A Woodcut of an execution by elephant published in the 1868 issue of Le Tour Du Monde.
In 1305, the sultan of Delhi (Sunni Muslims) turned the deaths of Mongol prisoners into public entertainment by having them crushed by elephants.
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 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”. 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 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”. The Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta, visiting Delhi in the 1330s, has left the following eyewitness account of this particular type of execution by elephants:
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.
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’.”
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