Long regarded as a symbol of power, strength, wisdom and longevity, the elephant has a storied history that stretches as far back as the Roman empire – a surprise, perhaps, since the vision of an elephant boasting a howdah (royal canopy) has become synonymous with the maharaja of India. Caesar’s army was reinforced by a battalion of pachyderms; medieval Denmark, Spain and England all featured elephants done up in armor and marching headlong into assorted wars, mostly with shielded warriors shooting arrows from the cockpit of these hard charging, four-legged Panzer tanks. So, the elephant as a proven symbol of power and strength is nothing new; India simply elevated its stature to an almost mythical level.
It’s probably during the Carnatic Wars of the mid 18th century when elephants became best known as both the leader of brigades and a bejeweled parade float for India’s ruling elite. These kings (counting the French and British Raj among them) would process through the land and capital cities, surveying their subjects, ratifying the borders of this or that vassal state, and largely sending a message to the local population about who’s in charge. It’s not hard to imagine the impact that riding atop an elephant might have on a commoner, who would have made a direct connection between the elephant and Lord Ganesh, Hinduism’s mighty elephant deity. Lest the spectator wander further in thought, Ganesh was, and is, widely revered as a remover of obstacles.
Whatever opinion we may hold about the subjugation of elephants for political and/or military purposes, it’s undeniable that some of Asia’s most beloved objects d’art are shaped as an artistic expression of their magnificent beauty.
A visit to the Red Fort in Agra, India, bears witness to extraordinary displays of the elephant through motifs, gateway reliefs, doorknobs and a pair of colossal hand-carved statues. That the fort was built next to the Taj Mahal, which enlisted the strength of more than 1,000 elephants in its construction, is of no small relevance in validating the elephant’s deep and broadly felt historical importance. Yet, it’s the regality of the world’s largest terrestrial animal that most captures our imagination. It’s little wonder “mammoth” (an Ice Age ancestor) has become associated with all things really big.
Along with the Warrior Horses, the two Maharaja Elephants that Modern Fiber curates were culled from a collection in Agra, and feature a stunning overlay of intricately designed silver sterling that does more than justice to the lavishness of a more princely era.
Today, of course, the elephant’s very survival is at stake. Prized for its ivory on the African continent and throughout Asia, the story of the elephant has, unfortunately, become one of endangerment and even potential extinction outside of captivity.
An ambassador to the cause of elephant conservation, Ella Jensen is an 11-year-old artist from Newport Beach who has dedicated recent months to creating jewelry that pays tribute to elephants and their diminishing herds. Ella donates all of the proceeds from her jewelry to savetheelephants.org, and invites you to join her in making a donation. Modern Fiber has partnered with Ella to support conservation efforts, and will be donating a portion of the proceeds from our sale of the statuettes to savetheelephants.org. If you so choose, know that your purchase will be helping to preserve beauty in the world of art, and in the world itself.