Elephant Chess Piece

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Let’s talk strategy

Figure: Attributed to Govardhan - Prince Awrangzeb faces a maddened elephant named Sudakar - from a manuscript of the Padshahnama, c.1635, India - Royal Collections Trust

When you think of an elephant, is it walking, or is it standing still? Does it march forward on nimble feet, or is its movement suspended in time to look at us with its wise eyes?

Our elephant is sculpted with bent knees, caught mid-stride; its tusks used to be pointed and sharp, and the now-jagged bit of ivory on its back was once the figure of a man, riding our elephant into battle.

Were it not for our elephant’s lively pose, one might not make the connection between the endangered species that we know today and early-modern war elephants, deployed onto the battlefields of Asia.

Indeed, our elephant’s stance recalls the enduring presence and importance of elephants in military and ceremonial contexts. From the wars of ancient India to the Achaemenid battlefields, from the Gupta dynasty in the fourth century to the Islamic accounts of war elephants refusing to invade Mecca in 570, the same year that the Prophet Muhammad was born, and still, centuries later, to the Mughal imperial armed forces, war elephants were used extensively in military campaigns and displays across Asia.