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Elephants in Indian Art: A Visual Journey Through Symbolism

Elephants In Indian Art

Elephants in Indian Art

Indian Art is more than just pieces of visuals, they are a medium to think or communicate emotions, thoughts or convictions. Artists borrow and use, reason with and employ, themes in Indian art. One of the common motifs is elephants. The artistic imagination of elephants can be profoundly influenced by the opening up of the wide sky by allowing them to soar high and produce a big animal, with a grand trunk and a tiny tail.

Starting from prehistoric times till today, these stately creatures have been depicted using various materials such as stone, clay, metals (such as bronze), conches shells (particularly among Indigenous communities), ivory tusks taken from elephants, wood carving, making thread from jute plant stem etc.; sometimes they are even moulded out of plastic by enthusiasts! In this blog, let’s understand the meaning behind these elephants, their importance and their worldview. 

Significance of Elephants in Indian Culture 

Elephant fight, Deccan, India, 19th century, Salar Jung Museum (Image source: Composite miniature painting – Wikipedia)

In India, elephants have a religious and spiritual significance that cannot be compared to any other. Some scientists say that in ancient Indian cosmology, the earth is resting on the backs of four elephants—one in each cardinal direction—which causes earthquakes when these elephants waver. In Indian culture, elephants have been associated with good luck, intelligence, fertility and protection. It is believed that when an elephant’s sculpture is placed in a house with its trunk lifted, the occupants will be able to attract more blessings or good things. 

Elephants in Akbharnama

“Emperor Akbar on an elephant hunt,” Basawan and Chetar, illustrations from the Akbarnama, c. 1586–89, Mughal Empire, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, each page 33 x 30 cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Image source: Illustration from the Akbarnama (article) | Khan Academy)

Though Kangra miniatures are thought to be the best illustrations of these stories, it is not common knowledge that the elephant was as important as depicted in paintings made in the early Mughal period. In 1580, an imperial workshop was established and a great number of miniature paintings were painted there thanks to the generous patronage of Emperor Akbar. A later painting portrays an exciting scene from the Akbarnama collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The emperor Akbar was painted on an elephant across a pontoon bridge that stretched over the Jamuna River. They were calm, cool and graceful though banal and trying at the same time. As the Emperor loved watching elephants in battle, the elephant appears in several more paintings from the Akbarnama.

Shri Venkat Singh Shyam’s Take on Elephants

Indian Elephant by Venkat Shyam (Image source: Indian elephant – Traditional Gond Art)

Venkat Shyam designed this art as an example of the Gond art tradition. Animals have always played an important role in Gond art. The inhabitants believed that by having images of these animals on their walls, they would bring good luck to the household. An elephant, which is also symbolic of the lord Ganesha, is among the animals most conspicuously represented in Gond art.

The artist painted the unusual picture of a young elephant with its head lowered and trunk dragging on the ground. The image is rendered in the classical Gond style, which features dashes, dots, and fine lines; Nonetheless, the traditional mixed with the contemporary concept of Venkat Shyam is unique only to his work. To enhance the brilliance associated with the main figure, he decided to use a bright red colour in the background. Various patterns combined with colours have been used by the artist when creating his paintings resembling patchwork quilts portraying elephant figures. 

To learn about Gond art join Rooftop’s Maestro course, an in-depth online course on traditional Indian art forms. Created in collaboration with award-winning artist Shri Venkat Singh Shyam, divided into different difficulty levels, from beginner to advanced. 

To sum it up…

In Indian culture, artisans eulogise elephants through various art forms and these magnificent animals are often used as a theme since they love them so much. Just as it did years ago, Indian artists and artisans alike have always been fascinated by the elegant figure of the regal elephant. You will come across several textiles bearing elephant images, wooden carved representations of these huge creatures and basins designed in such a way that they look like elephants. 

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By Soumya Kotian

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