ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Ancient Elephantology: Anthropomorphic Medical Treatises in India


Athanickal Hariprasad - The English and Foreign Languages University, School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Hyderabad, India


17 – More Than Human: Animal-Human Relations in Pre-Modern South Asia


 Elephants played an integral part in the ancient Indian social system. An elephant-faced God and a winged elephant exist in Indian mythology. As a brute force in the course of warfare, as heavy load carriers and most importantly as decorative spectacle during ritualistic procession in temple festivals or in royal entourage, elephants were utilised by Indians in several social occasions. They are still being employed in circus, safaris and religious festivals in several parts of the country. While the knowledge on elephants, like how to capture a wild elephant, or how to tame one, shaped many ancient treatises, a separate epistemology emerged to treat them. This paper engages with two such treatises, namely; Hasti Ayurveda (Elephant medical practice) and Mathangaleela (Science of Protecting Elephants). Hasti Ayurveda, in existence for more than thousand years is written by the sage Palakapya mentions the author’s own mythical birth (born out of a relationship between a saint and an elephant nevertheless) and discusses diseases and their medicines. Mathangaleela by Mussath, which also deals with medical treatment even discusses the feelings of elephants as a cause for such diseases, is of recent origin. This paper proposes to engage with elephant-human ties in the context of temple rituals and other contemporary discourses and contents that these ancient medical texts, in their inherent anthropomorphic attitude, lead us to understand present-day elephant-human conflict.