Elephants in Mongol History: From Military Obstacles to Symbols of Buddhist Power

  • William G. Clarence-SmithEmail author
Part of the The Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics Series book series (PMAES)


Mongols lacked any experience of elephants in their homeland, and their encounters with the great beasts in the course of building their empire have been interpreted in different ways. Some scholars contend that the Mongols quickly got over their initial shocked surprise, and devised efficient tactics for dealing with troops mounted on elephants. Other scholars suggest that the Mongols found it impossible to conquer peoples who employed elephants for war permanently at a time when rudimentary firearms did not yet give a sufficient advantage to horses over elephants. This fact may have contributed to the puzzling Mongol inability to subdue Mainland Southeast Asia, or to make substantial long-term conquests in India. However, converted Mongol rulers of successor khanates slowly came to embrace aspects of elephant culture. The Muslim Ilkhanate revived an old Persian interest in the animals, while Timur employed captured elephants for war. Qubilai Khan collected tribute elephants at court for purposes of show, and deployed them a little in minor campaigns. Finally, and as the eastern Mongols converted to Buddhism, they further came to appreciate the symbolic value of the beasts in this religious tradition.


Elephants Mongol history India Timur Persion Qubilai Khan Buddhism 


  1. Andaya, Barbara W., and Leonard Andaya. 2015. A History of Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1400–1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Armandi, P. 1843. Histoire militaire des éléphants, depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à l’introduction des armes à feu. Paris: Librairie d’Amyot.Google Scholar
  3. Baatar, Tungalag, and Dashdulam B. 2017. “The Tale of Mongolia’s Only Elephant.” The UB Post, July 24. Accessed June 25, 2018.
  4. Bawden, C. R. 2009. The Modern History of Mongolia. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Biran, Michal. 2005. The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History: Between China and the Islamic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bosworth, Clifford E. 1963. The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bosworth, Clifford E. 1965. “al-Fîl, as Beasts of War.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 2, 2nd ed., 893–894. Leiden: E. J. Brill.Google Scholar
  8. Bradley, Neville. 1946. The Old Burma Road: A Journey on Foot and Muleback. 2nd ed. London: The Travel Book Club.Google Scholar
  9. Brose, Michael C. 2015. “Yunnan’s Muslim Heritage.” In China’s Encounters on the South and Southwest: Reforging the Fiery Frontier over Two Millennia, edited by James Anderson and John K. Whitmore, 135–155. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  10. Chakraborty, Debraj. 2014. “Elephants in Pre-modern India.” In Chinese and Indian Warfare: From the Classical Age to 1870, edited by Kaushik Roy and Peter Lorge, 74–90. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Charleux, Isabelle. 2015. Nomads on Pilgrimages: Mongols on Wutaishan (China), 1800–1940. Leiden: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Charney, Michael. 2004. Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300–1900. Leiden: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Choskyi, Jampa. 1988. “Symbolism of Animals in Buddhism.” Buddhist Himalaya, 1, 1. Accessed February 8, 2017.
  14. Clarence-Smith, William G. 2010. “Diseases of Equids in Southeast Asia c.1800–c.1945: Apocalypse or Progress.” In Healing the Herds: Disease, Livestock Economies, and the Globalization of Veterinary Medicine, edited by Karen Brown and Daniel Gilfoyle, 129–145. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Clarence-Smith, William G. 2013. “The Historical Spread of Trypanosoma evansi (surra) in Camels: A Factor in the Weakening of Islam?” In Selected Papers from the First International Conference, ‘Camel Cultures: Historical Traditions, Present Threats and Future Prospects’, edited by Ed Emery, 87–94. London: RN Books.Google Scholar
  16. Clarence-Smith, William G. 2016. “Elephants in Islamic history.”
  17. Digby, Simon E. 1971. War-Horse and Elephant in the Dehli Sultanate: A Study of Military Supplies. Oxford: Orient Monographs.Google Scholar
  18. Eltringham, S. Keith. 1982. Elephants. Poole: Blanford Press.Google Scholar
  19. Elvin, Mark. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Gernet, Jacques. 1962. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250–1276. London: George Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  21. Gröning, Karl, and Martin Saller. 1999. Elephants: A Cultural and Natural History. Cologne: Könemann.Google Scholar
  22. Guillon, Emmanuel. 1999. The Mons: A Civilisation of Southeast Asia. Bangkok: The Siam Society.Google Scholar
  23. Hall, D. G. E. 1981. A History of South-East Asia. 4th ed. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  24. Hartwig, G. 1893. Wild Animals of the Tropics. London: Longmans Green.Google Scholar
  25. Harvey, G. E. 1925. History of Burma from the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824, the Beginning of the English Conquest. London: Longmans, Green.Google Scholar
  26. Hodgkin, Thomas. 1981. Vietnam: The Revolutionary Path. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  27. Huang, K’uan-chung. 2000. “Mountain Fortress Defence: The Experience of the Southern Song and Korea in Resisting the Mongol Invasions.” In Warfare in Chinese History, edited by Hans J. Van de Ven, 222–251. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  28. Huber, Édouard. 1909. “Études indochinoises, V, la fin de la dynastie de Pagan.” Bulletin de L’École Française D’Extrême-Orient 9 (4): 633–680.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Jackson, Peter. 1999. The Delhi Sultanate: A Political and Military History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Jacq-Hergoualc’h, Michel. 1979. L’armement et l’organisation de l’armée khmère aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles, d’après les bas-reliefs d’Angkor Vat, du Bàyon et de Bantlay Chmar. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.Google Scholar
  31. Jacq-Hergoualc’h, Michel. 1991. “L’armée du Campâ entre le XVIe et le XIXe siècle.” In Le Campâ et le monde malais, 27–46. Paris: Centre de l’Histoire des Civilisations de la Péninsule Indochinoise.Google Scholar
  32. Juvaini, ‘Ala-ad-Din ‘Ata Malik. 1958. The History of the World Conqueror. Translated by John A. Boyle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Kistler, John M. 2007. War Elephants. 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.Google Scholar
  34. Kuhn, Dieter. 2009. The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.Google Scholar
  35. May, Timothy. 2012. The Mongol Conquests in World History. London: Reaktion Books.Google Scholar
  36. Melville, Charles. 2012. “Hamd-Allah Mostafwi.” Encyclopaedia Iranica Online. Accessed June 24, 2018.
  37. Mikhail, Alan. 2014. The Animal in Ottoman Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Mongolia Travel News. 2018. “Top Ten Things to Do in Gorkhi Terelj National Park.” Accessed June 25, 2018.
  39. Nicolle, David. 1996. Medieval Warfare Source Book, Volume 2: Christian Europe and Its Neighbours. London: Arms and Armour.Google Scholar
  40. Pant, G. N. 1997. Horse and Elephant Armour. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan.Google Scholar
  41. Pasquet, Sylvie. 1986. L’évolution du système postal: la province chinoise du Yunnan à l’époque Qing, 1644–1911. Paris: Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises.Google Scholar
  42. Peers, Christopher J., and David Sque. 1992. Medieval Chinese Armies, 1260–1520. London: Osprey.Google Scholar
  43. Phayre, Arthur P. 1883. History of Burma, Including Burma Proper, Pegu, Taungu, Tenasserim, and Arakan, from the Earliest Time to the End of the First War with British India. London: Trübner.Google Scholar
  44. Polo, Marco. 1997. The Travels of Marco Polo. Ware: Wordsworth Editions.Google Scholar
  45. Ptak, Roderich. 1991. “Pferde auf See, ein vergessener Aspekt des maritimen chinesischen Handels im frühen 15 Jahrhundert.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 34 (2): 199–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Quaritch Wales, H. G. 1952. Ancient South-East Asian Warfare. London: Bernard Quaritch.Google Scholar
  47. Ranking, John. 1826. Historical Researches on the Wars and Sports of the Mongols and Romans, in Which Elephants and Wild Beasts Were Employed or Slain. London: Longman, Reed, Orme, Brown, and Green.Google Scholar
  48. Schafer, Edward H. 1957. “War Elephants in Ancient and Medieval China.” Oriens 10 (2): 289–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Schafer, Edward H. 1985. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  50. Smith, John Masson, Jr. 1984. “‘Ayn Jâlût: Mamlûk Success or Mongol Failure?” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44 (2): 307–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Smith, John Masson, Jr. 2005. “Mongol Armies and Indian Campaigns.”!topic/soc.culture.indian/n2lITPg3gxo. Accessed February 17, 2017.
  52. Smith, John Masson, Jr. 2009. “From Pasture to Manger: The Evolution of Mongol Cavalry Logistics in Yuan China and Its Consequences.” In Pferde in Asien: Geschichte, Handel und Kultur, edited by Bert G. Fragner, Ralph Kauz, Roderich Ptak, and Angela Schottenhammer, 63–73. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.Google Scholar
  53. Story, ed. 2015. “Elephants in Mongolia.” Accessed February 7, 2017.
  54. Stuart-Fox, Martin. 1997. A History of Laos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Sukumar, Raman. 2013. The Story of Asia’s Elephants. Mumbai: Marg Foundation.Google Scholar
  56. Sun, Laichen. 2015. “Imperial Ideal Compromised: Northern and Southern Courts Across the New Frontier in the Early Yuan Era.” In China’s Encounters on the South and Southwest: Reforging the Fiery Frontier over Two Millennia, edited by James Anderson and John K. Whitmore, 194–231. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  57. Trautmann, Thomas R. 2015. Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Vu, Hong Lien Warder. 2008. “Mongol Invasions of Southeast Asia, and Their Impact on Relations Between Dai Viet and Champa (1226–1326).” PhD Thesis, SOAS, University of London.Google Scholar
  59. Vu, Hong Lien. 2017. “The Mongol Navy: Kublai Khan’s Invasions in Dai Viet and Champa.” Working Paper 25, Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.Google Scholar
  60. Vu, Hong Lien, and Peter Sharrock. 2014. Descending Dragon, Rising Tiger: A History of Vietnam. London: Reaktion Books.Google Scholar
  61. Waugh, Daniel C. 2002. “Bibi Khanum Mosque.” Accessed June 24, 2018.
  62. Wyatt, David K. 1982. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  63. Zeuner, Frederick E. 1963. A History of Domesticated Animals. London: Hutchinson.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.SOAS University of LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations