An Asian Bestiary | Elephant
SHIELD
Catalog No: 70.0/ 3464
Elephants were first used in warfare in India over 2,000 years ago, a practice that spread both east and west. Hundreds of Indian Elephants (Elephas maximus), massed at the front, trampled and terrified the enemy, until guns and artillery appeared in the 15th century. During the Mughal Empire, elephants served as high platforms from which generals could observe the course of battle in all directions and give visual direction and reassurance to their soldiers. Elephants also served as a magnificent symbol of a ruler’s strength and power. They were painted with designs and wore armor and weapons, including swords that fastened onto their tusks. In the 18th century, more powerful guns and cannons forced elephants to retire from battle in India but armies kept them to carry heavy weapons and supplies.

This shield, made of an elephant’s thick skin, would be held by a warrior who passed his arm through two cloth loops on the inside.
FIGURE, ELEPHANT WITH RIDER AND LOG
Catalog No: 70.0/ 6345 AB
This figure illustrates the kind of labor performed by tamed elephants in the rainforests of Thailand, deploying their immense strength to drag entire trees out of areas without roads. A century ago, more than sixty percent of Thailand was covered with forests full of teak and other valuable trees. An estimated 100,000 wild elephants lived in these forests at this time. Since elephants do not breed well in captivity, these worker elephants were either wild elephants that had been captured and tamed, or the offspring of tamed females and wild males. Currently it is estimated that there are fewer than 2,400 wild elephants left in Thailand. Logging is closely controlled in Thailand, and Thai organizations dedicated to elephant conservation are proliferating. Elephants draw large numbers of tourists to special centers where they can interact with and learn more about them.
 
ELEPHANT HOOK (RELIEF DECORATION)
Catalog No: 70.0/ 8727
This simple tool is used hundreds of times a day by a mahout, or elephant driver. The mahout sits astride the elephant’s neck and guides it by pressing his toes into the crease behind the elephant’s large and sensitive ears. As he rides, the mahout holds the elephant hook in his right hand to lift and push away branches, reinforce directions, gain the attention of a stubborn elephant, or to gently scratch an elephant’s itch. Traditionally, each elephant had his or her own mahout and many mahouts have described the love they felt for their elephant, and the love their elephant returned.

Because the elephant hook or ankus (from Sanskrit, ankusha) is used to control huge and powerful elephants, it also has important symbolic meanings in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions. In Buddhism the mind is often compared to a wild elephant, trampling in all directions, while the ankus represents calming and subduing the mind.
MASK
Catalog No: 70.2/ 6517
This mask – part of a collection used to stage the epic Ramayana – depicts the Hindu god Ganesha, who is widely known and popularly worshipped in South and Southeast Asia. Although he has a human body, Ganesha has the head of an elephant. The god Shiva rejoined his wife, the mountain goddess Parvati, after a long absence, and, failing to recognize their son, beheaded him when the lad refused him entry to Parvati’s chamber. Shiva promised to replace his son’s head with that of the first creature he saw and almost immediately, a majestic elephant came out of the forest and presented himself to the god. Living elephants are associated with Ganesha, while the god himself is credited with the sagacity and ability to overcome obstacles ascribed to elephants.

Masked dance dramas are an important religious expression in India and Nepal. When he puts on the mask, the dancer assumes the deity’s “face;” the deity is embodied by the dancer who receives offerings and veneration.
 
WOODBLOCK PRINT, LADIES TRUNG ON ELEPHANT
Catalog No: 70.3/ 5710 A21
The Ladies Trung (Hai Ba Trung) are revered in Vietnam for their resistance to Chinese occupation. According to legend, they were sisters who lived in the 1st century CE, noblewomen by birth who grew up brave and skilled in the martial arts including riding war elephants. Commanding an army of 80,000, many of them women (including 36 generals), they successfully resisted Chinese incursions for three years. In Vietnam today, the Trung sisters are celebrated as national heroines, venerated in temples, and with streets and schools named in their honor; their festival coincides with Vietnamese National Women’s Day.

This print was made in Dong Ho village, near Hanoi, a place now recognized as a World Heritage site for woodblock printing. The paper is handmade from the bark of the do tree, which is sometimes given a coating of ground white shells to make a bright and glittering background.
 
If the format of any material on the website interferes with your ability to access that material, please contact us at accessibility@amnh.org.