Mixing mythology and natural history, Stephen Alter lets readers share his lifelong love for the Indian elephant, Elephas maximus
. While legends threaten to overwhelm facts in the tale, Alter has nonetheless presented an accurate portrait of his subject, true to centuries of Indian tradition.
Beyond metaphors and fables, elephants occupy an important place in Sanskrit literature. Gajashastra, or "elephant science," was studied and recorded in several texts that are based on oral traditions.
As much travelogue as science book, Elephas inextricably links the Indian elephant with the history of southern Asia itself. In pre-colonial India, elephants were wound up in religion and daily life; in modern times, the animals were first hunted then fetishized by Westerners. Alter reserves judgment on these issues, except to note that none of India's 20th-century history has been good for elephant populations, which are endangered or threatened nearly everywhere. He treks into parks and reserves, seeking out wild elephants and describing their awe-inspiring behaviors. The stories he uncovers along the way--of temple elephants, mysterious Elephanta Island, seagoing elephants, and the god Ganesha--weave a spellbinding tale. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
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 elephantused for work and warfare and in religious ceremonieshas 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.
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