This New Year Take Home A Symbol Of Power, Strength and Positivity
There’s an old bed time story that once a tyrant elephant tortured and tormented all the other animals and birds in the forest in his greed to become the king of the jungle. One fine day tired of the atrocities of the elephant, a group of foxes held a meeting and made a plot to kill him so the responsibility of the task was given to a young but clever fox. The fox goes up to the arrogant elephant and tells him that everyone in the jungle has agreed upon accepting the elephant as their rightful king, he advises the elephant to follow him for the coronation where the rest are waiting for them. On their way the two had to cross a marshy land, the fox was able to easily walk through due to its weight but the giant elephant got trapped in the swamp and could not get out of it despite using all of its strength, the harder he tried the deeper he would go inside the trap. The fox and the rest of the jungle got its revenge when the elephant eventually died. However, in 2020 the story is just the opposite. Elephants today are among some of the most vulnerable animals on the planet. While the ferocious elephant received its punishment for all the harm it brought to the jungle’s populace, it is still very unclear whether all the animals on Earth that are being put through a lot of suffering will ever receive their rightful justice. Like many others, I too was not aware of the terrible conditions of animals or specifically elephants until recently. So this story is about the rendezvous of mine.
Trip To India
I document lives through my lenses. While on a trip to India, I experienced the odour of sweat on its busy streets, the fragrance of spices in its kitchen, the warmth of hospitality in its dishes and the grandeur of its religious and cultural celebrations. It was more than a mere fascination to see thousands of people flocking the streets to be a part of the gala procession leading to the immersion of massive 18-20 feet idols of Hindu God, Ganesha.
Now to understand why a God has the face of an elephant, we will have to dive deep into mythology which I of course did but let’s keep that conversation for another time. However, while doing my research on this, I found some intriguing facts about elephants, what do they signify, their relevance in the practices of Hinduism and Buddhism.
I am pretty sure we have all watched videos on the internet of baby elephants toying with water, slipping in the mud or playfully sliding down a hill and laughed our hearts out while looking at them. I mean they are cute, elephants are also believed to be symbols of growth and prosperity among various faiths across the globe. Native to the continent of Asia and Africa, the huge and dexterous creatures are world’s largest land animal. In feng shui, elephants symbolize good fortune, abundance and fertility. Well, you must be aware of ‘Dumbo’ or the tale of Jacob (played by Robert Pattinson), Marlena (portrayed by Reese Witherspoon) and their irreparable bond with Rosie (the elephant) in ‘Water for Elephants’ but such stories are rare in reality specially, when the numbers of elephants are drastically declining.
Bonding with Elephants
Once frequently visible, the powerful giant elephants are now an endangered species. Some data’s say an average of 50 elephants are killed each day in Africa. These are results of poaching and rising demands for Ivory in international market. Last year, Botswana which according to conservationists is the last safe haven for elephants in Africa lifted its ban on hunting. According to an article on The Strait Times, “The number of elephants in Botswana has almost tripled to 160,000 since 1991, according to the government, increasing conflict between farmers and the animals, which at times destroy crops and kill villagers while also damaging ecosystems by tearing down trees. While hunting would not meaningfully reduce the number of elephants, income from the sport, could benefit communities in areas where the animals live. The average elephant hunt costs US$45,000 (S$62,000) in neighbouring countries where the practice is legal.” However, critics suggested that the government’s decision was politically motivated. “Most of Botswana's elephants live in the country's north-east, an area of savanna and wetlands, and regularly cross into Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which have large populations of their own. There are about 415,000 elephants left in Africa, with the population having been decimated through poaching for ivory, mainly in East Africa.”
It is indeed ironic to see this plight of an animal which is worshipped by billions and perceived by many as the bearer of well-being, wealth and stability. Though I am not an endorsee of people’s beliefs but this one trip across cities of India changed my perspective towards life and also made me aware about animal cruelty. We are all part of this food chain and when one gets affected the rest of the cycle gets disrupted too. The purpose of my trip to India was to shoot a documentary which is all set to release this Christmas. It’s been two years since that extravagant experience meanwhile my knowledge and understanding of elephants have increased manifold. In an interview to Los Angeles Times, Cynthia Moss explains her love for studying elephants, “They are so interesting and intelligent and complex, and they have a very interesting social life. They're long-lived, therefore you can really get your teeth into a study of them."
Origin, Types and History of Elephants
While the origin of elephants is unclear, “More than 250 species of elephants and elephant-like creatures have roamed the earth in the past. Ancestors of the elephant include the Moeritherum (a pig-like animal that lived 40 million to 30 million years ago), the Piomia (a pig-like animal with a long snout that lived 37 million to 28 million years ago), Deinotherium (an elephant-like animal with downward-hooking tusks that lived 24 million to 1.8 million years ago), the Primelephas (an animal that looked like a modern elephant and lived from 6.2 million to 5 million years ago). African elephants and Asian elephants diverged from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago. They lived at the same time as American mastodons (who lived from 3.75 million to 11,500 years ago) and wooly mammoths (who lived from 400,000 to 3,900 years ago). Ancestors of elephants, such as mastodons and wooly mammoths, have been found all the continents except Antarctica and Australia. In 2009, a well-preserved, 200,000-year-old skeleton of a giant prehistoric elephant was found in Java, which itself was unusual in that bones usually decompose quickly in humid, tropical climates. The animal stood four meters tall and weighed more than 10 tons, which was closer in size to a wooly mammoth than a modern Asian elephants. Another Indonesian, Flores, was the home of stegodons---extinct elephant ancestors which were about the size of a cow, or about a tenth of the size of an Asian elephant.” The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), which lives in rainforests, was recognized as a separate species in 2000 and is smaller than the savanna elephant. It has slender, downward-pointing tusks. The common belief that there existed “pygmy” and “water” elephants has no basis; they are probably varieties of the African forest elephants. On the other hand, the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) weighs about 5,500 kg and has a shoulder height of up to 3.5 metres. The Asian elephant includes three subspecies: the Indian, or mainland (E. maximus indicus), the Sumatran (E. maximus sumatranus), and the Sri Lankan (E. maximus maximus). African elephants have much larger ears, which are used to dissipate body heat. Well, we need days to read about their origin, shape, appearance and species. Let’s take a look at how various cultures celebrate the existence of elephants. Historical records of tamed elephants dates back to the days of Indus civilization, “at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, Pakistan, soapstone carvings depict elephants with cloth on their backs, which indicates use by humans. Mahouts and oozies (elephant trainers in India and Myanmar, respectively) are skilled people who remain in direct contact with the animals for many years. The handlers take care of all the elephants’ needs, and the bond between man and beast becomes very strong. Hastividyarama, an age-old handbook for elephant tamers, spells out prescribed training procedures in detail and is still used today in some parts of Asia. Commanded by its mahout, the elephant was once basic to Southeast Asian logging operations. It remains a symbol of power and pageantry but has been largely supplanted by machinery. African elephants were also tamed during the19th century, in what was the Belgian Congo. Training of these forest elephants was initiated by King Leopold II of Belgium and was conducted by Indian mahouts with Asian elephants. African elephants are now used mainly for transporting tourists in Garamba National Park, where they are valuable in providing revenue to sustain its activities.” - Jeheskel (Hezy) Shoshani, Britannica. At the beginning of the 21st century, fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants remained in the wild. Thailand and Myanmar each had about 5,000 captive elephants employed in traditional roles intermingled with modern use as tourist attractions. Threatened by habitat loss and poaching, Asian and African elephants are listed as endangered species. From 1979 to 1989 the number of African elephants in the wild was reduced by more than half, from 1,300,000 to 600,000.
Elephant figurines and their cultural Relevance
The elephant figurine holds an important place in Hindu mythology and is often used in home décor, to symbolise power, integrity and strength. The elephant figure has its own importance, according to Feng Shui, as well as Vastu Shastra. People often include statues and paintings of elephants, to bring positivity to a home. According to Feng Shui, while a raised elephant trunk symbolises good mood, a trunk in the downward direction represents ability to solve challenges and longevity. Contrary to popular belief, an elephant trunk in the downward direction does not mean bad luck. Such statues are often seen to be situated at offices, warehouses and alike. Feng Shui experts also compare the elephant trunk to a vacuum cleaner that sweeps negative energy. Similarly, as per Vastu in Hinduism,
elephant statues with their trunks facing upwards are considered to be very lucky and are considered to bring good fortune to the family. Elephants with their trunks upwards standing on their rear legs represent power and protection. Two elephants crossing their trunks signify bonding and friendship. If one of the elephants has a tusk and the other does not, it signifies a healthy relationship between males and females. Such statues are believed to have a positive impact on couples, if placed in the bedroom. All elephant images are symbols of protection, good fortune, and wisdom; however white elephants are especially auspicious. It is said that the Buddha’s mother dreamt of a white elephant before she gave birth to him. Elephants are revered in Buddhism and are one of the seven precious treasures of the universal monarch. Like a snow mountain, the elephant embodies dignity, majesty, and power.
While the fear of Covid is still lurking around, the fact that the spirit of Christmas has started to kick in and that it is just a couple of months away got me actively brainstorming on ideas for gifts. I was looking up online for latest trends on gifts this year and came across these divine elephant figurines , I then decided to gift these to my colleagues, friends and dear one’s with the hope that the figurines bring in some positivity in their lives. With this small effort my intention is to spread awareness on animal cruelty. I am hoping to read more and work on other animals too. In fact, my next documentary which is on elephants just received a green light. I can’t wait to start working on this project once things get back to normal and make a body of work that wake up minds. But first, let me send you home an elephant this Christmas.
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