Elephants are one of the most intelligent and powerful animals in the world. It’s no wonder, then, that these magnificent beasts have been harnessed and trained to be brutal executioners. Death by elephant has been 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.
The execution by the elephant was brutal and terrifying. In India, where this form of capital punishment was known as gunga rao , the accused was crushed to death by brute force. But death has not always been quick.
The elephants were under the constant control of a mahout (elephant trainer), who forced the animal, using a sharp metal hook, to carry out his orders.
Illustration of the execution by elephant of Akbarnama, the official chronicle of the reign of Akbar, the third Mughal emperor ( Public domain )
Under the control of a mahoutelephants could inflict a slow and painful death by crushing the limbs of the condemned one by one and knocking them to the ground, dragging them or stabbing them with their tusks, before finishing them off by crushing their skulls.
In neighboring Sri Lanka, elephants are said to have been fitted with sharp blades to their tusks, which would tear the criminal to pieces. In the ancient kingdom of Siam (now Thailand), elephants were trained to launch their victims into the air before crushing them to death. In the kingdom of Cochinchina (southern Vietnam), criminals were tied to a stake, while an elephant charged at them and crushed them to death.
The popularity of execution by elephant continued into the 19th century, and it was only with the growing presence of the British in India that the popularity of this brutal punishment finally declined.
Top image: Historical illustration of an execution by an elephant. Source: Pixaterra/Adobe Stock
Read more: Execution by Elephant: A Bloody Method of Capital Punishment
By Joanna Gillan