Crushing by elephant

Crushing by elephant

Crushing by elephant ( _fa. زير پى ِپيل افكندن literally "casting beneath an elephant's feet") was for thousands of years a common method of execution for those condemned to death in South and Southeast Asia, and particularly in India. Asian Elephants were used to crush, dismember, or torture captives in public executions. The trained animals were versatile, able to kill a victim immediately or to torture them slowly for a prolonged period. Employed by royalty, the elephants were representative both of absolute power and the ruler's ability to control wild animals.

The use of elephants to execute captives often attracted the horrified interest of European travellers, and was recorded in numerous contemporary journals and accounts of life in Asia. The practice was eventually suppressed by the European empires that colonised the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. While primarily confined to Asia, the practice was occasionally adopted by western powers, such as Rome and Carthage, particularly to deal with mutinous soldiers.

Cultural aspects

The intelligence, domestication, and versatility of elephants gave them considerable advantages over other wild animals such as lions and bears used as executioners by the Romans. Elephants are more tractable than horses: while a horse can be trained to charge into battle, it will not willingly trample an enemy soldier, and will instead step over him. Elephants will trample their enemies, hence the popularity of war elephants with generals such as Hannibal. Elephants can be trained to execute prisoners in a variety of ways, and can be taught to prolong the agony of the victim by inflicting a slow death by torture or quickly killing the condemned by stepping on the head. Historically, the elephants were under the constant control of a driver or mahout, thus enabling a ruler to grant a last-minute reprieve and display merciful qualities.Allsen, p. 156.]

Several such exercises of mercy are recorded in various Asian kingdoms. The kings of Siam trained their elephants to roll the convicted person "about the ground rather slowly so that he is not badly hurt". The Mughal sultan Akbar the Great is said to have "used this technique to chastise 'rebels' and then in the end the prisoners, presumably much chastened, were given their lives". On one occasion, Akbar was recorded to have had a man thrown to the elephants to suffer five days of such treatment before pardoning him.Schimmel, p. 96.] Elephants were even sometimes used in a kind of trial by ordeal in which the condemned prisoner was released if he managed to fend off the elephant.

The use of elephants in this fashion went beyond the common royal power to dispense life and death. Elephants have long been used as symbols of royal authority (and still are in some places, such as Thailand, where white elephants are held in reverence). Their use as instruments of state power sent the message that the ruler was able to preside over very powerful creatures who were under total command. The ruler was thus seen as maintaining a moral and spiritual domination over wild beasts, adding to their authority and mystique among subjects.

Geographical scope

Crushing by elephant has been used in many parts of the world, by both Western and Asian empires. The earliest records of such executions date back to the classical period. However, the practice was already well established by that time and continued well into the 19th century.

Although African elephants are significantly bigger than Asian Elephants, African powers did not make nearly as much use of the animals in warfare or ceremonial affairs, given that the African elephant is much less easily tamed than its Asian counterpart. Some ancient powers in Africa did make use of elephants, but they employed the now-extinct North African subspecies "Loxodonta (africana) pharaoensis" (see the article on war elephants for an overview). The use of tamed elephants was thus largely confined to the parts of the world inhabited (or formerly inhabited) by Asian elephants.

Asian powers

West Asia

During the medieval period, executions by elephants were used by several West Asian imperial powers, including the Byzantine, Sassanid, Seljuq and Timurid empires. When the Sassanid king Khosrau II, who had a harem of 3,000 wives and 12,000 female slaves, demanded as a wife Hadiqah, the daughter of the Christian Arab Na'aman, Na'aman refused to permit his Christian daughter to enter the harem of a Zoroastrian; for this refusal, he was trampled to death by an elephant.

The practice appears to have been adopted in parts of the Muslim Middle East. Rabbi Petachiah of Ratisbon, a twelfth-century Jewish traveler, reported an execution by this means during his stay in Seljuk-ruled northern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq):

South Asia

Sri Lanka

Elephants were widely used across the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia as a method of execution. The English sailor Robert Knox, writing in 1681, described a method of execution by elephant which he had seen while being held captive in Sri Lanka. Knox says the elephants he witnessed had their tusks fitted with "sharp Iron with a socket with three edges". After impaling the victim's body with its tusks, the elephant "then tear it in pieces, and throw it limb from limb". [Knox, Robert. " [ An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon] ". London, 1681.]

The 19th century traveller James Emerson Tennent comments that "a Kandyan [Sri Lankan] chief, who was witness to such scenes, has assured us that the elephant never once applied his tusks, but, placing his foot on the prostrate victim, plucked off his limbs in succession by a sudden movement of his trunk." [Tennent, p. 281.] Knox's book depicts exactly this method of execution in a famous drawing, "".

Writing in 1850, the British diplomat Sir Henry Charles Sirr described a visit to one of the elephants that had been used by Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, the last king of Kandy, to execute criminals. Crushing by elephant had been abolished by the British after they overthrew the Kandyan kingdom in 1815 but the king's execution elephant was still alive and evidently remembered its former duties. Sirr comments:


Elephants were used as executioners of choice in India for many centuries. Hindu and Muslim rulers executed tax evaders, rebels and enemy soldiers alike "under the feet of elephants". The Manu Smriti or Laws of Manu, written down around AD 200, prescribed execution by elephants for a number of offences. If property was stolen, for instance, "the king should have any thieves caught in connection with its disappearance executed by an elephant." [Olivelle, p. 125.]

During the Mughal era, "it was a common mode of execution in those days to have the offender trampled underfoot by an elephant." [Natesan, G.A. "The Indian Review", p. 160] Captain Alexander Hamilton, writing in 1727, described how the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan ordered an offending military commander to be carried "to the Elephant Garden, and there to be executed by an Elephant, which is reckoned to be a shameful and terrible Death". [Hamilton, p. 170.] The Mughal Emperor Humayun ordered the crushing by elephant of an imam he mistakenly believed to be critical of his reign. [Eraly, p. 45.] Some monarchs also adopted this form of execution for their own entertainment. Another Mughal ruler, the emperor Jahangir, is said to have ordered a huge number of criminals to be crushed for his amusement. The French traveller François Bernier, who witnessed such executions, recorded his dismay at the pleasure that the emperor derived from this cruel punishment. Nor was crushing the only method used by the Mughals' execution elephants; in the Mughal sultanate of Delhi, elephants were trained to slice prisoners to pieces "with pointed blades fitted to their tusks".

Other Indian polities also carried out executions by elephant. The Maratha leader Sambhaji ordered this form of death for a number of conspirators, including the Maratha official Anaji Datto in the late seventeenth century. [Eraly, p. 479.] Another Maratha leader, the general Santaji, inflicted the punishment for breaches in military discipline. The contemporary historian Khafi Khan reported that "for a trifling offense he [Santaji] would cast a man under the feet of an elephant." [Eraly, p. 498]

The early 19th century writer Robert Kerr relates how the king of Goa "keeps certain elephants for the execution of malefactors. When one of these is brought forth to dispatch a criminal, if his keeper desires that the offender be destroyed speedily, this vast creature will instantly crush him to atoms under his foot; but if desired to torture him, will break his limbs successively, as men are broken on the wheel." [Kerr, p. 395.] The naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon cited this flexibility of purpose as evidence that elephants were capable of "human reasoning, [rather] than a simple, natural instinct". [Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc. "Natural history of man, the globe, and of quadrupeds". vol. 1. Leavitt & Allen, 1857. p. 113.]

Such executions were often held in public as a warning to any who might transgress. To that end, many of the elephants were especially large, often weighing in excess of nine tons. The executions were intended to be gruesome and, by all accounts, they often were. They were sometimes preceded by torture publicly inflicted by the same elephant used for the execution. An account of one such torture-and-execution at Baroda in 1814 has been preserved in The Percy Anecdotes:

The use of elephants as executioners continued well into the latter half of the 19th century. During an expedition to central India in 1868, Louis Rousselet described the execution of a criminal by an elephant. A sketch was made of the execution showing the condemned being forced to place his head upon a pedestal, and then being held there while an elephant crushed his head underfoot. The sketch was made into a woodcut and printed in "Le Tour du Monde", a widely circulated French journal of travel and adventure, as well as foreign journals such as Harper's Weekly. ["Harper's Weekly", February 3, 1872]

The growing power of the British Empire led to the decline and eventual end of elephant executions in India. Writing in 1914, Eleanor Maddock noted that in Kashmir, since the arrival of Europeans, "many of the old customs are disappearing – and one of these is the dreadful custom of the execution of criminals by an elephant trained for the purpose and which was known by the hereditary name of 'Gunga Rao'." [Maddock, Eleanor. "What the Crystal Revealed". "American Theosophist Magazine", April to September 1914. p. 859.]

Southeast Asia

Elephants are widely reported to have been used to carry out executions in southeast Asia, and were used in Burma from the earliest historical times [Chevers, p. 261.] as well as in the kingdom of Champa on the other side of the Indochinese peninsula. [Schafer, Edward H. "The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T'ang Exotics". University of California Press, 1985. p. 80. ASIN: B0000CLTET] In Siam, elephants were trained to throw the condemned into the air before trampling them to death. The journal of John Crawfurd records another method of execution by elephant in the kingdom of Cochinchina (modern south Vietnam), where he served as a British envoy in 1821. Crawfurd recalls an event where "the criminal is tied to a stake, and [Excellency's favourite] elephant runs down upon him and crushes him to death." [Crawfurd, John. "Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-general of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China". H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1830. p. 419.]

Western empires

The Romans, Carthaginians and Macedonian Greeks occasionally used elephants for executions while also making use of war elephants for military purposes, most famously in the case of Hannibal. Deserters, prisoners of war and military criminals are recorded by ancient chroniclers to have been put to death under the foot of an elephant. Perdiccas, who became regent of Macedon on the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, had mutineers from the faction of Meleager thrown to the elephants to be crushed in the city of Babylon. [Fox, Robin Lane. "Alexander the Great". Penguin, 2004. p. 474. ISBN 0-1400-8878-4] The Roman writer Quintus Curtius Rufus relates the story in his Historiae Alexandri Magni: "Perdiccas saw that they [the mutineers] were paralyzed and at his mercy. He withdrew from the main body some 300 men who had followed Meleager at the time when he burst from the first meeting held after Alexander's death, and before the eyes of the entire army he threw them to the elephants. All were trampled to death beneath the feet of the beasts..." [ [ Curt. 10.6-10] (registration required)]

Similarly, the Roman writer Valerius Maximus records how the general Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus "after King Perseus was vanquished [in 167 BC] , for the same fault (desertion) threw men under elephants to be trampled ... And indeed military discipline needs this kind of severe and abrupt punishment, because this is how strength of arms stands firm, which, when it falls away from the right course, will be subverted." [Futrell, Alison (Quoted by) (ed.). "A Sourcebook on the Roman Games". Blackwell Publishing, 2006. p. 8.]

There are fewer records of elephants being used as straightforward executioners for the civil population. One such example is mentioned by Josephus and the deuterocanonical book of 3 Maccabees in connection with the Egyptian Jews, though the story is probably apocryphal. 3 Maccabees describes an attempt by Ptolemy IV Philopator (ruled 221–204 BC) to enslave and brand Egypt's Jews with the symbol of Dionysus. When the majority of the Jews resisted, the king is said to have rounded them up and ordered them to be trampled on by elephants. [3 Maccabees 5] The mass execution was ultimately thwarted, supposedly by the intervention of angels, following which Ptolemy took an altogether more forgiving attitude towards his Jewish subjects. [3 Maccabees 6] [Collins, p. 122.]

Death by elephant

Death by elephant is still common in parts of Africa and South Asia where humans and elephants co-exist. In Sri Lanka alone, 50–100 people are killed annually in clashes between humans and elephants. [" [ People–Elephant Conflict: Monitoring how Elephants Use Agricultural Crops in Sri Lanka] " Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Retrieved on February 29, 2008.] However, such fatalities are the result of wild elephants attacking humans rather than tame elephants being used by humans to kill others. Being crushed by captive elephants is also a major occupational hazard for elephant keepers in zoos. [" [ Accidents with Elephants] " "Elephant Magazine". Retrieved on February 29, 2008.]

While working as a police officer for the British colonial government in Burma in 1926, George Orwell was forced to deal with an incident in which a domestic elephant went "musth" and killed a man by stepping on him. Orwell describes the incident in his famous essay "Shooting an Elephant", noting that "The friction of the great beast's foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit."



* Allsen, Thomas T. "The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History". University of Pennsylvania Press, May 2006. ISBN 0-8122-3926-1
* Chevers, Norman. "A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence for Bengal and the Northwestern Provinces". Carbery, 1856.
* Collins, John Joseph. "Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora". Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, October 1999. ISBN 0-8028-4372-7
* Eraly, Abraham. "Mughal Throne: The Saga of India's Great Emperors", Phoenix House, 2005. ISBN 0-7538-1758-6
* Hamilton, Alexander. "A New Account of the East Indies: Being the Observations and Remarks of Capt. Alexander Hamilton, from the Year 1688 to 1723". C. Hitch and A. Millar, 1744.
* Kerr, Robert. "A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels". W. Blackwood, 1811.
* Olivelle, Patrick (trans). "The Law Code of Manu". Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-1928-0271-2
* Schimmel, Annemarie. "The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture". Reaktion Books, February 2004. ISBN 1-8618-9185-7
* Tennent, Emerson James. "Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical and Topographical". Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860.

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