2000 Years of Death By Elephant
A Symbol of Power
Since the dawn of time, mankind has devised new and more ingenious and painful ways to kill its enemies.
In South and Southeast Asia, most notably in India, execution by elephant was a common form of capital punishment.
Asian elephants were trained and versatile, capable of killing victims immediately or torturing them over a long period.
Elephants were often used as a symbol of royal authority and were often employed to torment captives in public executions. Elephants represented power, and their use sent the signal that the king could rule over very powerful and wild creatures who had no choice but to obey his commands, adding to the majesty of his position.
Elephants are still used as symbols of authority in many parts of Asia, Africa, and South America.
In many countries, including India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and China, white elephants are revered as sacred beings. White elephants are also found in the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Russia, and Afghanistan.
Elephants are used in numerous rituals and ceremonies across cultures. For example, an elephant may be used to represent a deity in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Shinto. Elephants are also used in funerals, weddings, and festivals.
African elephants, despite their bigger size than Asian elephants, have not been used as extensively in combat or ceremonial events by African nations as they have been by Asian ones.
Execution by Elephant
In ancient times, elephants were used for the transportation of goods and war. They were also used as a form of punishment and torture.
The intelligence, domesticability and adaptability of the elephant made it an ideal animal for executions. They could be trained to inflict pain on people in different ways and could be taught to prolong the suffering of the victim. Elephants were also useful because they didn’t need any special equipment to carry out their duties. They were easy to train and worked well when they got used to doing what you wanted them to do.
A driver or mahout kept the elephants under continual supervision, allowing a king to show last-minute mercy.
There were several methods by which elephants were trained to carry out executions, including torturing the victim to death slowly or killing them fast by treading on their heads. A criminal could be tied to an elephant and dragged around until the elephant decided to stop.
When an elephant was used to punish someone, the victim was tied down and forced to ride on its back while it was beaten. Sometimes, the elephant would be driven around until the victim died.
On one occasion, the Mughal Emperor Akbar was said to have had a man thrown to an elephant to suffer five days of torture before being pardoned.
The Siam (Thailand) kings had their elephants train to roll the offender “about the ground rather slowly so that he is not badly hurt“.
Elephants were also used in trial by ordeal, in which the condemned person was released if he managed not to be trampled by the elephant. Trial by ordeal was a long-ago legal procedure in which the suspect was put through an excruciating, hostile, and almost always dangerous experience to decide their guilt or innocence.
John Crawford described a similar scene in Cochinchina (modern-day Southern Vietnam), where elephants were used to execute criminals. He wrote that “the criminal is tied to a stake, and [Excellency’s favourite] elephant runs down upon him and crushes him to death.”
“This punishment is one of the most frightful that can possibly be imagined. The culprit, bound hand and foot, is fastened by a long cord, passed round his waist, to the elephant’s hind leg. The latter is urged into a rapid trot in the streets, and every step gives the cord a violent jerk, which makes the body of the condemned wretch bound on the pavement.
The only hope that remains for the unhappy man is to be killed by one of these shocks; if not, after traversing the city, he is released, and, by a refinement of cruelty, a glass of water is given him. Then his head is placed upon a stone, and the elephant executioner crushes it beneath his enormous foot.”
“The elephants which execute men have their tusks covered with sharp irons with edges like those of knives. The driver mounts the elephant, and, when a person is thrown in front, the animal winds his trunk round him, hurls him into the air, and catching him on one of his tusks, dashes him to the ground, when he places one of his feet on the breast of the victim.
After this, he does as he is directed by the rider, under the order of the Sultan. If the Sultan desires the culprit to be cut in pieces, the elephant executes the command by means of the irons above described; if the Sultan desires the victim to be left alone, the elephant leaves him on the ground, and (the body) is then stripped of its skin.”
The practice of Death by Elephant has also been used, to a certain degree, in the Western and African world, including Ancient Rome and Carthage, to deal with rebellious troops.
Geographical Range of Death by Elephant
Executions by elephants were first recorded during the Roman Empire in a process known as ‘Damatio ad bestias’ (“condemnation to the beasts”). These early accounts describe the execution of criminals by elephants, usually after the condemned had been tortured and killed. There are also records of the execution of prisoners of war by elephants in India during the same era.
During the Middle Ages, the Mongolian army employed elephants in a battle against enemy forces. After the fall of Baghdad in 1258, the Mongols captured thousands of prisoners, including Muslims, Christians and Jews. Many of these prisoners were executed by elephants. Some historians speculate that the practise may have originated in China, although there is no evidence of it before the late Ming Dynasty.
South and Southeast Asia
Historical records show that elephants have been employed in South and Southeast Asia to carry out executions, including in Burma, Malaysia, and Champa. In Siam, elephants were taught to hurl the condemned into the air before they were trampled to death by their weight.
“For Treason and Murder, the Elephant is the Executioner. The condemned Person is made fast to a Stake driven into the Ground for the Purpose, and the Elephant is brought to view him, and goes twice or thrice round him, and when the Elephant’s Keeper speaks to the monstrous Executioner, he twines his Trunk round the Person and Stake, and pulling the Stake from the Ground with great Violence, tosses the Man and the Stake into the Air, and in coming down, receives him on his Teeth, and making him off again, puts one of his fore Feet on the Carcase, and squeezes it flat”
For many years, elephants in India served as the preferred method of execution. Tax evaders, rebels, and enemy soldiers were all put to death under the foot of elephants by Hindu and Muslim kings.
At some point between 200 BC and 200 CE, according to the Hindu Manu Smriti, or Laws of Manu, an elephant might be used to punish certain crimes such as thievery.
It was in this vein that in 1305, the ruler of Delhi made the deaths of Mongol prisoners an act of public amusement when he had elephants trample them to death.
There have been many recorded incidents of death by elephants in Sri Lanka. One of those accounts is that of British diplomat Henry Charles Sirr in 1850:
“During the native dynasty it was the practice to train elephants to put criminals to death by trampling upon them, the creatures being taught to prolong the agony of the wretched sufferers by crushing the limbs, avoiding the vital parts. With the last tyrant king of Candy, this was a favourite mode of execution and as one of the elephant executioners was at the former capital during our sojourn there we were particularly anxious to test the creature’s sagacity and memory.
The animal was mottled and of enormous size, and was quietly standing there with his keeper seated upon his neck; the noble who accompanied us desired the man to dismount and stand on one side. The chief then gave the word of command, ordering the creature to ‘slay the wretch!’ The elephant raised his trunk, and twined it, as if around a human being; the creature then made motions as if he were depositing the man on the earth before him, then slowly raised his back foot, placing it alternately upon the spots where the limbs of the sufferer would have been.
This he continued to do for some minutes; then, as if satisfied that the bones must be crushed, the elephant raised his trunk high upon his head and stood motionless; the chief then ordered him to ‘complete his work,’ and the creature immediately placed one foot, as if upon the man’s abdomen, and the other upon his head, apparently using his entire strength to crush and terminate the wretch’s misery.”
The Middle East and North Africa
It was common practice in the Middle Ages to have people executed by elephants, particularly in the Byzantine, Slavic, Seljuq, and Timurid empires of West Asia.
Parts of the Muslim-majority Middle East appear to have adopted the practice. Jewish traveller Rabbi Petachiah of Ratisbon, a 12th-century visitor to northern Mesopotamia (now Iraq), described an execution using this method during his time there.
“At Nineveh there was an elephant. Its head is not protruding. It is big, eats about two wagon loads of straw at once; its mouth is in its breast, and when it wants to eat it protrudes its lip about two cubits, takes up the straw with it, and puts it in its mouth. When the sultan condemns anyone to death, they say to the elephant, “this person is guilty.” It then seizes him with its lip, casts him aloft and slays him..”
European travellers were appalled, horrified and fascinated by the spectacle of elephants crushing a captive, which was documented in many contemporary journals and chronicles of life in Asia.
Execution by elephant was outlawed in many countries after the European colonial powers took control of the area in the late 18th and 19th centuries. However, the practice continued in secret until the early 20th century when it was finally abolished worldwide.