ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Elephants, yogis and kings. Changing attitudes towards the forest in premodern Eastern India.


Varanese Sara - Rutgers University, Art History, New Brunswick, NJ, United States


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


 The landscape around the premodern city of Ekamra, modern-day Bhubaneswar in Odisha, was once known as one of the best gajavanas, or elephant forests, of the subcontinent. Its extensive and dense canopy sheltered large populations of wild elephants, whose presence in the historical landscape of Odisha has been associated with war and kingship since the Mauryan period.

Throughout South Asia elephants were a political resource. Their military use and consequent association with political power are well documented in the iconography of royal processions and war scenes. This paper complicates the significance of elephants in premodern iconography by presenting material from Ekamra, one of the main urban centers in Eastern India during the early sixth to fourteenth centuries. Here, numerous temple reliefs show elephants in variety of settings, including royal processions and scenes of war, but also more decorative reliefs and scenes set in the wilderness. I argue that in addition to themes of political power, the iconography points to affective and possibly esoteric representations of both the forested landscape and its elephant population. A diachronic interpretation of the material further suggests changing attitudes towards the forest and its inhabitants, from a spiritually experienced space to a natural resource to be harnessed, demonstrating a multifaceted relationship between human communities and ecological context in premodern India.