ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Elephants & Queens: A Feminist History of the Gond Kingdom of Garha, 1500-1800


Paul Gera Nastasia - University of Washington, Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, Seattle, United States


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


 This paper explores the histories of the kingdom of Garha, a powerful Gond kingdom in pre-modern South Asia. While scholars often presume that Garha collapsed following Mughal conquest in 1564, a presumption that buttresses constructions of Gond people as primitive or isolated in contemporary India, I trace a radically different history by examining human-nonhuman relations through a feminist methodology. Drawing on Gond and Mughal primary sources, I argue that the gendering and sexualization of elephants in pre-modern South Asia enabled Gond rulers to negotiate political sovereignty from the Mughal empire. I do this by tracing the value of mature male elephants for war, as well as the Gond-elephant relations that emerged as a result of elephants’ social and reproductive lifeways. I argue that the rulers of Garha protected their kingdom’s forests to secure access to elephants from their subjects. These elephants contributed to the kingdom’s significant wealth, which then enabled Gond rulers to enter into marital alliances with dissimilar social groups and assert elite identities. While the Mughal empire sought to conquer Garha to capture this wealth, investments in elephants, and Gond people’s knowledge for their capture and care, prevented land outright settlement in this kingdom. I demonstrate that these ecologies produced specific meanings for “queen” in Garha as well, whose labor was crucial for state building in this powerful kingdom.