Musth elephants in Ancient India

The ideal war elephant in ancient India was a male at the height of his powers, in physical condition, experience, and prowess (Trautmann, 2015). An individual in the grip of musth was especially valued, as it was in this state the elephant was believed to be at his most aggressive and vigorous.  Only the healthiest and dominant of bulls would would enter into musth regularly; this state could apparently also be induced by drugs (Edgerton, 1931). The notion that an elephant in musth is a virtue seems counter-intuitive, as Trautmann (2015) notes. In the context of their management, these bulls represent a problem – they can be unpredictable, unresponsive, and dangerous. Yet the combative traits that arose from musth were valuable for warfare: to strike fear into the King’s enemies, and also opposing elephants: research has also shown that musth is an important determinant in dominance interactions between wild bulls (Chelliah & Sukumar, 2013).

Association with the musth elephant either through imagery or working relationship augments the characteristics of those who appropriate that power. The behaviour of a war elephant commanded during musth makes him a formidable opponent for human and elephant alike. A mahout  who can manage such an animal demonstrates remarkable skill and bravery. King Akbar himself was commonly represented as riding a bull its temporal glands overflowing. In this instance the power of a King is not only identified with an elephant but, given his ability to manage the animal’s condition, supersedes it (Trautmann, 2015). In the Ramayana, a great city was said to be filled with elephants in perpetual musth, who were likened to mountains (Trautmann, 2015). Individuals in the throes of musth were something to be held in awe: states deployed in battle and symbols employed in literature in order to impress upon others.

(It is worth noting here, that this mastery of a musth bull as an indication of power and skill continues among elephant-men. A well known photo of the legendary Assamese elephant expert, the late Praktish Chandra Baruah, captures him riding atop his favoured bull, whose temporal glands are secreting. The bull also holds the body of a killed cheetah in its trunk, an unusual behaviour since elephant are believed to typically shy away from dead bodies. This demonstrates both exceptional intimacy and command)

c9e07da4ac19756cd5e121d36de4c324

Akbar riding an elephant – note the fluids streaming from the temporal gland

In the Matanga-Lila, a sanskrit treatise on elephants (trans. Edgerton, 1931), the state of musth is elevated beyond merely an impressionable expression of power. Musth arises, from an “excess of joy”, from a vital, delighted, and healthy elephant, and is likened to experiences of intoxication, madness and and passion. The Matanga-Lila describes fluids overflowing and emanating from different parts of the body – the eyes, the trunk, the nipples and the penis (modern descriptions only identifies the temporal glands).  Further, the effects of musth are not only contained to elephants, but is contagious, affecting other animals that bear witness to it (although not in the intimidating awe-ful manner of a war elephant): “trees reach their seasonal growth at the sight of must, and are other things too are filled with joy”, and in a kingdom where a musth elephant lives, its crops will be plentiful.

The Matanga-Lila states that Brahma “created must, and then deposited half of it in (all other) creatures, moving and stationary, and deposited the other half in elephants”. Rather than a behavioural state, musth here is a substance, universal and present in all beings, and of which the elephant has in excess. Musth animates all kinds of organisms, a veritable elixir. The formidable elephant is regarded as the the highest and most vital expression of an earthly creature. In the grip of musth, he represents the joyful overabundance of that life force.

I appreciate Matanga-Lila’s illustration of musth. First, in its poetic take on how the peak of spirit achieved through participating in this condition. (Musth can still be used to describe a highly spirited and intense affective state in musical circles in India). Second, in how it further reveals the supreme importance given to elephants in ancient India, in propelling the vitality of those they are associated with.

(again and just to note, I have a friend who said he drank some of the elephants musth discharge, and consequently entered into a mad, feverish, bedridden state for three days!).