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Object of the Month #10
Ivory Processional Elephant (2013.01.232)
October 2015

It’s time for Monday Morning Meeting and people are trickling into the chapel.  Suddenly someone bursts in yelling, “Peter Fayroian’s riding an elephant!”  That would probably get your attention.  October’s Object of the Month isn’t just one person with an elephant; it’s an entourage.

 The ivory carving, only 13 cm tall (approximately 5”), depicts an Asian elephant on a plinth carrying a double-domed howdah, or litter, walking with his front right foot raised in mid-step.  A foot soldier walks in front of the elephant’s right side.  There are two passengers inside the howdah, and a mahout, or driver, in front.  In addition to the howdah, the elephant wears a headdress and caparison with detailed floral carvings.  Both elephant and soldier are attached to the plinth with small pegs that fit into corresponding holes.  A closer look at the plinth reveals four pairs of holes, one set at each corner.  The foot soldier fits most cleanly into the holes in the front right.  Three more soldiers almost certainly would have stood in each of the remaining three corners.  Several other parts of the model are also missing: a tassel from the elephant’s left ear, weaponry for the three missing soldiers, a spear carried in the extant foot soldier’s right hand, an object (perhaps a goad) held in the mahout’s right hand, and two finials on the top of the howdah.

The elephant model has ten component parts.  Interestingly, the pieces were not all found together, but rather, jumbled up with ivory fragments from several other tableaux, mixed between two separate packages.  All of the pieces were ultimately sorted into four separate groups: this elephant and howdah, a palanquin, a bullock cart, and one unknown item.[1]

All of the ivory probably came from the city of Murshidabad in India.  About a six hour drive north of Kolkata, it was once the capital of Bengal during the time of the Mughal dynasty, which ruled what is today much of northern India from the 16th to the 18th centuries.  Known for silk production as well as ivory carving, all of the ivory tableaux in the NMH Archives were probably carved in Murshidabad in the mid-19th century.

The elephant and the other ivory pieces may have been made for the tourist market, or for British expats working in India for the East India Company and then the subsequent British Raj.[2]  Popular carved ivory subjects of the time included palanquins, bullock carts, and processional elephants, all of which are represented in the ivories in the NMH collection.[3]

Perhaps an examination of the howdah’s passengers could help identify the intended audience for the piece.  If the passengers are clearly wearing European dress, it may indicate that the prospective market was also European.  As near as I can tell, however, the two passengers, the mahout, and the soldier are all at least superficially similar in appearance.  All four of them, for example, seem to have patronized the same hatter and the same barber (although I’m not positive that the two passengers also have mustaches).  These similarities don’t prove definitively that all four men are Indian, but it is suggestive and does raise the possibility that the original market for the piece may also have been Indian.

Elephants would have been a mode of transportation used on special occasions by Indian royalty, and perhaps the very wealthy.  Not surprisingly, after the British arrival on the subcontinent, British higher-ups adopted the custom as well.[4]  Regardless of the identification of the howdah’s passengers, they almost certainly would have been nobles or members of the upper classes.

At the time these carvings were made, the Victorian cabinet of curiosities aesthetic was in full swing, and decorative pieces like these would have been a natural fit displayed on mantels and shelves.  A picture of the “Matron’s Room” in Cottage IV taken in the late 19th century gives you a vague approximation of the style; filled cabinets (although in this case, with china rather than knick-knacks), and densely covered surfaces and walls.

 Unexpectedly, the ivory used in these carvings might be from African rather than Asian elephants.   Carved Asian ivory was more traditional in India until the 19th century, when African ivory gained in popularity because it was considered softer and easier to carve.  The relative hardness of Asian ivory, however, was prized in Japan, which meant that artisans were importing African ivory to India, while at the same time exporting Asian ivory to Japan.[5]

International laws have banned the international trade of ivory since 1990 in order to protect endangered elephant populations.  Within the United States the sale of ivory across state lines has been severely limited since 1982.  Even though there are legal means to sell and transport antique ivory, such as this piece, provenance can be hard to prove, which means it is likely the NMH ivory came here before the 1980s, and I would even guess some decades before that.

If you’ve been a regular reader of the Object of the Month columns, you won’t be surprised to learn that we know next to nothing about how the ivory came to be here.  No donor’s name is attached to it, nor do we know when it was donated.  All four ivory groupings are still incomplete, with obvious missing pieces.  As for all unsourced objects in the NMH Archives, a missionary origin is certainly possible, but far from proven at this point.  As always, I am hopeful that answers are waiting in the next unopened box.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] There was one other piece found in the assemblage, a flat ivory stick, that belonged to none of these four groupings.  It turned out to be a piece of decorative edging for a carved wooden box, found months earlier in a completely different part of the archives.  This has me wondering if the box and ivory carvings are related by donor, place of origin, or some other common ground.

[2] For another example of art produced for the tourist market, see the Object of the Month #1.2.

[3] Nandi, S. (1969). Art of Ivory in Murshidābād. Indian Museum Bulletin, IV(1), pp. 95, 97.

[4] I, for one, can’t think of a better way to say, “I’m here and I’m important!” than traveling by elephant.

[5] Barbier, E. B., Burgess, J. C., Swanson, T. M., & Pearce, D. W. (1990). Elephants, Economics and Ivory. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd., p. 69.