ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Bodies of Power, Acts of Power: Medieval Elephant Combat, Royal Spectacle, and the Mānasollāsa


Gutierrez Andrea - The University of Texas at Austin, Department of Asian Studies, Austin, United States


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


 This paper explores the role of power in the elephant spectacles and races in the sporting arena described in the Mānasollāsa (1131 CE). This Chalukyan-kingdom Sanskrit encyclopedia provides a rich look into medieval South Indian royal culture through its on-the-ground, localized writing. Of the three sections of the Mānasollāsa that discuss elephants at length, the section on elephant spectacle as royal diversion (vinoda) is the most curious: it does not appear in any other elephant manual of the gajaśāstra tradition but offers a vital clue as to how kings deployed soft power in peace times, as well as maintained the animal’s fitness for battle. The spectacles that elephants were required to participate in—recalling Roman gladiator fights—were violent, horrific acts that pitted elephant against human and elephant against elephant. The violence of these power relations likely explains why the passage is not copied in later elephant manuals that use the Mānasollāsa’s elephant content.

This is the first study to put this long-neglected passage alongside other aspects of elephant management in gajaśāstra texts and the Asian elephant’s broader history. Where it illuminates human/elephant intra-actions, I bring continental and other philosophy to my animal studies discussion. My paper provides one missing clue to the ways elephants have been used historically in South Asia, leading up to the present-day human-elephant conflict and the Asian elephant’s endangered status.