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Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant Hardcover – May 3, 2004

5.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; First Edition edition (May 3, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151006466
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151006465
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #710,891 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Tim F. Martin on November 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
_Elephas maximus_ is a rather engaging- if sometimes a bit rambling - portrait of the Indian elephant (author Stephen Alter admits that the more proper common name is Asian Elephant but as he focuses on only _Elephas maximus_ as it is found in India he keeps the name Indian Elephant). Alter sought to tell the natural history of the elephant as well as its human history on the subcontinent, depicting it in history, mythology, religion, art, and literature. As he notes in the prologue, the somewhat tangential order of the chapters follows a series of journeys the author made in different parts of India in 2001-2002. Roughly chronological, each chapter details his experiences with actual elephants, those who live and work with them, and his viewings of elephant art (as well as many asides about elephants in history, legend, and literature) as he visited various national parks, shrines, museums, and festivals throughout India.

I learned many interesting facts about elephant biology; the bull elephant experiences a cyclical period of sexual arousal, known as musth. Similar to the rut of a stag, musth is signaled by excretions from glands on either side of the elephant's forehead (in Indian poetry it is described as being a sweet perfume that attracted bees, though the author found it a "sour, oily" odor that attracted swarms of flies). Musth can occur any time of the year, though often afflicts elephants in June as monsoon rains begin. Elephants in musth are very temperamental and prone to fits of rage - tame elephants rarely if ever work during musth - and remain this way from a few weeks up to several months.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Charming read about my favorite creature!
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