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Elephants and Mahouts in Persianate South Asia

We celebrate World Elephant Day (12 August) with a guest blog post by Professor Fabrizio Speziale (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris-Marseille), on a Persian text about the origin of the mahout, or elephant keeper.

A guest blog post by Professor Fabrizio Speziale (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris-Marseille).

Summary. The Genealogy of the Mahout is a distinctive Persian text on the elephant composed in South Asia that features an elaborate Islamic narrative about the origin of the elephant keeper, the mahāwat (mahout). The composition and readership of this apocryphal text most likely stems from the guilds of mahouts which emerged as a new professional group in South Asian Muslim society. One manuscript held in The John Rylands Research Institute and Library  (Persian MS 882, ff. 1b-8a) contains a copy that features simply coloured illustrations. 

A Mahout Rides an Elephant (Persian MS 882, folio 2a) 

A Mahout Rides an Elephant (Persian MS 882, folio 2a)

This short, undated, but probably late 18th- or early 19th-century Persian manuscript, contains a pseudograph text. Often entitled the Kursī-nāmah-yi mahāwat-girī, (Genealogy of the Mahout), it vividly illustrates a keen interest for elephants in Persian textual culture and South Asian Muslim society. It also fabricates an Islamic legend,  by tracing the mahout (mahāwat) profession back to the grandsons of the Prophet Noah.

While just when and where the anonymous author originally completed the work remains uncertain, a number of other 18th- to 19th-century manuscripts survive, including several illustrated versions. Like the Rylands volume, two other texts often accompany them: Mu‘ālajāt-i afyāl (Remedies of Elephants), an anonymous treatise on elephant pathology and treatment, as well as a glossary of Arabic, Persian, and Indic terms and pharmacopeia (see Speziale 2018: 108, 220-1).

Elephant with a mahout (Rylands Persian MS 882, folio 3b) 

A Mahout seated next to an Elephant. (Persian MS 882, folio 3b)

Assimilation of Indic knowledge 

While many Sanskrit zoological texts on elephants, such as the Hastyāyurveda of Pālakāpya survive, early Arabic and Persian literatures lack anything comparable. Elephant treatises, often entitled Fīl-nāmah (Book of the Elephant), would later emerge as a new feature of Persian scientific texts written in early modern South Asia (see Speziale 2018: 215-224). As different strata of Muslim society increasingly interacted with this animal, they translated Sanskrit sources in order to better understand it and its Indic environment. In time, South Asian Muslims grew increasingly familiar with elephants, especially rulers, some of whom owned thousands in their stables. Muslim physicians, such as Bīnā ibn Ḥasan, who lived during the reign of the Mughal ruler Akbar (r. 1556–1605), and his son, nobleman Ḥasan Muqarrab Khān (d. 1646), learned to successfully treat the animals as well.

Two attendants washing an elephant (Persian MS 882, folios 6a). Two attendants train an elephant (Persian MS 882, folio 7a).

Two attendants wash (left) and train (right) an elephants. (Persian MS 882, folios 6a and 7a)

Islamization of the mahout profession

Structured in a dialogic, question-and-answer (suwāljawāb) format, the Kursī-nāmah-yi mahāwat-girī discusses the origins of elephants and mahouts, and other topics, including Islamic invocations for recitation by elephant-keepers. It commences with two questions about the mahout profession. The first answer explains how prior to the Prophet Noah and the first mahouts, the elephant existed as a demon. The second names the first three mahāwat as Aḥmad Kabīr, Khwāja Sulṭān Aḥmad Kabīr, and Khwāja Aḥmad, all sons of Maḥmūd, a son of Noah. This attribution attempts to rehabilitate a negative portrayal of elephant drivers (aṣḥāb al-fīl) in the Qur’ān, Chapter 106, al-Fīl (The Elephant), which depicts the humiliating defeat of King Abraha’s siege of Mecca during the year of Muhammad’s birth (ca. 570) as divine retribution.

Subsequent questions concern the origin of the elephant and its purity or impurity. One answer explains that elephants used to be green, but after one fornicated with a female demon named Barnānūs, who gave birth to a blackened elephant baby, they thereafter turned black from sin. A kursī-nāmah, a genealogy of names traced from Noah’s offspring back to Adam, concludes the text. It resembles a silsilah (genealogy), i. e., a chain of Sufi spiritual masters that claim descent from the Prophet Muḥammad. The kursī-nāmah instructs mahouts to dutifully memorize the text, and to annually present copies to a Sufi master (pīr), presumably to recite the text before him, as most mahouts were illiterate.

 The demon Barnānūs copulates with an elephant The demon Barnānūs and her black elephant baby (Persian MS 882, folio 5b).

Left: The demon Barnānūs mates with an elephant.

Right: Barnānūs with her black elephant baby. (Persian MS 882, folios 5a–5b)

The function of apocryphal writing

By composing the Kursī-nāmah-yi mahāwat-girī, its anonymous author attempts to reshape Islamic views regarding elephants and mahouts, something vital for many Indian Muslims employed as elephant keepers. It would not be surprising if patrons of this text came from mahout guilds, some of whom grew rather influential due employment by rulers and nobility. Much like another South Asian Persian pseudograph treatise on Indic alchemy, Haft Aḥbāb (Seven Friends), attributed to Sufi master Ḥamīd al-Dīn Nagawrī (d. 1246) and his companions (see Speziale 2019), the Kursī-nāmah-yi mahāwat-girī demonstrates how apocryphal Muslim authorship faciliated the assimilation of knowledge from an Indic environment. 

Fabrizio Speziale is professor of Persian and South Asian studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (Paris-Marseille). His recent book on Ayurvedic medicine and Persianate literary culture in South Asia features a chapter discussing texts on elephants and the horses. He currently explores the Kursī-nāmah-yi mahāwat-girī and the function of pseudographic literature in South Asia.

References and further readings

Fabrizio Speziale, Culture persane et médecine ayurvédique en Asie du Sud, Leiden: Brill, 2018. 

Fabrizio Speziale. “Rasāyana and Rasaśāstra in the Persian Medical Culture of SouthAsia.” History of Science in South Asia, 7 (2019): 1–41.


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