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The Elephant and the Sovereign: India circa 1000ce


This article studies the political and symbolic importance of elephants for medieval Muslim kingship in South Asia. Specifically, the incorporation of the elephant by the Ghaznavid dynasty led to a crisis of sovereignty for early Muslim kings of South Asia. This was because while the elephant stood for divinity and sovereignty among Hindus, it represented satanic pride among Muslims. The famous Koranic chapter of “the elephant”, tells the story of a king Abraha who had tried to destroy the House of God in Arabia (the Ka‘ba) with elephants, but it was said that God pelted his army to death by small pebbles thrown by birds. This meant that any Indo-Muslim ruler that posed as an elephant-master could appear as the destroyer of the house of God in the eyes of his Muslim subjects. In order to compensate for this crisis, early Indo-Muslim rulers employed a number of tactics, which included trying to present themselves as the opposite, i.e. destroyer of pagan temples for which they are infamous today. But perhaps more significantly, the continued symbolic (and not just practical) use of the elephant, in spite of its problematic association, shows that what is often today understood as an alien institution imposed upon a majority non-Muslim population, was actually the opposite: that is, it was mainly a project equally pitched to non-Muslim South Asians with a compensatory nudge toward Muslims.

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I wish to thank the editorial board of JRAS, as well as my colleagues Sudipta Sen, Daud Ali, Sunil Kumar, and Corinne Lefèvre for their support and feedback on this paper.

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1 Bruce Lawrence, “Biruni, Abu Rayhan viii. Indology” in The Encyclopedia Iranica, (ed.) Ehsan Yarshater, iv, pp. 285-287.

2 Rayhan al-Biruni, Abu, Kitab Abi Rayhan Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Biruni fi Tahqiq ma li al-Hind, (ed.) Sachau, E. (reprint Leipzig, 1925) p. 54. Translation by Sachau, E., Alberuni's India, (reprint New Delhi, 1964), i, p. 113.

3 Sachau, Alberuni, I, p.119.

4 al-Biruni, Kitab al-Hind, 318; Sachau, Alberuni, ii, p. 245.

5 See Ernst, C., Eternal Garden: Mysticism, History, and Politics at a South Asian Sufi Center, (Albany, 1992), pp. 1819.

6 For the first position see Bartol‘d, V.V., Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, translated by Minorsky, T., (London,1968), pp. 214215; Haig, W., The Cambridge history of India, Volume 3: Turks and Afghans (Cambridge, 1928), p.2627; Bosworth, C. E., ‘Mahmud’, The Encyclopedia of Islam 2 (Leiden, 1991), vi, p. 65.

7 Tor, D. G., “The Islamization of Central Asia in the Sāmānid era and the reshaping of the Muslim world”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 72, 2 (2009), pp. 279299; ; Paul, J. Herrscher, Gemeinwesen, Vermittler: Ostiran und Transoxanien in vormongolischer Zeit, (Stuttgart, 1996) especially pp. 103117; Anooshahr, Ali, The Ghazi Sultans and Frontiers of Islam: A Comparative Study of the Late Medieval and Early Modern Periods (London, 2009), especially pp. 5874; and Eaton, R. M., ‘Temple desecrations and Indo-Muslim states’, Journal of Islamic Studies, 11,3 (2000), pp. 283319.

8 Kumar, Sunil, The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate: AD 1192-1286, (New Delhi, 2007); Jackson, Peter, The Delhi Sultanate: A Political and Military History, (Cambridge, 2003).

9 Finbarr Barry Flood Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (Princeton, 2009), pp. 79, 86.

10 Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political, translated by Schwab, G., (Chicago, 2007); see also Murat Dağlı’s excellent application of this thesis to Ottoman historiography in his “The limits of Ottoman pragmatism”, History and Theory, 52,2 (2013), pp. 194-213.

11 Digby, Simon, War-horse and Elephant in the Delhi Sultanate (Oxford, 1971), p. 20.

12 Digby, Warhorse, pp. 11-13.

13 Mikhail, Alan, “Unleashing the Beast: Animals, Energy, and the Economy of Labor in Ottoman Egypt”, The American Historical Review, 118, 2 (2013), pp. 317348.

14 Trautmann, Elephants, p. 49.

15 Darnton, Robert, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, (New York, 1984); Pastourea, Michel, The Bear: History of a Fallen King, translated by Holoch, George (Cambridge, Mass, 2011); Derrida, Jacques, The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume 1, translated by Lisse, Michel, Mallet, Marie-Louise, and Michaud, Ginette (Chicago, 2011).

16 Derrida, The Beast, pp. 1-32; Balke, Friedrich, “Derrida and Foucault on sovereignty”, German Law Journal, 6,1 (2005), pp. 7185.

17 Schmitt, Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, translated by Schwab, George, (Cambridge, MA, 1985), pp. 1015.

18 Gibb, Islamic Institution, Philosophy, and Religion, p. 164.

19 Muhammad ibn ‘al-Jabbar al-‘Utbi, Abd, al-Yamini fi Sharh Akhbar al-Sultan Yamin al-Dawlah wa-Amin al-Millah Mahmud al-Ghaznawi, (ed.) al-Thamiri, I. D. (Beirut, 2004), p. 6; and Muhammad al-Miskawayh, Ahmad b., Tajarib al-Umam, (Tehran, 2001-2), i, p. 125.

20Muḥammad al-Tha‘alib, Abd al-Malik b., Tarikh Ghurar al-Siyar, (ed.) Zotenberg, H., (Paris, 1900), pp. xlvii and 4; Crone, Patricia, God's Rule: Government and Islam (New York, 2005), p. 11.

21 For a recent application and critique of this process see Chattopadhyaya, Brajadulal, The Making of Early Medieval India, second edition, (Oxford, 2012), pp. 7475 and pp. 212-213. The literature on the topic is quite extensive see also Kulke, Hermann (1976), “Kshatriyaization and Social Change”, in S. Devadas Pillai (ed.), Aspects of Changing India: Studies in Honour of Prof. G. S. Ghurye, (Bombay, 1976), pp. 398-409; also his “Kshatriyaization and Social Change”, in Kings and Cults: State Formation and Legitimation in India and Southeast Asia, (Delhi, 2001), pp. 89-92; Daud Ali “Kingship” in Knut A. Jacobsen et al. (ed.), Brill's Encyclopedia of Hinduism, (Leiden, 2011), iii, pp. 90-96.

22 Chattopadhyaya, The Making, pp. 206-207.

23 In addition to the studies cited here, I became aware of two other articles rather late and was unable to incorporate their findings. They are Jabir Raza, S., “Indian Elephant Corps under the Ghaznavids”, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 73 (2012), pp. 212222; and Pierre Siméon, “Eléphants : représentation d'un mythe dans les territoires Ghaznavides (367/978 - 583/1187)”, unpublished.

24 Julugh Farrukhi, Ali ibn, Divan-i Hakim Farrukhi-i Sistani, (ed.) Dabir Siyaqi, M., (Tehran, 1957) pp. 343, 345, 221.

25 Farrukhi, Divan, p. 70.

26 Farrukhi, Divan, p. 226.

27 Farrukhi, Divan, p. 65.

28 al-Qasim Hasan, AbuUnsuri, Divan-i Ustad ‘Unsuri-i Balkhi, (ed.) Dabir Siyaqi, M., (Tehran, 1963), p. 38.

29 Sa‘d Salman, Mas‘ud-i, Divan-i Mas‘ud-i Sa‘d Salman, (ed.) Yasimi, R. (Tehran, 1983/4), p. 43.

30 ‘Unsuri, Divan, pp. 31-32.

31 ‘Unsuri, Divan, pp. 225.

32 Mas‘ud Sa‘d, Divan, Divan, 241.

33 Bayhaqi, Abu al-Fazl, Tarikh-i Bayhaqi, (ed.) Khatib Rahbar, K., (Tehran, 1989) pp. 716717.

34 Farrukhi, Divan, 83-84.

35 Someśvara, Mānasollāsa, III, verse 1336, quoted by Sharma, Indian Feudalism, 23; See also Ali, Daud, Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India, (Cambridge, 2004).

36 Abu Sa‘id ‘Abd al-Hayy b. Zahhak b. Mahmud Gardizi, Tarikh-i Gardizi, (ed.) A. H. Habibi, (Tehran, 1984) pp. 405-406. Here I am emending Habibi's reading who could not identify the undotted manuscript word “bḥwr” and suggested the very unlikely reading of “baḥbūr” which is defined in by Dihkhuda as a “chick”.

37 Bayhaqi, Tarikh, pp. 681-682.

38 Bayhaqi, Tarikh, p. 432.

39 Bayhaqi, Tarikh, p. 177.

40 Farrukhi, Divan, p. 152.

41 Farrukhi, Divan, p. 368.

42 Bayhaqi, Tarikh, p. 686.

43 Bayhaqi, Tarikh, p. 397.

44 Mas‘ud Sa‘d, Divan, p. 212.

45 The Law Code of Manu, translated by Patrick Olivelle, (Oxford, 2004), p. 125.

46 The Law Code of Manu, p. 175.

47 Kauṭilya, King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kautilya's Arthaśatra, translated by Patrick Olivelle, (Oxford, 2013), p. 251.

48 Kauṭilya, King, Governance, and Law, p. 102.

49 Kauṭilya, King, Governance, and Law, p. 83.

50 Mahabharata, translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen (Chicago, 1975), ii: p. 17.

51 Mahabharata, ii, p. 69.

52 Vishnudharmottara-Purana: Pauranic Legends and Rebirths (English translation of first khanda), translated P. Shah, (Delhi, 1999-2002), p. 1.

53 Vishnudharmottara-Purana, p. 77.

54 Baṇa, Harshacharita, translated by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas, (London, 1897), p. 46.

55 Baṇa, Harshacharita, p. 51.

56 Baṇa, Harshacharita, p. 53.

57 Baṇa, Harshacharita, p. 54.

58 Handiqui, K. K., Somadeva's Yaśastilaka: Aspects of Jainism, Indian thought and Culture, (New Delhi, 3rd edition, 2011), pp. 26, 32.

59 Handiqui, Somadeva's Yaśastilaka, p. 66.

60 Kulke, Hermann and Rothermund, Dietmar, A History of India, (New York, 1998), p. 153 onward provide a good summary of these positions.

61 Bosworth, Ghaznavids, p. 43.

62 Bosworth, Ghaznavids, p. 44.

63 Bosworth, Ghaznavids, p. 51.

64 Bosworth, Ghaznavids, p. 76, transliteration and punctuation slightly revised.

65 I have limited my investigation to the issue of sovereignty. Waleed Ziyad's recent and very interesting analysis of numismatic evidence from a minor Hindu temple in Kashmir suggests that even temples survived and apparently thrived under Ghaznavid rule. See his “Islamic Coins” from a Hindu Temple Reconsidering Ghaznavid Interactions with Hindu Sacred Sites through New Numismatic Evidence from Gandhara”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 59, 4, (2016) pp. 618-659.

66 Flood, Objects, pp. 75-87.

67 Flood, Objects, p. 81.

68 Flood, Objects, p. 84.

69 Ernst, Carl, Eternal Garden: Mysticism, History, and Politics at a South Asian Sufi Center, (Albany, 1992), p. 52.

70 The most famous being Abu Ali Muhammad Bal‘ami, Tarikhnamah-i Tabari, (ed.) M. Rawshan, (Tehran, 1999).

71 For the political structure of the Gupta dynasty see Virkus, Fred, Politische Strukturen im Guptareich (300-550 n. Chr.), (Wiesbaden, 2004).

72 Al-‘Utbi, Al-Yamini, pp. 340-341.

73 Ibid. p. 369.

74 Ibid. pp. 340-341, 369.

75 Abdur Rehman, “The last two dynasties of the Śahis (an analysis of their history, archeology, coinage and paleography)”, PhD Thesis, (Australian National University, 1976), p. 130.

76 Al-‘Utbi, al-Yamini p. 32.

77 Al-‘Utbi, al-Yamini p. 322.

78 Gardizi, Zayn, pp. 399-400 and 402-403.

79 Gardizi, Zayn, pp. 381 and 414.

80 Rehman, “The last two dynasties”, p. 147.

81 Al-Biruni, Indica, ii, p. 13.

82 Sharma, Indian Feudalism, pp. 23, 29.

83 Prasad, Pushpa, Lekhapaddhati: Documents of State and Everyday Life from Ancient and Early Medieval Gujarat 9th to 15th Centuries, (New Delhi, 2007), p. 51.

84 Flood, Objects, p. 79.

85 Gardizi, Zayn, p. 322.

86 Flood, Objects, p. 79.

87 Al-Biruni, Kitab al-Hind, pp. 15 and 13; Sachau, pp. 31-32 and p. 27.

88 Al-‘Utbi, al-Yamini, pp. 29-34.

89 Nazim, M., The Life and Times of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (Cambridge, 1931) p. 86.

90 Rehman, “The last two dynasties”, pp. 16-17.

91 Al-‘Uti, Al-Yamini, pp. 207-208.

92 Al-‘Utbi, Al-Yamini, p. 211-212.

93 Al-‘Utbi, Al-Yamini, p. 215.

94 Al-‘Utbi, Al-Yamini, p. 281.

95 Al-‘Utbi, Al-Yamini, p. 285.

96 Al-‘Utbi, Al-Yamini, pp. 298-301.

97 Rowson, E. K., ‘Religion and politics in the career of Badi‘ al-Zaman al-Hamadhānī’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 107, 4 (1987), p. 653; Hämeen-Anttila, J., Maqama: a History of a Genre, (Wiesbaden, 2002); Kennedy, P. F., ‘Some Demon Muse: Structure and Allusion in al-Hamadhani's Maqama Iblisiyya’, Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 2,1 (1999) pp. 117137; and Munroe, J. T. The Art of Badī‘ Az-Zaman al-Hamadhānī (Beirut, 1983), pp. 2530.

98 Al-‘Uti, Al-Yamīnī, p. 222; Abu Mansur ‘Abd al-Malik al-Tha‘ālibi, Yatīmat al-Dahr, (ed.) ‘Abd al-Hamid, (Cairo, 1947) v. 4, p. 296.

99 Nöldeke, T., ‘Über das Kitâb Jamīnī des Abû Nasr Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al gabbâr al ‘Utbī”, Sitzungsberichte der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften 23,1 (1857) p. 86; Browne, E. G., A Literary History of Persia: Volume 2, From Firdawsi to Sa‘di (Cambridge, 1929) p. 113; Bosworth, C. E., ‘The Heritage of Rulership in Early Islamic Iran and the Search for Dynastic Connections with the Past’, Iranian Studies, 11,1 (1978) pp. 2526; Meisami, J. S., Persian Historiography to the End of the Twelfth Century (Edinburgh, 1999) pp. 5253.

100 Bal‘ami, Tarikhnamah, (ed.) M. Rawshan (Tehran, 1999), i, p. 107.

101 Bal‘ami, Tarikhnamah, v. 1, pp. 102-104; Abu Ja‘far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, (Beirut,1998), i, pp.124-126.

102 al-Tabari, Tarikh, i, pp. 124, 126, 127.

103 al-Qasim Firdawsi, Abu, Shahnamah, (ed.) Khaliqi-Motlaq, J., (New York, 1987), i, pp. 57, 65, 77, 82, 84-85.

104 Anonymous, Tarikh-i Sistan, (ed.) M. T. Bahar, (Tehran, 1935), p. 60.

105Muḥammad al-Tha‘alib, Abd al-Malik b., Tarikh Ghurar al-Siyar, (ed.) Zotenberg, H., (Paris, 1900), p. 35.

106 Meisami, J. S., Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry: Orient Pearls (London, 2003), p. 235.

107 The reference to coloured elephants might make another relevant allusion, this time to the story of Babak, the north Iranian king who was executed by the Abbasids. In the execution scene, the caliph had Babak ride on a coloured elephant in order to humiliate him, and a poet described the victim as the “Satan of Khurasan”, Tabari, Tarikh, ix, p. 53.

108 Bal‘ami, Tarikhnamah, i, pp. 423-427, Tabari, Tarikh, i, pp. 292-295

109 Anonymous, Tarikh-i Sistan, (ed.) M.T. Bahar, (Tehran, 1935).

110 Bal‘ami, Tarikhnamah, i, pp. 649-655.

111 Bal‘ami, Tarikhnamah, ii, p. 800.

112 Years ago K. Czeglédy argued in “Bahrām Čōbīn and the Persian apocalyptic literature,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 8,1 (1958), pp. 21-43 that the story of Bahram and the Turkish Khaqan had indeed been conflated with Zoroastrian apocalyptic literature and had survived into the early Islami period, as late as the eleventh century when Nizam al-Mulk cited a variation of it in his Siyasat'namah. However, even if Czeglédy is correct in his identification of Bahram as an apocalyptic figure based on analogies, it is difficult to see how al-Hamadhani would have been able to make the relevant connections and recognise the parallels.

113 Al-Tabari, Tarikh, ix, p. 53.

114 Bal‘amī, Tarikhnamah, i, p. 89.

115 H. Zotenberg (see al-Tha‘alibi above), p. viii. Perhaps the same man who also composed the Yatamat al-Dahr Bosworth has expressed doubt, in his Encyclopedia of Islam 2 article, regarding the identity of this Tha‘alibi, but in the story of Alexander the author of the Ghurar cites the very poem by al-Hamadhani under discussion here and says that the poet recited it for him. It seems improbable that there existed in Nishapur two Tha‘ālibīs, both of whom knew al-Hamadhani and to both the poet recited the same poem (that is, once in the Ghurar and a second time in Yatimat).

116 al-Tha‘alibi, Tarikh Ghurar, p. 9.

117 Here I follow Zotenberg's translation.

118 Al-Tha‘alibi, Tarikh Ghurar, p. 9.

119 Tarikh-i Sistan, pp. 205-206.

120 Bosworth, History of the Saffarids and the Maliks of Nimruz, 247/861 to 949/1542-3, (Costa Mesa, 1994), p. 350.

121 Al-Tabari, Tarikh, ii, p. 121.

122 Bal‘ami, Tarikhnamah, ii, p.713.

123 Gardizi, Tarikh, p. 453.

124 Siraj Juzjani, Minhaj, Tabaqat-i Nasiri, (ed.) Habibi, A. H. (Kabul, 1963/4), i, p. 186.

125 Muhammad Qasim Hindushah Astarabadi Firishtah, Tarikh-i Firishtah, (ed.) M. R. Nasiri (Tehran, 2009) i, pp. 96-97.

126 Al-‘Utbi, al-Yamini, pp. 320-322, 345-353, 400-414.

127 I.e. the days of Nimrod and Abraham.

128 Farrukhi, Divan, pp. 69-70, 71 abridged.

129 Qaws Manuchihri Damghani, Abu Najm Ahmad b., Divan-i Manichihri-i Damghani, (ed.) Dabir Siyaqi, M. (Tehran, 1991), p. 60.

130 Manuchihri, Divan, p. 115.

131 Mas‘ud-i Sa‘d, Divan, p. 495.

132 Gardizi, Zayn, pp. 405-406.

133 Bayhaqi, Tarikh-i Bayhaqi, p. 440.

134 Mas‘ud-i Sa‘d, Divan, p. 241.

135 Karamustafa, A. T., Gods Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period (Salt Lake City, 1994), pp. 313.

136 Udana, translated by Peter Masefield (Pali Texts Societ, Bristol, 1994), 128-ff.

137 Adam Sana'i al-Ghaznavi, Abu al-Majd Majdud b., Kitab-i Hadiqat al-Haqiqat va Shariʻat al-Tariqat, ed. Mudarris Razavi, M.T. (Tehran, 1950), p. 71.

* I wish to thank the editorial board of JRAS, as well as my colleagues Sudipta Sen, Daud Ali, Sunil Kumar, and Corinne Lefèvre for their support and feedback on this paper.

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