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
By Joanna Gillan