Elephant - the Magnum opus of forests

Shri P. Biswas IFS (Rtd.)

May 4, 2021, 10:23:50   

Presence in our history & culture:

The natural history tells us that the Elephant had evolved in African continent long ago but stories centring Elephant (Indian elephant : Elephas maximus indicus) are more deeply imprinted in the mythology, history and culture of our country than in any other country of the world. The gait of elephant had not gone unnoticed by our ancestors and hence the Sanskrit statement, "Gajendra gaman" came into use to describe the majestic movement of the elephant.

To the Europeans who visited India for the first time, sighting an elephant was awe-inspiring experience them and the story about its gigantic size, power and elegant movement had spread so much through the words of mouth of these visitors that the Elephant and India became synonymous and inseparable. After discovery of the African continent, the European explorers ravaged its elephant population for reaping the precious ivory to satiate their greed, so much so, that a country known by Ivory Coast came into being. 
No wonder that the English people saw elephant much later otherwise the word "Horse power" would not have been evolved and rather the expression of strength would have been "Elephant power" instead!  The wonderful attributes of this power packed animal has thus been used to the hilt by man through ages in his journey of development.  

In our country, the elephant is a symbol of wealth and opulence. It is deeply engraved in our history & culture and this would be evident from our sculptures, paintings, seals & coins, many of which even date back to the period of Indus Valley Civilization. India has long history of domestication of elephant. There are many famous folklore and songs sung by people expressing their love towards elephant which reverberates in our ears which are very popular even today. This relationship of mutual love & affection has been immortalized by singer Pratima Baruah (and many others) in her Goalparia folksongs of Assam which are popularly crooned by people. 

The elephant is a very intelligent animal and its memory power is also very jagged. One legend has it that the primordial elephants could fly!  And while flying in the Himalayas this elephant had landed on a tree but due to its sheer weight the branches of the tree broke off and it fell on a sage's hermitage. The angry sage cursed the elephant and that's how the elephant lost its power of flight. Brahma, the God of creation took pity on learning this tale and created Palakapaya, a sage who was compassionate towards elephant. This sage is said to have lived in Pragjyotishpur (present day Kamrup district of Assam) and wandered in the forests with elephants as his companions. He knew the ailments that affected the elephants and their remedy. According to mythology & folklore, Airavata- the first elephant which was created followed by seven more elephants and they together formed what is known the Ashta-diggajah of the mythology that eight elephants in 8 directions have been holding and balancing the earth through their trunks !  The word "Dig-gajaha" in Sanskrit has been equated to the English word - Stalwart, which an elephant has come to be known since past. 

The importance of elephant in government functioning in the ancient time is clearly narrated in Kautilya's  'Arthashstra', the treatise  of the State-craft which refers to appointment of an Overseer to take charge of the elephant wealth of the state, to arrange for domestication & training. It recommended for creation of elephant reserves on the periphery of the State to be safeguarded through patrolling. Capital punishment used to be administered for killing/ stealing elephant. The Arthashstra also specified that the calves, females with young ones and suckling calves were not to be captured. By the end of 4th Century BC, the elephants replaced the chariots of royal mounts and were used in the army. The epics of Ramayana & Mahabharata described the statecraft of the society with Chaturang Bal consisting of elephants, chariots, cavalry & infantry as a standard portrayal of large army. The elephant was so much intertwined with our culture that it became the symbol of peace or non violence of Buddhism during the reign of Emperor Ashoka, the great !

Relationship with man

It is not known as to when and how man had first captured and tamed an elephant and put it for usage to his advantage but it is definitely a great feat for man with less physical power that he evolved prowess to tame an elephant after its capture. But ever since that period, the relationship between man and elephant is of great compassion. It was of love & affection and humans have used this prized possession to his advantage through ages. The mutual bond is such that even when there is depredation by elephant resulting in big loss of property & human life, the people by and large show restraint and it does not manifest into any wrath against such marauders rather they find more often rationalities for such destruction and depredation. Most of us grew up hearing the story of six blind men and elephant. Stories abound about wisdom of elephant and Jataka tales are full of it. These all point to one fact that life of people of our country since ancient time has revolved around elephant.


Mahut is that person who commands a captive elephant. We cannot think of a captive elephant without its mahut. The chemistry of this bond cannot be explained, it could only  be felt when we see the skill & dexterity with which all the movements of elephant are controlled by a man, who as a master has measly physical power compared to the animal he commands ! . This bond is of love and affection, has grown over centuries. We have a large population of family of mahuts who have passed on their skill of manoeuvring an elephant from father to son through ages. Mahut shares with elephant its feeling in a language which is implicitly understood by the animal only. 

Indian elephant 

The Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) is one of the 3 recognized sub-species of the Asian elephant which are native to mainland Asia. Since 1986, Elephas maximus has been listed as Endangered by IUCN as its population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations. Indian elephants are threatened by habitat loss, degradation and decimation and forest fire. Our elephants are smaller than African elephants in size and mass. The tip of their trunk has one finger-like proboscis. Their back is convex or level. The Indian elephants reach a shoulder height of between 2 m to 3.5 m weigh between 2,000 and 5,000 kg. Their skin color is lighter with smaller patches of de-pigmentation. Females are smaller than males, and have short or no tusk. Indian elephants are distinct with smaller ears, but relatively broader skulls and larger trunks than African elephants. Toes are large and broad. Unlike their African cousins, their abdomen is proportionate with their body weight but the African elephant has a large abdomen as compared to the skulls.


Comparison of extinct and existing forms of elephants gives us an insight into the great physical change that elephant has undergone through the long ages of evolution. It has been brought about largely due to migration to more conducive areas in search of feeds & forage and newer conditions that nature has imposed on it due to changes in climate and vegetation type. The modifications that elephant displays are seen in its acquiring great size which necessitated development of pillar like limbs to support enormous weight and volume of its body which eventually gave the shape of its pendant trunk for adaptation and survival.  Elephants are long range animals which graze and browse over a distance of 15 to 18 km a day with its long & strong limbs and being entirely herbivore in their forage habits , they are generalists and can adapt themselves to a wide range of vegetation types. While they are dependent on grass for the bulk of their diet in the deciduous forests which is dominated by pastures but they can also live almost entirely off- browse (of woody plants) and fruits in evergreen forests where grass is almost absent. Its process of digestion is rather poor and that’s why it needs to consume a lot to meet its nutritional requirement. An average adult elephant consumes about 300 kg of forage a day and it needs about 150 to 200 litres of water. 

While bulk of the time of elephant is spent on forage and feeding, water is also very important and critical resource without which the elephants cannot survive. In addition to water for drinking, the elephants also need water to cool them. It does not have sweat glands and so thermo-regulation is a problem for them especially in dry, hot and humid areas. They overcome this problem in a way which is unique to the elephant. Its large radiator like ears are constantly moved back and forth and with large network of blood vessels present in this fan-like structure, stirring helps in rich supply of blood which gets cooled by several degrees centigrade which is sent back to the body. Besides it goes for wallowing in mud water to cool itself. It also tosses sand, mud and dust into its body to keep it cool.  Incidentally the presence or absence of elephant in a forest is an indicator of the health of the forests and thus its presence in large herds indicates healthy forest ecosystem.


Elephants have large heads and their ears are located far apart. And as the distance between the ears increases, its ability to hear low frequency sound also increases. It enables the elephant to hear low frequency sounds which are not audible to human ear. Their range of hearing and vocalization extends from infra-sound to the sounds audible to human ear. Infra-sound is carried over long distance and so it largely explains how elephant clans with various sub-units scattered over large distance can communicate and remain in touch with each other. The elephants are also sensitive to smell and use the sensing of smell extensively for the purpose of communication.

Social organization & behaviour:

Elephant is very intelligent animal and its social bonding is unique. The role  of the individual in herd is defined and there is never a deviation from the accepted and universalization of the behaviour. The males are solitary while females live in herds and it is matriarchal. The oldest female is the head of the family and her writs are followed by every other females and calves. A family unit comprising of females and calves is the most stable unit comprising of the adult female leading it with all the offspring. And they tend to socialize with other family units and show a uniform movement pattern. Male elephant leads largely solitary lives and does not form any strong bond with other males or females. They associate temporarily with other males or females and mostly with females for the purpose of breeding. Elephants begin to learn its social behaviour at a very young age and living in close-knit social unit ensures that the entire herd together responds to the external threat.

Elephant population of Tripura:

Consolidated Administration Report for 1350, 1351 & 1352 T.E (1940-1943 A.D) of Tripura state of the time of Maharaja  is a testimony of existence of very large population of elephant in the state and an excerpt from the same is reproduced below:  

178.  In 1350 and in 1351 T.E. Kheda operations were undertaken as detailed below. But in 1352 T.E. owing to the emergent situation, no lease for kheda was granted.

179. Besides  the above, 11 more elephants were caught by what is known as Mela Shikar method in 1350 T.E. The total number of elephants caught in 1350 T.E was 60 against 5 only in 1351 T.E.

It is thus evident that Tripura has long history of its association with elephant. Capital city Agartala has many people who would vouch to have seen herds of elephants in College tilla areas of the city in the late fifties, which is now a bustling locality of the city. Interestingly, 'Dwal' is one such word, origin of it, however is not known, which means route of elephant. The locality, 'Bordowali' of Agartala is probably derived from this word which is likely to mean highway of elephant. There is a place called Mujaffarduwal in Kanchanpur sub Division which probably meant the way through which mahut Mujaffar used to move about with his elephant.  Long association with forests made us feel that Tripura has been fondly designed by God himself during leisure time. Its beautiful landscape dotted with lush green forests with large bamboo brakes is ideal habitat of elephant. The last wildlife census result tells us that Tripura has about 102* (* Synchronized population Census-2017) elephants and the number is increasing as calves are sighted to move about with the herd. But due to various anthropogenic disturbances this resource is under stress adversely affecting the wildlife & biodiversity resources. The habitat of elephant population is now restricted to only in parts of Atharamura (Twichingrambari areas) Baramura - Devtamura (Gandhari-Matrangabari) hill range areas with a traditional corridor in between which extends to the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh. Corridor is an important component in the life of elephant. It is crucial for having healthy population stock, breeding, growth & survival. So the responsibility lies with the management to leave territory frequented by elephants undisturbed to ensure healthy and vibrant population. 

By Shri P. Biswas IFS (Rtd.) Shri Biswas is a freelance writer and his articles are published in many scientific journals. Population  Census 2017. He  could be contacted in email id :

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