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Historic illustration of execution by elephant. Source: Pixaterra / Adobe Stock

Execution by Elephant Was a Brutal Form of Capital Punishment For 2,000 Years


Elephants are one of the smartest and most powerful animals in the world. It is no wonder then that these magnificent beasts were exploited and trained to be brutal executioners. Death by elephant is a form of capital punishment that has been used for at least 2,000 years, particularly in India, but also in other parts of South and Southeast Asia.

Execution by elephant was brutal and terrifying. In India, where this form of capital punishment was known as gunga rao, the accused was crushed to death with brute force. But death was not always swift.

Elephants were under the constant control of a mahout (elephant trainer), who forced the animal, through the use of a sharp metal hook, to carry out their commands.

Illustration of execution by elephant from the Akbarnama, the official chronicle of the reign of Akbar, the third Mughal emperor (Public Domain)

Under the control of a mahout, elephants could inflict a slow and torturous death by crushing the convicted person’s limbs one by one and tossing them about the ground, dragging them, or stabbing them with their tusks, before finishing them off by crushing their skull.

In neighboring Sri Lanka, elephants were said to have been fitted with sharp blades on their tusks, which would rip the criminal to pieces. In the former Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand), elephants were trained to toss their victims into the air before crushing them to death. In the Kingdom of Cochinchina (southern Vietnam), criminals were tied to a stake, whilst an elephant would charge into them, and crush them to death.

The popularity of execution by elephant continued into the 19th century, and it was only with the increasing presence of the British in India that the popularity of this brutal penalty finally went into decline.

Top image: Historic illustration of execution by elephant. Source: Pixaterra / Adobe Stock

Read more: Execution by Elephant: A Gory Method of Capital Punishment

By Joanna Gillan



Pete Wagner's picture

They’re smart animals, most easily tamed/made docile, which suggests they were domesticated long, long ago, prior to the Ice Age, which of course killed most large animals.  But any animal under the control of bad people (of the modern age) will be out it’s element, fearful and dangerous, yes. 

The Hannibal story is probably also old urban legend.  Like dinosaurs, draws people’s attention and wild imaginations.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

The elephants were not treated kindly and they are not today.

They have been captured, subjugated and intimidated to perform according to man’s disgusting wishes. 

The elephants sometimes turn on the Mahout and kill them.



Pete Wagner's picture

Bad people/tyrants obviously exist, and they also spread lies for control and effect.  I think you’d have to train an elephant specifically to do it – which is beyond sick.  I still say probably an urban legend that got legs.  

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

ancient-origins's picture

Hi Pete, there is plenty of historical evidence for this practice. Elephants indeed have a gentle nature but they were forced, coerced and trained with metal prods and hooks to carry out their master’s wishes.  

Pete Wagner's picture

Probably just an old urban legend (not true).  You raise an elephant, care and feed him/her, with love, they’ll love people back, and wouldn’t dare intentionally hurt one.  Wild ones, of course, are very different.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Joanna Gillan's picture


Joanna Gillan is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. 

Joanna completed a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) degree in Australia and published research in the field of Educational Psychology. She has a rich and varied career, ranging from teaching... Read More

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