Crushing by elephant (Persian: زير پى ِپيل افكندن literally "casting beneath an elephant's feet") represented for thousands of years a common method of execution for those condemned to death in South and Southeast Asia, and particularly in India. Elephants employed in that manner crushed, dismembered, or tortured captives in public executions.
The use of elephants to execute captives often attracted the horrified interest of European travelers, recorded in numerous contemporary journals and accounts of life in Asia. The European empires that colonized the region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries eventually suppressed the practice.
The use of elephants as executioners inextricably intertwined with the use of the animals as symbols of royal power. The intelligence, domestication, and versatility of elephants gave them considerable advantages over the wild animals such as lions and bears often used by the Romans as executioners.
In that respect, elephants prove more tractable than horses: A horse can be trained to charge into battle, but it will halt at trampling an enemy soldier, rather carefully stepping over him. Elephants would trample enemies, which explained the popularity of war elephants with generals like Hannibal.
Elephants could be trained to execute prisoners in a variety of ways, prolonging the agony by subjecting captives to a slow death by torture, or killing the condemned quickly by stepping on his or her head. Most importantly, a driver or mahout kept them constant control, enabling a ruler to grant a last-minute reprieve and, thus, display his or her merciful qualities.
Several such exercises of mercy have been recorded in some 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 "used this technique to chastise 'rebels' and then in the end the prisoners, presumably much chastened, were given their lives." On one occasion, Akbar has been recorded to have a man thrown to the elephants to suffer five days of such treatment before pardoning him. Governors sometimes even used elephants in a kind of trial by ordeal in which they released the condemned prisoner if he managed to fend off the elephant.
The use of elephants in that 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 the people hold the white elephants in reverence). Their use as instruments of state power sent the message that the ruler presided over very powerful creatures who acted under his or her total command. The ruler thus projected the image of maintaining a moral and spiritual domination over wild beasts, adding to his or her authority and mystique among his or her subjects.
In parts of Africa and South Asia, where humans and elephants co-exist, authorities still commonly employ death by elephant. In Sri Lanka alone, 50–100 people die annually in clashes between humans and elephants. Such fatalities usually result from wild elephants attacking humans rather than tame elephants being used by humans to kill other humans. Being crushed by captive elephants represents a major occupational hazard for elephant keepers in zoos.
While working as a police officer for the British colonial government in Burma in 1926, George Orwell dealt with an incident in which a domestic elephant went "musth," killing a man by stepping on him. Orwell described 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."
Crushing by elephant has been utilized in many parts of the world, by both Western and Asian empires. The earliest records of such executions date back to the classical period. The practice had already been well established by that time and continued until only about a century before the present day.
Although significantly bigger than Asian elephants, African elephants had been used less in warfare or ceremonial affairs by African powers. The reason lay in the difficulty of taming the African elephant. Some ancient leaders in Africa made use of elephants, but they employed the now-extinct North African subspecies Loxodonta (africana) pharaoensis. The use of tamed elephants for torture or execution has been largely confined to the parts of the world inhabited (or formerly inhabited) by Asian elephants.
A variety of West Asian imperial powers during the medieval period utilized executions by elephants. The Byzantine, Sassanid, Seljuq, and Timurid empires all utilized the method. When the Sassanid king Chosroes II, who had a harem of 3,000 wives and 12,000 female slaves, demanded as 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, and for that refusal, an elephant trampled him to death.
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 that means during his stay in Seljuk-ruled northern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq):
At Nineveh there was an elephant. Its head is not protruding. It is big, eats about two wagon loads of straw at once; its mouth is in its breast, and when it wants to eat it protrudes its lip about two cubits, takes up the straw with it, and puts it in its mouth. When the sultan condemns anyone to death, they say to the elephant, "this person is guilty." It then seizes him with its lip, casts him aloft and slays him.
Ruling powers widely used elephants 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:
The King makes use of them for Executioners; they will run their Teeth [tusks] through the body, and then taer [sic] it in pieces, and throw it limb from limb. They have sharp Iron with a socket with three edges, which they put on their Teeth at such times… 
The nineteenth century traveler James Emerson Tennent comments that, "a Kandyan [Sri Lankan] chief, who witnessed 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." Knox's book depicts exactly this method of execution in a famous drawing, "An Execution by an Elephant."
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 still lived and, evidently, well remembered his or her former duties. Sirr comments:
During the native dynasty it was the practice to train elephants to put criminals to death by trampling upon them, the creatures being taught to prolong the agony of the wretched sufferers by crushing the limbs, avoiding the vital parts. With the last tyrant king of Candy, this was a favourite mode of execution and as one of the elephant executioners was at the former capital during our sojourn there we were particularly anxious to test the creature's sagacity and memory. The animal was mottled and of enormous size, and was quietly standing there with his keeper seated upon his neck; the noble who accompanied us desired the man to dismount and stand on one side.
The chief then gave the word of command, ordering the creature to "slay the wretch!" The elephant raised his trunk, and twined it, as if around a human being; the creature then made motions as if he were depositing the man on the earth before him, then slowly raised his fore-foot, placing it alternately upon the spots where the limbs of the sufferer would have been. This he continued to do for some minutes; then, as if satisfied that the bones must be crushed, the elephant raised his trunk high upon his head and stood motionless; the chief then ordered him to "complete his work," and the creature immediately placed one foot, as if upon the man's abdomen, and the other upon his head, apparently using his entire strength to crush and terminate the wretch's misery.
Rulers used elephants 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 ancient Manu Smriti or Laws of Manu, written down around 200 C.E., prescribed execution by elephants for a number of offenses. If the criminal stole property, for instance, "the king should have any thieves caught in connection with its disappearance executed by an elephant."
During the Mughal era, "it was a common mode of execution in those days to have the offender trampled underfoot by an elephant." Captain Alexander Hamilton, writing in 1727, described how the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan ordered an offending military commander carried "to the Elephant Garden, and there to be executed by an Elephant, which is reckoned to be a shameful and terrible Death." The Mughal Emperor Humayun ordered the crushing by elephant of an imam he mistakenly believed to be critical of his reign. Some monarchs also adopted that form of execution for their own entertainment. Another Mughal ruler, the emperor Jahangir, reportedly ordered a huge number of criminals crushed for his amusement. The French traveler François Bernier, who witnessed such executions, recorded his appallment at the pleasure that the emperor derived from that cruel punishment. The Mughals' used elephants for execution in ways other than crushing; in the Mughal sultanate of Delhi, trainers taught elephants 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 that form of death for a number of conspirators, including the Maratha official Anaji Datto in the late seventeenth century. 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."
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." The naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon cited that flexibility of purpose as evidence that elephants had capacity for "human reasoning, [rather] than a simple, natural instinct."
Governors often held such executions in public as a warning to any who might transgress. To that end, many of the elephants proved especially large, often weighing in excess of nine tons. Intentionally gruesome, by all accounts, they held true to purpose. Torture publicly inflicted by the same elephant sometimes preceded the execution. An account of one such torture-and-execution at Baroda in 1814, has been preserved in The Percy Anecdotes:
The man was a slave, and two days before had murdered his master, brother to a native chieftain, called Ameer Sahib. About eleven o'clock the elephant was brought out, with only the driver on his back, surrounded by natives with bamboos in their hands. The criminal was placed three yards behind on the ground, his legs tied by three ropes, which were fastened to a ring on the right hind leg of the animal. At every step the elephant took, it jerked him forward, and every eight or ten steps must have dislocated another limb, for they were loose and broken when the elephant had proceeded five hundred yards. The man, though covered in mud, showed every sign of life, and seemed to be in the most excruciating torments. After having been tortured in this manner for about an hour, he was taken to the outside of the town, when the elephant, which is instructed for such purposes, was backed, and put his foot on the head of the criminal.
The use of elephants as executioners continued well into the latter half of the nineteenth century. During an expedition to central India in 1868, Louis Rousselet described the execution of a criminal by an elephant. A sketch showed the condemned forced to place his head upon a pedestal, and then held while an elephant crushed his head underfoot. A widely circulated French journal of travel and adventure, "Le Tour du Monde," as well as foreign journals such as Harper's Weekly, published the woodcut sketch.
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'."
Widely circulated reports speak of elephants used to carry out executions from the earliest historical times in southeast Asia, including Burma as well as in the kingdom of Champa on the other side of the Indochinese peninsula. In Siam, trainers taught elephants 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 Cochin-China (modern south Vietnam), where he served as a British envoy in 1821:
July 10. … Ongbo, our guardian, called upon us, and informed us that on the 12th eleven thieves were to be executed by means of his Excellency's favorite elephant. On these occasions the criminal is tied to a stake, and the elephant runs down upon him and crushes him to death.
The Romans, Carthaginians and Macedonian Greeks occasionally utilized elephants for executions and also made use of war elephants for military purposes (most famously so in the case of Hannibal). Armies put deserters or prisoners of war as well as military criminals to death under the foot of an elephant. Ancient chroniclers have recorded several cases.
Perdiccas, who became regent of Macedon on the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E., had mutineers from the faction of Meleager thrown to the elephants to be crushed in the city of Babylon. 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…."
Similarly, the Roman writer Valerius Maximus records how the general Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus "after King Perseus was vanquished [in 167 B.C.E.], 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."
Fewer records exist of elephants used as straightforward executioners for the civil population. Josephus mentioned one such example and the deuterocanonical book of 3 Maccabees in connection with the Egyptian Jews, though probably apocryphal. 3 Maccabees describes an attempt by Ptolemy IV Philopator (ruled 221-204 B.C.E.) to enslave and brand Egypt's Jews with the symbol of Dionysus. When the majority of the Jews resisted, the king reportedly rounded them up and ordered them trampled by elephants. Supposedly the intervention of angels ultimately thwarted the mass execution, following which Ptolemy took an altogether more forgiving attitude towards his Jewish subjects.
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