought by Hushang Shah, the King of Orissa was treacherously seized and made captive and was not released till he promised to give the Sultan some of his best elephants.

A rough survey indicates that about 50% of the people of Orissa still bear military titles. The title 'Sahani' was given to the commander of the elephant force and is in vogue to this day (Panigrahi, supra). Another interesting fact we find from history (Trautmann, 1982) is that Orissa was importing elephants from Sri Lanka during the Mauryan period (3rd century BC). At the same time, we learn from the records of various historical events that elephants were being exported from Orissa. The import of elephants in the third century BC can be explained by the fact that the demand of elephants by the Orissan army was so large that it could not be met from local sources.


There are two war literatures in Orissa, one of Sarala Dasa and the other of Godavara Mishra, which furnish information on the military system of the Gajapati kings. Sarala Dasa, a contemporary of Kapilendra Deva (AD 1435- 1467), has sincerely attempted to depict the role of elephantry and other wings of the military in his Oriya war literature, named the Mahabharata.

The Harihara Chaturanga of Godavara Mishra is more explicit and systematic than the earlier text of Sarala Dasa. The author was a minister under Prataprudra Deva (AD 1497-1540). In the first chapter the author stresses the importance of elephants in a battle. The poet writes in Sanskrit:

Sahi raja yasya chambah sa tamuryatra hastinah,
Tasmattam vibhriydraja yuddhyogya guna vatah

He is verily the king who has an army and that indeed the army which comprises elephants. Hence the King with qualitative disposition should possess an army capable of encounter.

Rastriyatha sasankena youvanena yatha striyah
Tatha sena gajendrana taya raja cha sobhate

A king shines forth with the army, comprising elephants, as the night is pleasant with the moon and as the women in youth.

The poet also went further to prescribe the methods of capturing, taming and maintaining elephants for the purpose of war. The entire chapter containing 813 hymns is devoted to discussing elephants and their use in the army. Brundabana Nathasharma, a renowned writer of Deogarh in Western Orissa, wrote a series of essays on elephants and elephantology in a weekly, Sambalpur Hitaisini, published from 1889 to 1923. Nathasharma's article on Hastitatwa (elephantology) was published in different issues of the above weekly in 1908. He has cited lucidly in Oriya the names given to the elephant in Indian literature, the categories of war elephants, elephant riding techniques, white elephants, foreign names of elephants, size of elephants, musth in elephants, etc. He also said that twice the circumference of a front foot gives the height of an elephant (Nathasharma, 1908a,b,c; 1909a,b,c).

The Story of Udayana and Vasandatta in the Ganesh Gumpha
Udayagiri caves, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, 1st century BC


Sanskrit literature describes five methods of capturing elephants, in the following order of desirability from most to least (Stracey, 1963):

(i) Stockades or kheda;
(ii) by means of female decoys;
(iii) mela-shikars or noosing from the back of a trained elephant;
(iv) by nooses concealed on the ground; and
(v) by the pit method. These methods were developed over a period of time and became peculiar to particular geographical regions of the country.

All forms of capturing elephants were practised in Orissa, as per available records. The stockade or kheda used to be the most widely used method to capture elephants. Stracey (Supra) reports that Meghasthenes (400 BC) was the first to record a clear account of the kheda method of capturing elephants as practised in northern India in those days, probably in what is now South Bihar (Jharkhand) and neighbouring Orissa. Capturing elephants in a kheda was once a royal sport in India and this ancient game of the kings is mentioned in the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Kheda scenes are graphically depicted in the carvings on the walls of the Konarka temple. In one scene, men mounted on horses and tame elephants and on foot are driving a herd of wild elephants by beating drums, blowing trumpets and shouting. The herd consists mostly of elephant female with calves. The herd has been driven into a large enclosure. This shows that King Narasingha Deva, the Ganga ruler of Orissa, who built the temple of Konarka, used to have khedas conducted in the 13th century AD. [ ]

Cobden Ramsay (1910) reports that in the Southeast of the Athmallik feudatory state, a tract of forest was reserved for elephant catching operations. The chief of the state conducted elephant catching operations generally about every third year. The catches did not usually average more than ten to fifteen animals. The tract is still called the Hatidhara (meaning 'elephant catching') reserved forest, which adjoins the Satkosia - Baisipalli wildlife sanctuary and still harbours a few elephants.


Specimens of ivory work discovered at Harappa and Mahenjodaro show that ivory craftwork was already well developed in India as early as five thousand years ago (Bedi, 1969). Two ivory carvings discovered outside India are a mirror handle, recovered from the volcanic ash of Pompeii, Italy, and a plaque, discovered in a cache at Begram, Afghanisthan (Craven, 1976). Both these carvings are traced to the Andhran sculpture of the 1st century BC to 1st century AD. These discoveries indicate a sea trade route flowing from India through Alexandria in Egypt and ultimately to Rome on the one hand, and on the other to a land based trade route to Central Asia, which joined the Chinese Silk Road with Indian trade centres and seaports in the Deccan.

Orissan art had reached a very high level of excellence in its ivory work and according to Sukumar (1989), the best quality of ivory is reported to have come from the elephants of Orissa. It is said that the Kalinga (Orissa) King had presented a large quantity of high quality ivory to the Pandavas (Acharya, 1925).

In 1953, the then ruler of Talcher killed a rogue elephant in the Dhenkanal forest, which measured 3.3m (11 feet) in height at the shoulder (Behura, 1990; Stracey, 1963). Each of its tusks weighed 41.73 kg and measured 2.59 m. in length outside the curve. In 1903, the then ruler of Kaptipada had presented two pieces of tusks to his lawyer at Cuttack, Ray Hariballabh Bose, weighing 111 kg. (3 maunds), one being 2.4 m. (8') and the other 2.36 m. (7'9") outside the curve, the girth at the base being 45.72 cm. (18") for both. It was estimated to be worth 40 to 50 thousand rupees in England at that time when gold per Tola (11 gm) was Rs.24.69 (Rs.24 and eleven annas) and the rate of rice was 13 seers (12 kg) per rupee (Anonymous, 1903).

In ancient times, craftsmen working in ivory were employed in royal palaces to inlay thrones, couches and other furniture with ivory. In the first year of his reign emperor Purusottam Deva (AD 1467-1497) of Orissa had presented ivory couches along with other articles of luxury to the Temple of Lord Jagannath (Panigrahi, 1986). Cobden Ramsay (1910) observes that one or two families in Dhenkanal and Nayagarh made ivory work of high quality. They manufactured chains, buttons, sticks and statues of fine-workmanship, all of ivory.


Orissa was also earlier named Utkal, besides being variously known as Kalinga, Tosali, Koshala, etc., and was a place where art and architecture had reached the epitome of its glory. In dealing with the aesthetic side of visual art, it has been noticed that the finer quality of plastic or pictorial representations of any period solely depends on the inborn faculties of a genius or a group of talented people concerned, who might not have come in contact with other cultural developments.

Sen (1972) opines that the surprising representations of animals in the cave paintings of Europe and other parts of the world belonging to the prehistoric age testify to this statement. The minute observations of, and love for nature are the essential qualities of an artist, which guide his creative faculties. In the great sculptors of Orissa, the then Kalinga had observed animals in nature and applied their technical knowledge, achieved through the centuries, to the animal motifs depicted on the walls of temples and caves.

The preponderance of elephant motifs on the railings of temples shows a cultural and religious association of people with the animal, and their availability in plenty both in the wild and in captivity. It is really surprising that while Kapilendra Deva (15th century AD) had two hundred thousand tamed elephants, the present wild elephant population of Orissa has come down to less than two thousand only.

According to an elephant census of 2002, 1,841 elephants of Orissa are now confined to the rugged hilly terrain of the Mayurbhanj, Baleswar, Kendujhar, Jajpur, Sundargarh, Deogarh, Sambalpur, Angul, Nayagarh, Boudh, Cuttack, Dhenkanal, Khurda, Kalahandi, Kandhamala, Rayagada, Gajapati and Ganjam districts, where human land development is slow and tardy. The elephant habitats are subject to human pressure, monoculture plantations, annual fires, mining, encroachments, shifting cultivations, poaching and processes of developmental activities (Swain, 2004).

Because of the gap in demand and supply of forest resources and suitability of elephant lands for shifting cultivation, mining and other developmental activities, we are destined to lose the elephants in a few years' time if no tangible actions are taken now to save their habitats. Reserves are being created and developed for these majestic creatures, which have played such an important role in the art, architecture and history of India.



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Source: Orissa Review