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Colourful photos show India’s centuries-old romance with the elephant

India's Elephants: A Cultural Legacy
An Indian icon.
By Maria Thomas
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

India is home to a little over 27,000 Asian elephants, accounting for 60% of the world’s population. But of late these elephants mostly make the news in cases of human-wildlife conflict, which has been fueled by encroachment on their habitats.

Named India’s national heritage animal in 2010, the elephant has a rich history as a religious symbol, not just in Hinduism, in which the deity Ganesha is worshiped as the remover of obstacles, but also in Buddhism and Jainism. Elephants can be found carved into ancient temple architecture across the country, and in Mughal miniature paintings from the 16th century and beyond, too.

It’s this extensive history that the writer Tripti Pandey wanted to capture in her new book, India’s Elephants: A Cultural Legacy, published by Penguin India. Beginning in 2011, Pandey travelled across the country to document the many different ways elephants have and continue to be featured in Indian life, from ancient mythology to cave paintings to the colourful modern-day festivals that bring thousands of visitors to cities such as Jaipur and Mysore.

Here’s a selection of photos from the book that showcases India’s elephants through the ages.

Courtesy the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum Trust, Jaipur
A miniature painting depicting the Maharana of Mewar  sitting on an elephant and smoking a pipe with an attendant holding the base of the smoking pipe.
Courtesy Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur
Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh in an Ambari howdah.
Courtesy the Pictorial Archives of the Maharanas of Mewar, Udaipur
Decorated Elephant, Mewar 1940.
National Museum, New Delhi.
Gajendra Moksha—Lord Vishnu rescuing the elephant king from the clutches of the crocodile, 54 Kota School, c. 1750.
India's Elephants: A Cultural Legacy
Pages from the Pheelnama, a manuscript used by Mahouts for the treatment of elephants.
India's Elephants: A Cultural legacy
Mahouts guarding the elephants, from an old manual of the Mahout community.
India's Elephants: A Cultural Legacy
With two elephants flanking the entrance, Cave XVI at Ajanta is popularly known as the Welcome Gate and is perceived as the main entrance.
India's Elephants: A Cultural Legacy
Mudumalai forest elephant with Mahout and family.
India's Elephants: A Cultural Legacy
Tusk ornamentation at the Sonepur Cattle Fair.
India's Elephants: A Cultural Legacy
Nettipattam (the forehead ornament) in south India.
India's Elephants: A Cultural Legacy
Teams line up for the match, at the Cartier Cup Polo, Polo Ground, Jaipur.
India's Elephants: A Cultural Legacy
Colourful salute, Elephant Festival.

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