Cover image for Elephas maximas : a portrait of the Indian elephant
Elephas maximas : a portrait of the Indian elephant
Alter, Stephen.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Orlando, Fla. : Harcourt, Inc., [2004]

Physical Description:
320 pages : illustrations, map ; 22 cm
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QL737.P98 A48 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Revered in Indian religion and culture, coveted for its ivory tusks, the majestic Asian elephant has captured the fascination of humans for more than four thousand years. In an effort to shed light on this regal animal and its unique relationship with humankind, author Stephen Alter traveled around the world to explore its natural home and its place in history and myth.

Alter's search takes him from the depths of wildlife preserves, to a tempting elephant auction, to a dazzling festival dedicated to Ganesha the elephant-headed god. Elephas maximus is as important to modern India as it was centuries ago. Yet conservationists are fighting to preserve its endangered habitat as settlements expand, and ivory poaching has threatened generations of elephants until tuskless males may be all that survive. Charting the elephant in history, art, religion, and folklore, Alter draws a vivid, gorgeously written portrait of its past and its troubled present while offering hope for its future.

Author Notes

Stephen Alter is the author of four novels and three books of nonfiction. He has lived and worked in New Delhi, Honolulu, and Cairo where he was director of the writing program at the American University. He is currently a writer-in-residence at MIT and lives in Reading, Massachusetts

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Alter (Sacred Waters), a writer-in-residence at MIT, was born and raised in India, and in 2001 and 2002 he traveled to various parts of that country, observing elephants roaming wild in national parks and sanctuaries and in captivity in forest camps, zoos and temple precincts. In this entertaining and informative book, his lyrical descriptions of these venues serve as springboards for accounts of the elephants' biology and natural history, including an explanation of the differences between the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), which has a longer tradition of being captured and trained. He shows how, throughout history, the elephant-used for work and warfare and in religious ceremonies-has played an important role in Indian life, and the book is replete with colorful accounts of elephant lore in Indian mythology, literature and art. To emphasize the symbolic significance of the animal, Alter provides a lively description of the Ganesha Chathurthi festival in Mumbai, where images of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity that embodies the power and mystery of creation, are worshipped for 10 days and then cast into the sea. Alter spends time with mahouts (elephant keepers and drivers) and writes movingly of the close relationships they develop with their charges. He visits a market where elephants are sold, and he talks with naturalists who are trying to protect Indian elephants from poaching and preserve their habitats. His book is an elegant paean to the Indian elephant and a wake-up call for its protection. B&w illus. throughout. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Human fascination with elephants is not new, as Alter (Sacred Waters) demonstrates in his latest book. Combining mythology and literature with a lay reader's perspective of ethology and biology, he calls attention to the critical factors that will affect the future of this majestic animal. The author, who was born in the foothills of the Himalayas and knows India well, focuses on the Indian (or Asian) elephant (Elephas maximus), which unlike its wild African cousin has shared a centuries-old relationship with humans. Traveling extensively throughout India, Alter visits Corbett National Park, Theppakkadu (an elephant camp within the Mudumalai Sanctuary), Kaziranga and Rajaji National Parks, and many festivals and ceremonies using elephants. In addition to recounting firsthand experiences, Alter thoroughly discusses the elephant-human relationship, including the religious and cultural role the pachyderm plays in Indian society. Alter's readable study, while not scientific, will be enjoyed by anyone fascinated by these large animals and concerned about their survival. The sole criticism is the inadequate use of illustrations, particularly photographs. Only a limited number of black-and-white illustrations are provided when color would have been better. Recommended where there is interest in animals and natural history.-Edell Schaefer, Brookfield P.L., WI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Winter SanctuaryJanuary 3, 2002We had spent eight hours that day in pursuit of elephants, driving from early morning to late afternoon along the dusty roads that circle through Corbett National Park. Accompanying me was a close friend, Ajay Mark, as well as our driver, Sanjay Singh, and a guide assigned by park authorities, M. S. Negi. Our search had taken us across open grasslands, up boulder-strewn riverbeds, and through heavy jungle. Despite their size, elephants have a way of disappearing in the forest and none of these huge beasts had revealed themselves. We saw plenty of other animals, including four kinds of deer-spotted cheetal, barking deer that have rusty red coats, sambar with shaggy brown manes, and hog deer that are a dull gray color and duck into the underbrush at the first growl of a car's engine. Sounders of wild boar rooted about near the roadside and langur monkeys with silver fur sprang from branch to branch overhead. But there were no elephants that we could see.Signs of them were everywhere-broken tree limbs and mounds of dung like fibrous clumps of drying mulch. Obviously, a herd of elephants had been nearby in recent days, browsing over the grasslands and along the leaf-tangled margins of the jungle. Near the river we could see the circular prints of their feet in the mud and we found a place where one of them had wallowed near the shore, leaving a broad depression partly filled with water. Marks from creases in the elephant's skin were etched in the drying clay and looked like giant fingerprints.I was told that only two days earlier a family of seven elephants had wandered up to the gate of the park headquarters at Dhikala. "They were right here," said Negi, pointing to the high grass encircling the camp. "All night we could hear them feeding."Now the elephants were gone, retreating into the forest like the shadows of trees. Seated on the veranda of the rest house, I could see the foothills across the river fading into darkness. Stars were coming out and Venus shone overhead like a beacon, so bright it seemed artificial. The electricity at Dhikala had gone off and only a few kerosene lanterns glowed in doorways of the camp. My frustration at not having seen a wild elephant was tempered by a comforting sense of separation from the world of jet airliners, digital communication, and the so-called war on terror that dominated recent headlines. Though Dhikala is a large camp, housing over a hundred people, I had a feeling-particularly with the lights off-that this was a world in which human beings were thankfully outnumbered. The venality and violence of civilization, our petty jingoism and material conceits, counted for little under a black sky, pierced by the innumerable sparks of distant galaxies.Alone with my thoughts, I imagined those shadowy elephants moving about under the cover of night. Their invisible presence seemed as constant and fluid as the nearby river, which had also disappeared. The elephants were Excerpted from Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant by Stephen Alter All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
I Winter sanctuaryp. 7
II On the origin of elephantsp. 33
III Mysorep. 63
IV Remover of obstaclesp. 85
V Questions of captivityp. 111
VI Murals, monoliths, and miniaturesp. 145
VII Arundhati's bathp. 173
VIII Gajasutrap. 199
IX Power and pompp. 231
X Northeastp. 257
Acknowledgmentsp. 293
Notesp. 295
Bibliographyp. 313