Muslim Punishment During Mughal Rule In India: Execution By Elephant

File:Le Toru Du MOnde.jpg

A Woodcut of an execution by elephant published in the 1868 issue of Le Tour Du Monde.

In 1305, the sultan of Delhi (Sunni Muslims) turned the deaths of Mongol prisoners into public entertainment by having them crushed by elephants.

During the Mughal era, “it was a common mode of execution in those days to have the offender trampled underfoot by an elephant.” Captain Alexander Hamilton, writing in 1727, described how the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan ordered an offending military commander to be carried “to the Elephant Garden, and there to be executed by an Elephant, which is reckoned to be a shameful and terrible Death”. The Mughal Emperor Humayun ordered the crushing by elephant of an imam he mistakenly believed to be critical of his reign.

Some monarchs also adopted this form of execution for their own entertainment. Another Mughal ruler, the emperor Jahangir, is said to have ordered a huge number of criminals to be crushed for his amusement. The French traveller François Bernier, who witnessed such executions, recorded his dismay at the pleasure that the emperor derived from this cruel punishment. Nor was crushing the only method used by the Mughals’ execution elephants; in the Mughal sultanate of Delhi, elephants were trained to slice prisoners to pieces “with pointed blades fitted to their tusks”. The Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta, visiting Delhi in the 1330s, has left the following eyewitness account of this particular type of execution by elephants:

“Upon a certain day, when I myself was present, some men were brought out who had been accused of having attempted the life of the Vizier. They were ordered, accordingly, to be thrown to the elephants, which had been taught to cut their victims to pieces. Their hoofs were cased with sharp iron instruments, and the extremities of these were like knives.
On such occasions the elephant-driver rode upon them: and, when a man was thrown to them, they would wrap the trunk about him and toss him up, then take him with the teeth and throw him between their fore feet upon the breast, and do just as the driver should bid them, and according to the orders of the Emperor.
If the order was to cut him to pieces, the elephant would do so with his irons, and then throw the pieces among the assembled multitude: but if the order was to leave him, he would be left lying before the Emperor, until the skin should be taken off, and stuffed with hay, and the flesh given to the dogs”
The early 19th century writer Robert Kerr relates how the king of Goa “keeps certain elephants for the execution of malefactors. When one of these is brought forth to dispatch a criminal, if his keeper desires that the offender be destroyed speedily, this vast creature will instantly crush him to atoms under his foot; but if desired to torture him, will break his limbs successively, as men are broken on the wheel.” The naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon cited this flexibility of purpose as evidence that elephants were capable of “human reasoning, [rather] than a simple, natural instinct”.

Such executions were often held in public as a warning to any who might transgress. To that end, many of the elephants were especially large, often weighing in excess of nine tons. The executions were intended to be gruesome and, by all accounts, they often were. They were sometimes preceded by torture publicly inflicted by the same elephant used for the execution. An account of one such torture-and-execution at Baroda in 1814 has been preserved in The Percy Anecdotes:

The man was a slave, and two days before had murdered his master, brother to a native chieftain, called Ameer Sahib. About eleven o’clock the elephant was brought out, with only the driver on his back, surrounded by natives with bamboos in their hands. The criminal was placed three yards behind on the ground, his legs tied by three ropes, which were fastened to a ring on the right hind leg of the animal.
At every step the elephant took, it jerked him forward, and every eight or ten steps must have dislocated another limb, for they were loose and broken when the elephant had proceeded five hundred yards. The man, though covered in mud, showed every sign of life, and seemed to be in the most excruciating torments. After having been tortured in this manner for about an hour, he was taken to the outside of the town, when the elephant, which is instructed for such purposes, was backed, and put his foot on the head of the criminal.


The use of elephants as executioners continued well into the latter half of the 19th century. During an expedition to central India in 1868, Louis Rousselet described the execution of a criminal by an elephant. A sketch was made of the execution showing the condemned being forced to place his head upon a pedestal, and then being held there while an elephant crushed his head underfoot. The sketch was made into a woodcut and printed in “Le Tour du Monde”, a widely circulated French journal of travel and adventure, as well as foreign journals such as Harper’s Weekly.

The growing power of the British Empire led to the decline and eventual end of elephant executions in India. Writing in 1914, Eleanor Maddock noted that in Kashmir, since the arrival of Europeans, “many of the old customs are disappearing – and one of these is the dreadful custom of the execution of criminals by an elephant trained for the purpose and which was known by the hereditary name of ‘Gunga Rao’.”


  1. Tennent, p. 281.
  2. Sirr, Sir Charles Henry, quoted in Barrow, George. “Ceylon: Past and Present”. John Murray, 1857. pp. 135–6.
  3. Olivelle, p. 125.
  4. Jack Weatherford-Genghis Khan, p.116
  5. Natesan, G.A. The Indian Review, p. 160
  6. Hamilton, p. 170.
  7. Eraly, p. 45.
  8. Battuta, “The travels of Ibn Battuta“, transl. Lee, S, London 1829, pp. 146-47
  9. Eraly, p. 479.
  10. Eraly, p. 498
  11. Kerr, p. 395.
  12. Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc. “Natural history of man, the globe, and of quadrupeds”. vol. 1. Leavitt & Allen, 1857. p. 113.
  13. Ryley Scott, George. “The Percy Anecdotes vol. VIII”. The History of Torture Throughout the Ages. Torchstream Books, 1940. pp. 116–7.


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