“Whoever kills an elephant shall be put to death,” according to an injunction by the chief Brahmin of Emperor Chandragupta’s court in the third century B.C., a penalty which vividly conveys the historical significance of “tuskers,” and presages the enduring impact of the elephant on so many facets of Indian traditions and customs. In this instance, the severity of punishment was based on the military importance of elephants in wars and battles.
Elephas Maximus, the Indian (or more commonly, owing to its geographical distribution, the Asian) elephant, has been a lifelong fascination for author Stephen Alter, who was born and raised in India. Writing from the position of Writer-In- Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he brings an illuminating Westerner’s perspective to the topic, which complements his layperson, non- scientific approach. Funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, he traveled throughout India during 2001-2002 to gather material for this thoughtful and impressive homage to an animal that has been revered for thousands of years.
The familiar notion of elephants as working beasts, whether hauling logs or serving as transportation for tiger hunters, is supplemented with detailed firsthand descriptions of the elephants’ role in public ceremonies and weddings. It is considered good luck, and a status symbol for the nouveau riche, to have an elephant present at a wedding, and elephants painted with many...
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