Elephants on Parade
The rulers of India have for many centuries ridden in elaborate howdahs (thrones or covered pavilions on the backs of elephants) as they went into battle or on the hunt for antelope and tiger. Elephants have also carried rajas and emperors on state occasions, and, when richly decorated and caparisoned, elephants have been the highlight of many a ceremonial procession.
Ancient Indian texts give glimpses of early elephant processions. For example, in the epic Ramayana (composed more than 2,500 years ago), the great princely hero Rama returns to his city after a long exile and is welcomed back with a festive parade:
Given their orders great chariot-warriors went forth swiftly in their chariots along with thousands of rutting elephants adorned with gold, while others went forth with bull and cow elephants, their girths of gold. (translated by Robert P. Goldman)
Many centuries later, a historical chronicle of the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556–1605) praises the elephant:
This wonderful animal is in bulk and strength like a mountain; and in courage and ferocity like a lion. It adds materially to the pomp of a king and to the success of a conqueror; and is of greatest use in the army. Experienced men of Hindustan [India] put the value of a good elephant equal to five hundred horses.
Very large numbers of elephants were kept in the Mughal imperial stables—101 just for the emperor’s personal use. Some of these elephants were fitted out with a specially large howdah accommodating a “traveling sleeping compartment.” It was said that an elephant saddled with such a compartment was kept in readiness at the palace at all times.
Even today, lavishly ornamented elephants, sometimes dozens of them, march in annual festivals in a number of Indian cities, drawing thousands of onlookers, both locals and tourists. View a video on How to Dress an Elephant.
The Imperial Elephant Processions of 1902–1903
The flower of Indian Nobility mounted on magnificent Elephants resplendent in cloth of gold, with rich saddle cloths laden with priceless embroidery almost sweeping the ground on either side, the Howdahs and their Princely occupants bejeweled with an Empire’s ransom. . . . (from Delhi Coronation Durbar, 1st January 1903 by Weile and Klein, Madras, 1903)
Perhaps the grandest of all elephant processions took place during the last days of 1902 and the first days of 1903, during the durbar (“assembly of nobles”), the official celebrations in Delhi marking the proclamation of King Edward VII of Great Britain as emperor of India. The rulers of India’s princely states vied with one another to make the grandest show of wealth and glory during the celebrations. The state of Rewah included in its unit a charming baby elephant. The states of Datia and Orchcha both had dancing elephants. The maharaja of Alwar did not ride on elephant back in a howdah, but rather in an elaborate carriage pulled by a team of four elephants. And the entourage of the maharaja of Gwalior included not just several elephants, but fifteen.
Viewers were reduced to sputtering awe trying to record what they saw:
How shall I describe that retinue of elephants? I tear my hair, and think, and think, until I feel I must go mad. I see it all so clearly: can I not coin words? Can I not dip my pen in purple and gold? It was almost like looking at the sun. . . . Most people gazed, and gazed, and were blinded, exhausted: they lost all feeling for colour. (from The Durbar by Dorothy and Mortimer Menpes, London, 1903).