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Perspectives Art Explained

Elephant Soul, Indian Brush

Take a closer look at the Asian elephant through the eyes of Indian court painters

June 14

Traditional Indian Paining of gray elephtant.

An astute young visitor to Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting counted 123 elephants across the exhibition.[1] Some are easy to find, such as the majestic portrayals of bejeweled pachyderms of the Mughal court standing in profile against a plain or colored ground (fig. 1). Others are concealed in the hilly forests of Rajasthan, running through the trees and bushes as they participate in a royal hunt (fig. 2). Almost invisible are grisaille elephants bathing in a pool in The Elephant Hunt (1730–40), their splashing gray bodies merging with the fluid lines of moving water (fig. 3).

Traditional Indian painting of an elephant standing in profile with a yellow decorated clothe and a rider wearing white. Yellow background. 

Fig. 1: Elephant and Rider, Mughal, ca. 1640. On loan from the Howard Hodgkin Indian Collection Trust

painting of elephants in a forest on left and painting of elephants bathing on the right 

Fig. 2: Shri Brijnathji and Maharao Durjan Sal hunting Kota, Rajasthan, 1730–40. On loan from the Howard Hodgkin Indian Collection Trust. Fig. 3: The Elephant Hunt, Rajput, attributed to Niju, Kota, Rajasthan, 1730–40. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The elephant is central to Indian culture, and Indian artists have for centuries captured the elephant in painting, sculpture, textiles, and rock-cut reliefs. The relationship between man and elephant in India developed in many contexts, from the jungles and the wild to the temple and the court, where elephants were trained and used in the army, hunts, rituals, and ceremonies. The beloved elephant god Ganesh appears in daily life, from a twelfth-century Chola bronze image, which would have been carried in religious processions, to the annual Ganapati festival where images of the deity are immersed in water

The British artist Howard Hodgkin (1932–2017) had a marked passion for images of Indian elephants, which stand out as a distinct group within his larger collection of Indian court painting. His assemblage of 122 works dating from the late sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, from the Mughal, Deccan, and Rajput courts, contains several important elephant images, which he avidly pursued alongside his own creative output as a painter and printmaker.[2] But why elephants? Hodgkin clearly recognized the importance of the elephant to Indian culture, noting that the depiction of elephants was taken as seriously as that of kings.[3] However there may also have been a certain emotional and psychological dimension to Hodgkin’s relationship to the subject. According to his friend Terence McInerney, on some deep level Hodgkin may have thought of himself as an old stalwart elephant, suggesting that his elephant collection may have been a key to his own inner self.[4]

Many elephant studies, especially those originating in the Mughal tradition, assume the character of portraits, sensitively capturing the personalities of individual pachyderms standing tall in stately profile. Specific elephants can be traced in chronicles and histories and are often identifiable by the presence of their names inscribed between their legs, in a cartouche, or on the reverse of the folio, such as in the image of Firoz Jang, “Victorious in War” (fig. 4), or another of Khushi Khan, “Lord of Happiness”.

painting of an elephant in a field on the left and painting of an elephant against a green background on the right 

Fig. 4: An Elephant and Keeper, Mughal, ca. 1650–60. Fig. 5: The Elephant Khushi Khan, Mughal, ca. 1650

Studies of elephants from the Rajput courts, by comparison, frequently show them in dramatic action, as in elephant or lion fights prepared as cartoons for wall paintings (fig. 6). Deccani elephants add a unique flavor to the formula—they tend to be shown in a more poetic and fantastical manner, with voluminously rounded bodies and displays of tender emotion, such as is seen in an elephant family locked in embrace at the bottom of the Composite Album Page with Standing Figure of Jahangir (fig. 7). Of course there are many crossovers of style between these traditions and courtly workshops.

Painting of elephant and lion fight

Fig. 6: A Royal Lion Hunt, Kota or Bundi, Rajasthan, ca. 1640. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A light shaded gathering of elephtants, with a man and woman riding on the backs of the elephants.

Fig. 7: Elephant Family (detail from Composite Album Page with Standing Figure of Jahangir), Deccan, 17th century

When, in the late sixteenth century, emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) of the imperial Mughal dynasty decreed that an album of lifelike portraits of his courtiers be created based on their exact appearances, he set into motion a tradition of naturalistic representation in Indian art that extended beyond human subjects. Under Mughal patronage, individual horses, elephants, and wildlife were individually studied and recorded, as were flowers and insects. So accurate and sensitive are these depictions that they have been noted for their scientific qualities.

painting of an elephant with a rider on the left and painting of an elephant on the right 

Fig. 8: Elephant with Mahout, Mughal, ca. 1660. Fig. 9: African Bush Elephant, attributed to Govardhan, Mughal, 17th century. Private Collection

The Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) is one of three extant recognized subspecies of the Asian elephant. The species is smaller than the African elephant, with a convex back and a distinctive crown-like forehead as the highest point of the body (fig. 8). Compare the Indian elephant with a rare image of an African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) attributed to the seventeenth-century artist Govardhan and now in a private collection (fig. 9).[5] We see this creature has a lower and flatter brow, larger ears, and longer trunk. Indeed, keen observation and recording was the intention behind some of this artistic production, as the Mughals—pre-Enlightenment figures in their own right—advanced the understanding of the natural world through the medium of art. Elephants were also recognized for their character, as mentioned by Akbar’s court chronicler Abu’l Fazl: “This wonderful animal is in bulk and strength like a mountain; and in courage and ferocity like a lion.”[6] Painted studies of these creatures captured not only their physical features but conveyed a sense of their inner life and personalities.

Painting of Elephants in a royal procession  

Fig. 10: A Prince Riding an Elephant in Procession, Mughal, ca. 1570

In a fragmentary cloth painting, a delightful baby elephant marches along in a Mughal parade, valiantly keeping in step with the senior pachyderms (fig. 10). While the little elephant wears just a simple rope with bells, the painting depicts the garniture of the other royal elephants. This includes varieties of ropes (kilawah, dor), ornamental and practical chains (gudauti), strings of bells (chaurasi), decorated headdresses (ranpiyala), back cushions (gadelah), dyed Tibetan yak-tail finials (quta), tusk rings (bangri), and goads (ankus) held by mahouts or riders, among other items.[7]

Painting of an elephant eating leaves against yellow background 

Fig. 11: Young Elephant Eating, Mughal, ca. 1650

Another young elephant portrayed in a study from the Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58) period is shown eating sweet leaves (fig. 11). His dark color, high head, and yellow eye suggest he may be a mand elephant, a type of elephant classified by Abu’l Fazl as being “wild and ungovernable”.[8] Set against a plain yellow ground with few landscape details, his forefeet are held with links suggesting he has not yet been tamed. A pitkacch, or double chain with hanging bell, is fastened around his middle, and he has just deposited three pieces of dung as he sets about his meal.

painting of an elephant in profile with a decorative cloth and a rider with two attendants to the left 

Fig. 12The Elephant Ganesh GajMughal, ca. 1660–70. On loan from the Howard Hodgkin Indian Collection Trust

Painting of elephants in a royal procession 

Fig. 13: Sultan Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II in Procession (detail), Deccan, attributed to ‘Ali Riza, mid-17th century

Indian artists often rendered elephants in the nimqalam (“half pen”) drawing technique, which utilized monochromatic tones, fine stippling, and highlights of color or gold. This grisaille-like technique was especially suited to elephant studies, effectively capturing the gray hues, voluminousness, mass, wrinkly skin, and fine hairs of the creatures. The elephant Ganesh Gaj (circa 1660–70)—a treasure of the Mughal stables—is one such example (fig. 12). He stands massively against a shrunken background of hills, probably meant to signify the northern Deccan landscape with a miniaturized camel train passing through, also rendered in nimqalam. The restricted palette and fine stipples highlight his large form, mottled skin, and heavy lower lip. A Deccani painting shows the ruler of Bijapur in procession in a parade of elephants, fantastical and balloon-like in their rounded bodies and legs, all rendered with extremely fine nimqalam stippling (fig. 13). 

painting of an elephant trampling a horse

Fig. 14: Elephant Trampling a Horse, Deccan, mid-17th century

painting of an elephant with marbled skin 

Fig. 15: Marbled Elephant, Deccan, 1630–50

In a Deccan nimqalam drawing, Elephant Trampling a Horse (mid-seventeenth century), the background is heightened in a more decorative vein with dramatic marbling effect and gold to highlight the action. In this technique (abri or ebru), colors are applied to the surface of a painting through immersing the page in a bath of floating pigments, resulting in striated and rounded forms like stone marble (fig. 14). A talented artist has reversed this effect in another Deccan elephant image of the same period, Marbled Elephant (1630–50), where the gray tones of marbling in the elephant’s body make a witty pun on nimqalam by referencing a grisaille-like effect but in another technique, while other parts of the composition are marbled in different colors (fig. 15).

Two elephants fighting 

Fig. 16: Elephant Fight, Kota, Rajasthan, attributed to the Kota Master, ca. 1655–60. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In Rajput drawings, particularly at Kota and Bundi, the tinted nimqalam effect is often intensified in inky drawings on paper to create powerful images of elephants in action. Two fighting elephants collide in a drawing attributed to the Kota Master in circa 1655–60 (fig. 16). Mughal naturalism is banished in favor of stylized Rajput drama, with intensely modeled areas, passionately curling trunks, and bumping faces as the mahouts attempt to contain the animals. An attendant on the ground tries to control the scene with the help of a charkha, a fire-cracker-like device at the end of a tall bamboo pole. This design, transferred to the walls of a Rajput fortress, could have been rendered in brilliant color as part of a larger scheme of interior décor with scenes of valor and myth.

drawing of an elephant rolling in the dust on the left and drawing of an elephant with a rider on the right

Fig. 17: Playful Elephant Bathing in Dust, Kota, Rajasthan, ca. 1700. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Fig. 18: Elephant Eating Foliage, Mankot, Punjab Hills, ca. 1700

Painting of an enraged elephant in a state of heat 

Fig. 19: Enraged Elephant during Training, Kota, Rajasthan, ca. 1690. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

It is in the images of the daily life of the elephant, however, that we most closely sense the feeling of the Indian artist for his beloved subject matter. Here a great relationship is revealed—one between the magnificent animal and its devoted observer who notes its habits, personality, traits, and features with close attention. We learn about the elephants’ predilection for rolling in dust through a drawing of circa 1700, where the elephant is shown on the ground in a contrapposto pose (fig. 17). In a drawing of the same period, another elephant enjoys a leafy lunch straight from the tree, almost smiling with delight as he pulls up a bunch of leaves toward himself (fig. 18). In Enraged Elephant during Training (circa 1690), an elephant in a state of mast (or heat, as described in the inscription) is convincingly captured in a fierce mode with trunk extended and eyes glaring, a time in their life cycle when the creatures secrete a certain substance from their temples and are known to behave in wild ways (fig. 19).

Painting of an elephant adorned with decorative cloth and jewelry with two riders against a blue background 

Fig. 20: Sultan Muhammad 'Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan Riding an Elephant, Deccan, Haidar 'Ali, Ibrahim Khan, ca. 1645

In ceremony and symbolism, elephants were often decorated with auspicious or flattering jewels and makeup—their faces and trunks brilliantly colored with vermilion or other tones for special temple rituals or court occasions. A Bijapur painting of the mid-seventeenth century by the artists Haidar ‘Ali and Ibrahim Khan depicts Sultan Muhammad ‘Adil Shah and his African prime minister Ikhlas Khan atop a magnificent dark elephant, adorned with garlands of jasmine and roses, yak tail earring, tusk ornaments, and numerous jewels and bells (fig. 20).

Close up of a painting of an elephant with makeup and a rider against a green background 

Fig. 21: Rao Bhao Singh Riding an Elephant (detail), Bundi, Rajasthan, ca. 1675

Raja Bhao Singh’s large bull elephant depicted in Bundi in circa 1675 has a strong pinkish mottling which contrasts with the darker coloration in other parts (fig. 21). His natural rosy “makeup” is highlighted with delicate touches of red along the temple and trunk, and he wears tiger claw amulets, as he transports his royal rider across a Mughal-inspired green ground.

painting of an elephant with two smaller elephants on the left and painting of an elephant with a rider against a green background on the right 

Fig. 22: ‘Alam Guman, the chief elephant of Rana Amar Singh, and other elephants, Mughal, ca. 1614. Fig. 23: Portrait of the Elephant ‘Alam Guman, Mughal, attributed to Bichitr, ca. 1640

Just as human lives can be traced across time in Mughal portraits, so too can elephants’. In 1614 when Akbar’s son and successor Jahangir (r. 1605–27) succeeded in subduing the state of Mewar, he captured Rana Amar Singh’s elephant ‘Alam Guman.[9] ‘Alam Guman is depicted in a painting on cloth, now in the National Museum, Delhi, where he is identified in an inscription by name and shown almost bare from trappings with three young calves (fig. 22).[10] Some years later, ‘Alam Guman was portrayed again in Portrait of the Elephant 'Alam Guman (circa 1640), now a senior elephant in the stables of Shah Jahan, the next Mughal emperor (fig. 23). This work in The Met collection is attributed to the artist Bichitr and depicts the elephant dressed with fine fittings, his name boldly inscribed in a cartouche which also mentions his monetary worth—a princely one hundred thousand rupees (yek lakh rupaiyya). 

Thirteen elephants in a royal procession 

Fig. 24: Maharaja Raj Singh and his Elephants, Mughal, ca. 1710–15. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Indian elephants commanded a retinue of courtly servants themselves. Mughal historical sources list the titles of the human functionaries around the elephant stables—the faujdar, or superintendent over every troop (halqah) of elephants, and lesser ranks such as the mahawat (“mahout”) who sits on its neck, a bhoi who sits on its rear, and a met’h who brings the elephant its fodder. Artists captured the role and function of the elephant attendants who are often shown alongside the elephant, displaying a considerable range of specialized skills. For example, an early-eighteenth-century drawing from Sawar depicting Maharaja Raj Singh in an elephant procession shows thirteen elephants marching together in rank and file, controlled by riders or runners, some of whom also perform ceremonial duties such as carrying flags or royal trappings (fig. 24).

Painting of two elephants with riders and attendants in a natural landscape 

Fig. 25: Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II Riding His Prized Elephant, Atash Khan, with the elephant Chanchal, Mughal, attributed to Farrukh Beg, ca. 1600. David Collection, Copenhagen

Perhaps one of the greatest love stories of India is that between two elephants, Atash Khan (Lord of Fire) and Chanchal (Tinkling Anklets), who were in the stables of Sultan Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II of Bijapur (r. 1580–1627) in the Deccan. In a painting by the artist Farrukh Husain, Atash Khan, the bull elephant, bears the sultan on his back while Chanchal, his mate, appears as a demure and shadowy presence by his side. She was presented to the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1604, embarking with the ambassador Asad Beg on a long journey northward to the Mughal court (fig. 25). Distraught at being separated from her partner, she could only be comforted with gallons of Portuguese wine along the way.[11]

Through the remarkable images collected by Hodgkin and the larger world of Indian elephant pictures, artists have illuminated the joy, inner life and dignity of nature’s great creation and the central place of the elephant in Indian art and culture.



[1] Thanks go to Margot Rochell, 7, for this important observation.


[2] The majority of his collection has been recently acquired by The Met and is currently on display along with loans from the Hodgkin Trust.


[3] Hodgkin, H, ‘Notes on the Collection’ in Filippi, GG, Indian Miniatures and Paintings from the 16th to the 19th century, The Collectino of Howard Hodgkin, Verona, 1997. 


[4] Terence McInerney in conversation with HH; personal communication. 


[5] Enbom, D, Indian MiniaturesThe Ehrenfeld Collection, New York (American Federation of the Arts), 1985, pp. 60–61, no. 20.


[6] Abu’l Fazl ‘Allami, Ain-i Akbari, Blochmann H (tr.), Calcutta, 1873, vol. 1, p. 117.


[7] Abu’l Fazl ‘Allami, Ain-i Akbari, Blochmann H (tr.), Calcutta, 1873, vol. 1, p. 120.


[8] Abu’l Fazl ‘Allami, Ain-i Akbari, Blochmann H (tr.), Calcutta, 1873, vol. 1, p. 118


[9] The Jahangirnama, Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India, Thackston, W (tr.), NY, 1999, p. 157: “At this auspicious time the elephant Alam-Guman, who was worthy of being a royal elephant, was paraded past my view along with the Rana's seventeen other male and female elephants my son Baba Khurram had sent, giving much joy and happiness to our supporters.”


[10] Das, AK, ‘The Elephant in Mughal Painting’ in Flora and Fauna in Mughal Art, Verma, SP (ed), Marg, vol. 50, no. 3, March 1999, p. 46, no. 10. 


[11] Haidar, N, and Sardar, M, Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700; Opulence and Fantasy, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015, pp. 100–101, cat. 31.



About the contributors

Curator, Department of Islamic Art