Elephants have always featured in Indic imagination from the early historic period. They are closely associated with the main Vedic deities and the Buddha and have been central to art in South Asia for over two millennia. Throughout history, elephants have been associated with wealth, power, prosperity and even divinity. Therefore, it is not surprising that elephants played an important role in diplomacy and war, both being different sides of the same coin.
Throughout history, elephants have been associated with wealth, power, prosperity and even divinity
This fascination with elephants extends till date and the noted historian of South Asia, Thomas Trautmann, recently authored a scholarly monograph called Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History, explaining the pragmatic and symbolic roles of elephants in the realms of economy, kingship, and war. Ninad Bedekar wrote a popular Marathi book, Gajakathā, where fifty stories of elephants from history and lore are narrated. While there are many depictions of elephants in paintings, from the Mughals to the later schools, Kota paintings are my personal favourite for elephants in action.
But there is another side. My research on the history of medieval Deccan has thrown up some interesting instances when ‘elephant diplomacy’ actually went wrong, triggering long, painful family feuds and even battles!
The first incident involved an elephant that belonged to a Maratha nobleman named Khandagale, who was in the service of the Nizam Shah of Ahmadnagar. This episode is narrated in the Shivabharata, the book on Chhatrapati Shivaji written by his court poet Kavindra Parmanand Govind Newaskar . The event occurred in a great Darbar presided over by the king, Murtaza Nizam Shah III (reg. 1610-1631 CE), at his capital Daulatabad, where all the important nobles of the court had come to pay obeisance to him.
An incident involving an elephant that belonged to a Maratha nobleman named Khandagale is narrated in the Shivabharata
The nobles arrived with their guards in great pomp and splendour on horses and elephants. Of the several families who were at the court and in attendance, were the paternal and maternal families of Chhatrapati Shivaji - the Bhonsales of Verul (Ellora, Aurangabad district) and the Jadhavs of Sindkhed Raja (Buldhana district) respectively. As they were leaving, the Maratha noble Khandagale’s elephant, probably excited by the crowds and sounds, ran amok killing several people. Dattaji Jadhav and his posse rushed to control the elephant, but his actions were misunderstood by several of the Bhonsale family members, who thought he was trying to attack Khandagale. The elephant was about to be slain when Khandagale appealed to Dattaji to spare the animal, but to no effect. As he was about to kill the elephant, Dattaji Jadhav himself died at the hands of Shahaji Bhonsale and some of his cousins who rushed into the conflict.
Now, Dattaji was the son of Lakhuji Jadhav, and the brother of Shahaji Bhonsale’s wife Jijabai. To avenge his son’s death, Lakhuji Jadhav led an assault on members of the Bhonsale family, wounded Shahaji Bhonsale, who was his own son-in-law and killed Shahaji’s cousin Sambhaji. Thus started a great feud between the two families, the Bhonsales and the Jadhavs, who were not only both important nobility at the court, but also related to each other by marriage.
Given that the king Murtaza Nizam Shah II and his powerful regent Malik Ambar were suspected of being sympathetic towards the Bhonsales, the Jadhav family left the service of the Nizam Shahs and was received with high honour at the Mughal court. Their suspicions were not unfounded - the Nizam Shah invited them back only to have Lakhuji Jadhav and his sons treacherously murdered.
Ironically, the elephant that started this episode survived and was witness to several of these events!
The other story from Maratha history which occurred a little over a hundred years later, is about an elephant that was gifted to the Siddis of Janjira, but became a bone of contention. The Siddi dynasty of Janjira played an important role in the history of Western Deccan. Their territorial holdings were small and even at the height of their power, it comprised only the island-fort of Janjira and the modern talukas of Murud, Shrivardhan, Mhasala and Tala. But size didn't matter. The Siddis were fiercely independent, and after the 1660s they were appointed as admirals of the Mughal navy, even as they maintained their own sovereignty.
An elephant that was gifted to the Siddis of Janjira became a bone of contention with the Marathas
The English, the Portuguese, the Siddis, and the Marathas (under the famed Admiral Kanhoji Angre) were the four naval powers off the west coast and each controlled their turf. Cartazes, dastaks, or other forms of passes were continuously issued to keep a check on each other and often battles raged, cargo was looted, and raids were conducted on each others' ships. There are also instances when pirates were enrolled to do the dirty work.
Interestingly, even in these divisive times there were common ties that linked these small kingdoms. The Marathas, the Siddis and even the Asaf Jah Nizams of Hyderabad, had a spiritual preceptor or guru called Brahmendra Swami, who was originally from Marathwada. He was based out of Dhavadshi, close to Satara.
The Marathas, the Siddis and even the Asaf Jah Nizams of Hyderabad, had a spiritual preceptor or guru called Brahmendra Swami
Now the Siddis were friendly with the Nawab of Savanur, a small state in present-day northern Karnataka. The Nawab wanted to gift the Siddi Sat an elephant, which would have to be transported to the territories of Janjira through Maratha lands. This would have been difficult to pull through so the Siddis turned to Brahmendra Swami for help. The Swami assured the Siddi king that the elephant would get a safe passage . Given this assurance, it was presumed that all would be well since the Marathas (the Chhatrapati Shahu, his prime minister the Peshwa, and the naval admiral Kanhoji Angre) all had great respect for the Swami. However, on the ground there was an issue. While the elephant managed to make its way, Angre’s officers confiscated the elephant in their territories on the pretext that the requisite permit was missing.
By the time Brahmendra Swami wrote to Kanhoji Angre and obtained his assurance that the elephant wouldn't be harmed, Siddi Sat had lost his patience and went on a rampage. Suspecting Angre and Brahmendra Swami of being in collusion to purloin his elephant, he destroyed several temples that were set up by Brahmendra Swami. His armies went on and killed people while looting the area.
As promised, the elephant was returned to the Siddi by the Swami who was unaware of the Siddi army's unwarranted actions. But when the Swami found out, he is said to have cursed the Siddi king. Within a few years, Siddi Sat was dead, fighting the Marathas.
Once again, the elephant was completely unaware of all the events that unfolded during its translocation.
The last known ‘failure’ of elephant diplomacy in western India was during the Prince of Wales' visit to Pune in 1875 CE. In true pomp, the Prince of Wales (Edward Albert) was made to sit on an elephant, in a howdah, as he made his way up the hill leading to the Parvati temple on top. The steps that lead to the top are designed with elephants in mind, and have an adequate tread to accommodate the footprints of the pachyderms. Yet, for reasons completely unknown, the elephant slipped and the Prince was almost displaced - unceremoniously. Some have even claimed this was poetic justice for the loss of Maratha power; the Peshwas had been removed from their seat of power in Pune in an equally brusque manner earlier in the nineteenth century.
That was the last time anyone rode up that hill on an elephant!
Pushkar Sohoni teaches at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune. He has lectured and written extensively about different aspects of the Deccan sultanates, including fortification and coinage.