Friday Feature: Death by Elephant? Torture in 19th c India

fictionreboot2It’s surely one of the most gruesome capital punishments ever devised. But it gets worse, warns Tessa Harris in the second part of her blog on India’s historic torture practices. Tessa pens the bestselling fiction series The Anatomist’s Apprentice…see what has turned up in her research, where medicine and fiction intersect with cultural practice.

By Tessa Harris

Westerners have an American to thank for uncovering many of the rich and magical treasures of the Orient for the first time. Henry Clarke Warren, (1854–1899), was a scholar of Sanskrit and Pali, and became the first man to translate a number of Buddhist texts into English. These were later published in the Harvard Oriental Series. His translations provide a fascinating source of Buddhist history and thought. They revealed to the Western world the philosophies, doctrines and practices of a little understood religion, whose roots went back 2,500 years to India.

Along with the tremendous diversity, color and myths familiar to many of us today, however, Warren’s translations also revealed a darker side to Indian society. They exposed the methods of torture that were frequently practiced by rulers on their enemies or simply on petty criminals for perverted pleasure. Astonishingly, some of these disturbing customs even carried on well into the 19th century.

One of Warren’s translations, a Buddhist scripture called the Milinda Panho, belonged to the second century AD. It catalogued various methods of torture, referred to as ‘miseries’. As you’ll see, however, calling them ‘miseries’ is an understatement.  Warren helpfully included footnotes to this list by way of explanation, so we have, for example, the Kettle of gruel. This is when “they cut open the skull, and with a pair of tongs take up a heated iron ball, and throw it in; whereby the brains boil, and run over.”

In the Rahu-mouth torture, according to Warren: “they keep the mouth open by means of a peg, and burn a candle inside. Or, beginning from the roots of the ears, they dig out the teeth, so that the blood gushes forth, and fills the mouth.”

In the blades-of-grass torture, “they begin at the neck, and cut the skin downwards in blade-like strips as far as to the ankles, and then let them fall.” Warren’s translation continues: “Then they put a halter on the man, and drag him forward, so that he stumbles and falls over the blade-like strips of his own skin.”

Of course after such suffering you might imagine that death would be a sweet release. But in parts India, up until as late as the 1800s, that was never easy, either.

According to George Ryley Scott’s “History of Torture”, published in 1940, one method, peculiar to the sub-continent, was to tie the condemned man against a tree, smother him in honey and allow red ants to eat him alive. Another, apparently equally ravenous insect, was the carpet beetle.

By comparison you might be forgiven for thinking that death by elephant would be a preferred option for a condemned prisoner. For hundreds of years, this method of execution was employed by many rulers in South-east Asia. In India the practice was known as ‘Gunga Rao’. The huge, majestic animals symbolized the power that kings and chiefs exercised over local populations. As in the West (with hangings, principally), public executions were designed to engender both fear and curiosity in those who witnessed them. The elephants, were, however, specially trained so that they could not only crush a man with single blow, but also torture him slowly, pulling him limb from limb before dispensing with him, usually by standing on his head.

For one of the most graphic accounts of this custom, we turn to an English journalist.  In 1821, Thomas Byerley published the following report of an execution in Baroda in 1814. He relates how, when a slave murdered the brother of the local chieftain, he suffered the direst consequences.

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.”

There are dozens of accounts from European travelers about this gruesome practice and its many variations. In 1868, a French traveler even reported that the elephants were trained to slice criminals to pieces with “pointed blades fitted to their tusks”.

With the growth of British power on the sub-continent, however, the custom declined. These would be replaced instead by colonial rule, which had its own abuses, though most of them not so vivid to the imagination. By 1914 the author Eleanor Maddock wrote that in Kashmir “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.”

One of these ‘old customs’ took much longer to disappear, however. And remarkably, although rare, it is still practiced occasionally in rural areas of India today, despite being illegal. We are talking about the Hindu practice of sati or suttee, otherwise known as the custom of a widow killing herself, usually by self-immolation. (There are, however, recorded cases where the woman was drowned or buried alive with her husband’s corpse.) Although abhorrent to most modern thinkers, the future for a widow in India up until relatively recently, was bleak. Forced to hand over her husband’s possessions to his family, she was left destitute, alone, forced to shave her head and ostracized if she did not take her own life.

If sati was performed, it appears the widow would sometimes be drugged before throwing herself on the blazing funeral pyre; sometimes she was forced onto it by family members. There are accounts, too, of some women sacrificing themselves apparently willingly, then, as the flames took hold, recanting and trying to run away.

Fanny Parkes, the wife of a minor British civil servant during the early 1800’s, has given us an extraordinary account of a sati burning that took place in 1828. It went ahead despite all attempts to prevent it, short of forbidding it, by the local British magistrate. The outcome of the extraordinary story is that the badly-burned widow was taken into custody by the British government and subsequently cared for. In 1861 a general ban on sati for the whole of India was issued by Queen Victoria. Even so, the custom did not die out completely and, even though the practice has been outlawed in modern India, there are still isolated reports of burnings in remote villages to this

Author Bio: Tessa Harris
Copyright Maureen McLean 2011After studying History at Oxford University, Tessa Harris began a journalistic career in Lincolnshire. She progressed to a London newspaper, and later a feature writer on Best magazine. After two years, she was made editor of a regional arts and listings publication, and later deputy editor on Heritage magazine. In 2005 she was made editor of Berkshire Life magazine. Tessa always had literature aspirations, and in 2000 won a European-wide screenplay writing competition for a work later optioned by a film company. The script was set in 18th century London and subsequent research led Tessa to the invention of Dr Thomas Silkstone, an American anatomist and the world’s first forensic scientist. More books.

Shadow of the Raven: Nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Best Mystery Award 2015

4617911690_238x346American anatomist Dr. Thomas Silkstone hunts for justice amid a maelstrom of madness, murder, and social upheaval. In the notorious mental hospital known as Bedlam, Dr. Thomas Silkstone seeks out a patient with whom he is on intimate terms. But he is unprepared for the state in which he finds Lady Lydia Farrell. Shocked into action, Thomas vows to help free Lydia by appealing to the custodian of her affairs, Nicholas Lupton. But when Silkstone arrives at the Boughton Estate to speak to Lupton, he finds that another form of madness has taken over the village.


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