The Dak Harkara

These days, we have a plethora of mail delivery services, be it snail mail or electronic mail. We have video mail, voice mail, email, secure couriers and so on all vying for their place next to the old monopoly of the Indian government, the lowly placed postal mail. One may choose to callously call it snail mail or what ever, but there was a time, when it was the only mail system available. And before that, well, all we had were the Dak runner’s or the Harkara. The Harkara literally ran with the mail, not necessarily from point A to point B, but as part of a relay system. In the Moghul days, they ran 8-10 miles in each direction and back (i.e. 20 miles a day), but in later EIC times, they ran 5-6 miles per direction, before they handed it over to the next Harkara. The harkara was not only a delivery man of letters, but also a person who conveyed news to both ends, officially and unofficially, publicly or surreptitiously. They were sometimes purveyors of intelligence to authorities of far flung areas, reporting on troubles and important happenings at both locations. In many an instance, they were letter writers, transferring the word of mouth of an illiterate man to paper.

While in the ancient times they hailed from families of Harkara’s of Punjabi Jat or even peasant origin, they were carefully selected in the EIC times. A number of locals were carefully interviewed, and selected after a review of references to their honesty, their physique & endurance, and of course courage. Why so, because by the last decade of the 18th century, the Dak runner or harkara had to carry in his leather pouch, not just letters, but money to far flung places and important parcels. And so they had to be very honest. This is the story of one such harkara.

By 1840, Yeshwant who had already been running as a harkara for 5 years was bone tired. At the age of 35, he was in the latter half of the average lifespan of an Indian peasant. Hailing from Satara, he was born to parents who were woefully poor and perennially in debt struggling to pay back the loans they owed the local Zamindar. Yeshwant had been consigned to the fields since the age of 10 and by the age 25, he had a wiry frame, darkened by the toil in the hot sun. But he was a popular man, for he participated in all the local festivities and running and wrestling events, winning many. One fateful day, the overseer to the Vilayati firangi had attended one such sporting event. The race winner Yeshwant caught his eye. He was there for a specific purpose, for his superintendent had asked him to locate potential candidates for the harkara positions. And thus Yeshwant became a harkara.

He was quickly released off the bonded situation and sent to the English. The postal superintendent, a benevolent man soon found Yeshwant the fastest of the fresh crop of Harkaras he had planned to employ in order to cover the many miles of the western regions. Yeshwant was provided the ceremonial appointment letter, the Cap and belt and the leather pouch. He was thus ordained an honorable man in the local society, and also given the bamboo spear with the many rings and bells that signaled his move through ragged terrain, dense forests and deep ravines. That night, the deeply religious Yeshwant prayed to Mahadev, thanking him for the benevolence, salvation from the fields and vowed to gift the entire first months wages of Rs 5/- in the god’s name.

But you know how some people are, they are weak of mind, and after a few days, Yeshwant had developed the special stagger of success and the air of arrogance, which one sees in a government servant of the time. By the end of the month, he had not only forgotten to gift the pay to the Mahadev’s shrine, but had already run up an overdraft at the toddy sellers place. Nevertheless, he was very good at his job and was always on time with his deliveries. On many days he even covered a few extra miles regardless of the weather conditions, if there was a need. Last week for example, Krisha the next relay runner was ill and he had taken over the second leg too, without any complaints.

Yeshwant was a decent man, though, and quite helpful, but his past or to be more precise his parent’s past, weighed heavily on him. The amount owed to the Zamindar was all of two hundred rupees, money borrowed for the marriage of Yeshwant’s sisters, and in order to tide the terrible decade of famine they had finally passed just two summers ago. Yeshwant himself had married, but the dowry of Rs 20/- he obtained had to be used to repair the small hut they all lived in. The new job was a boon though, for the British had built him a hut at the edge of the village, in the middle of the forest. This was his quarters where his wife and daughter spent time, taking care of the small field around the hut where they planted vegetables and some raggi or millet.

Yeshwant went for the weekly meetings of the village sabha, where after a pot of toddy, he would recount proudly his motto…

The romance of the post office job lies with people like me, the number of tigers satiated with flesh of my kinsfolk is beyond count, snow and rivers have carried us under or away, swamps have pulled us under, but in the face of all this danger, have we forsaken our duty? According to stories, never, but in real life, just once or twice…

It was difficult though, with tigers and other wild animals on the prowl, it was very dangerous. By evening they had to light the large oil dipped ‘buttees’ around the house to scare wild animals away. Though it did keep away some smaller animals, elephants did not and once destroyed everything they dad. But this being British property, they soon rebuilt the hut. Life went on, and the main worry Yeshwant had in addition to the debts was the upcoming marriage of his daughter, aged 12. They had found a boy in the next village, only 10 years elder to her who was prepared to marry her and the dowry was settled at Rs 25/-. To top his misery, Yeshwant had also been told by the Zamindar (who knew Yeshwant had a regular pay now) that an amount of Rs 100/- be paid to him by the end of summer or vague but dire consequences would result.

Anyway days went by, the debts grew and Yeshwant became more & more frustrated. Though he had found a bridegroom for his daughter, the expenses of a few hundred rupees for the function plus the Zamindar’s money were giving him sleepless nights. Not only that in the last meeting at the Superintendent’s bungalow, he had for the very first time lost out on the yearly award of Rs 25/-, an award he had got the last two years.

As things are wont to happen, Yeshwant had to deliver a hefty pouch one month end on the return leg. It contained amongst a number of other documents, the monthly pay for the district staff.

The mountain route and pathway was always difficult but often was rendered useless during the rainy season. In such cases, Yeshwant used an alternate, which had part of the route passing through denser forest where there were man eating tigers. On that fated day, Yeshwant was attacked by a tiger. He ran for dear life, finally climbing a tree as he was taught, just escaping the pointed fangs and the dirty breath of the man eater. After a day’s waiting, shivering and cold on the tree, Yeshwant slipped to the ground and fell, injuring himself severely. But in the midst of the pain and blood, thoughts of being bed ridden for a few days and despondency at his terrible fate, Yeshwant had an ill-fated brainwave. He hobbled back to the superintendent and reported that the bag was lost in the fight and melee that it had been lost in the forest. The superintendent reported back to Bombay in the next letter, trusting Yeshwant, for these things were wont to happen. The pay was delayed, but that too was common in those days. Yeshwant was given a month’s leave to recover.

And then Yeshwant made a series of blundering mistakes that got him into even deeper trouble. He conducted his daughters marriage and paid off the dowry, he also paid off the Zamindar the Rs 100/-. The Zamindar by chance met the British superintendent and mentioned in passing that he must be paying his coolies too well. The good natured superintendent wondered why and upon quizzing the Zamindar found out that Yeshwant had paid back the majestic amount of Rs 100 and had conducted the wedding, while recuperating. Considering a monthly salary of just 5.50 per month, this was difficult to fathom and in a flash the Superintendent knew that Yeshwant had stolen the mail bag. For him, it was a shock, as Harkara’s were some of the most honest people in the British payroll. In reality, he was appalled, for he had even considered paying Yeshwant a gratuity of Rs 50/- for the heroic fight with the tiger. It would have even set an example for the other.

Anyway the Superintendent met the local Thasildar and they discussed the matter. It was decided that they should subject Yeshwant to a trial by ordeal rather than threaten him or flog him. Well, many a reader would wonder what this is, but in those days, for example in Calicut - Malabar, if a person was suspected of some ill doing, for example theft, he had to dip his hand in boiling oil. If he escaped unscathed, he was honest, if he did not, he was the culprit. One would be amazed reading this - for the natural outcome if one were subjected to such an ordeal is well known, if at all one were subjected to it. So how did it work? Was there divine intervention? To answer that let us see what was done in Yeshwant’s case.

An honorable Brahmin poojari was located in the nearby temple and consulted. He came up with the solution. Yeshwant and a number of other people of the locality were called on a dark moonless night to the temple. There they were told to enter one by one, prostrate before Mahadev and state that they are truly innocent after picking up the magic ‘truth’ stick laying on the floor. Should the person be dishonest, the stick would remain attached to the hand and the matter would be solved.

The superintendent of course was aghast wondering how such a hair brained idea would resolve the matter, just like he had wondered how the oil method worked in Malabar.

At the appointed time, the incense sticks were lit, the lamps were lit, the room was filled with smoke from the sambrani on coal, and the Pujari wore his crimson robes and chanted loudly. A curtain was placed between the sanctum and the outside. One by one, the selected people went in and returned. Yeshwant was the last to be called. By this time he was trembling with fear, knowing fully well that he was going to get caught and fearing the magnitude of the god’s curse and the superintendent’s punishment. As soon as he entered the room, the priest looked him in his eye and said – Ok! We all know that you are the culprit. Either you can go through the ordeal and be shamed or confess and face a lesser punishment. Yeshwant was relieved, within minutes he had told the superintendent exactly what happened. The case was closed.

The superintendent asked the priest what he had done to bring about the confession from Yeshwant. It was simple, said the priest. These people are inherently god fearing and honest. In this case despondency coupled with opportunity twisted the mind of this poor soul. The magic wand had no magic; all that was done was smearing the stick with sandalwood oil. The aura of godliness was created with the hyms, chanting and the lamps and the apparent presenceof God in the room forced out the confession from the poor soul.

Yeshwant was asked to return the bag and the rest of the money and ordered to pay a penalty of Rs 200/- or face a years jail term according to the postal act prevailing then. He had no money to pay, and thus landed up in jail, destroying his good name for ever.
Fact or fiction?

Well, this is a true account reported briefly by a postal superintendent in Maharashtra to the London Postal magazine in 1896, but I took liberties to make a lengthy story out of it. But then the harkara’s were the subjects of many a romantic thought about India and its ways in early British minds. For them, even after stray cases like Yeshwant’s, the Harkara continued to be honest person, who sacrificed his life for duty. Whatever be the weather or terrain, he would cover his quota of miles and get the mail bag to the destination. With that background, let us take a deeper look at the Harkara or Hirkara, the Dak runner. Many a Harkara fell prey to man eating tigers and mauling was commonplace. It is also a fact that the Harkara quarters (a.k.a stage hut) were placed at jungle edges with a hidden purpose. Due to their familiarity with the jungle, he could lead the burra sahib on many a shikar, without undue risk!!

The organized Harkara postal system started with Sher shah and was strengthened by Akbar. Later Aurangazeb increased the Harkara’s running distance to 10 miles, but finally when the English got into power, reduced to 5-7 miles. While erstwhile raja’s paid these men Rs 4-5/- per month, the British Raj later hiked the salary to Rs 5-7/- (around five shillings in those days) per month. Was it enough? A quote from Socrates answers this succinctly …He who is content with the least is the richest man, for contentment is natures riches!!

Usually the night Harkara of the 20th century going through a treacherous forest with very important parcels had a posse comprising a drummer, two torch bearers and a brace of archers. His dress was a white cotton coat, a dhoti tied tightly and stopping at the knees, a red ‘Pugdi’, a leather belt with a brass buckle and a bamboo spear with bells and rings. A leather bag tied to one end and this was the mail bag. The mail runner’s bag was limited to 30 pounds weight whereas the parcel runners bag was close to 60 pounds. In Hastings time, arrangements for three Harkaras (messenger-runners), one mashalchy (torch-bearer) and one drummer at each stage was set up. A munshi (postmaster) was appointed at each capital stage, who had the charge of a certain number of stages. Two ghari-wallas (time-keepers) were appointed with each munshi for the purpose of determining the arrival of each packet.

The lowly harkara did carry a considerable air of self importance. He expected everybody and even carts to clear the road when he arrived with her majesty’s mail. But naturally, for he and his colleagues supported close to 70% of the mail service in those days. Trains, steamers, mail carts and so on, handled jut 30%!!! It is also stated that the British government gave a gratuity to severely maimed runners and definitely to the family of runners who died while heroically performing their duties (by 1918 there were close to 20,000 harkaras in a total staff of 108,000 in the postal dept).Though it has been exaggerated that some runners can do 100km in one day, half of that is usually feasible.

The superior grade (there are 3 grades) harkara in 18th century Maharashtra should be skilled in the Vedas, astronomy, astrology & vocal music. He should know at least 5 languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Avadhi, Marathi and six kinds of script. In those times, you could not refuse an answer to a Harkara, he had to be given a reply and if he was shamed in any way war could result. (Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India - Christopher Alan Bayly)

In many historic references, harakara’s are equated to spying. As you recall being the only ones who were in touch with remote places, they were responsible for delivering news at both ends. However, considering that this was a secondary task, it is not appropriate to title them spies.The average speed of a harkara was 4-5 miles per hour. This was even used as a reference, for example one history book says – ‘Yarkand is about a months march from here, but about 12 days for a harkara’. They even had accurate harkara time tables, such was the dependence on this lowest of classes in the postal system…

And Today? As always, ‘Service before self’

At a time when e-mail threatens to banish the postman to the museum, mail-runners are still the only means of communication in remote regions of the north Indian mountain state of Himachal Pradesh. The runners cover long distances on foot across deep valleys, gushing rivers and snow-smeared mountains, and brave heavy snow and avalanches to keep lines of communication open. "Their territory begins where motorable roads ends," said an official from the state's postal department in the provincial capital of Shimla, India's most popular summer resort. "Without their services mail may never be delivered in several villages perched atop ridges or hidden in icy mountains," another official said, adding the harkara’s even deliver to Hindu holy men meditating in caves. "There are 1,719 mail runners in the state and of which only65 are working as full-time employees, while the rest are part-timers, and it is not unusual for some of them to be buried in avalanches in the high mountains,"

Chandar Bhat from Ladakh says

The runners would travel round the clock and all seasons. Villagers who no watches, on seeing the runners (Harkara) or hearing the sound of the bells tied to the spear which he carried always would know the time and it was authentically accurate. Mails leaving Khalsi at 0745 hours should have been delivered at Leh by 1330 hours the next day on a distance of 95 km. Between Kashmir and Leh, there were 100 Chowki Harkaras who scaled snow clad peaks in just 4 days to reach Leh from Srinagar during the summer season and 7-8 days during the winter season.The route to (Padam) Zanaskar remains closed for 8 months from October to May and mails during these eight months are carried through seasonal runners and the conveyance of mails to Padam (Zanaskar) during these months is of unique nature. The unique method of mail conveyance adopted by runners is via Chader, the Zanaskar River. This river remains totally frozen during January to March with temperature known to drop to minus 300 Celsius. During this time it is possible to walk on the frozen river all the way to Padam in Zanaskar. This walk on frozen river is not as simple as it sounds. At many places the river does not freeze completely and the runners at times have to have for days together for ice to form. The whole route takes complete 3 days to reach Padam.

The British postal museum states

In the early years, "Runner" (Dak Harkara) was the embodiment of "Service before Self". He had to face all sorts of risks, hazards and hardships in carrying mails through jungles, terrains and deserts. In the process, he encountered wild animals, dacoits and risked his life. There were cases when the Runners on duty were carried away by tigers, drowned in flooded rivers, bitten by venomous snakes, buried in avalanche or murdered by robbers. In 1921-23, there were 57 cases in which mails were plundered by highway robbers resulting in the loss of seven lives. In the face of all these dangers, the Runners seldom shrunk from their responsibilities. The Runner used to put on colorful attire with badges and was armed with spears and jingling bells for self defense. For hilly regions, he was provided with a bugle to proclaim his presence. The jingling of bells will revive reminiscences of the days when the Department was always on the move day in and day out.

Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay’s ‘Dak Runner’ is a short story which went on to become a famous movie on the subject. It tells of a brave harkara who fights his own son in this Bangla short story, of how the runner braved rains and darkness of night and resisted his son who tried to snatch the money from mailbag. The movie went on to air at the Venice film festival and has some memorable Mannadey songs.

I am not sure if we had Harkara’s in South India, though I do know that the Mysore Raja’s had an organized system. Messengers were surely there, but I have not come across a formal runner system delivering written mail in Malabar.

The London postal magazine 1896

Harkara 3 – Calcutta walks, India today

Soliman the Elefant

Suleiman in Europe – A sad story

Several months ago, I wrote about the imperial gift of a giraffe by an Indian King to the Ming emperor and the awe the Chinese had about it when Zheng he took it to Nanjing imperial palace in the 1415 time frame. Later I wrote about the elephant Murugan in Amsterdam a story that is one of my favorites.

If one has to juxtapose something in between, he needs something of equal grandeur. So I choose the story of Suleiman from Malabar in Europe. It is a very charming but at the same time sad story of a man’s indulgence and pompousness. If I were to tell you that this magnificent creature (presumably from the Nilambur forests, but I must admit that one source indicates it could have been from Sri Lanka – nevertheless my love for the elephant does make me tell this story) died of loneliness and poor diet while in a rich king’s stable, you may be surprised. I will get to it by and by, for when I delved into the story, it proved to have a life of its own, the story of an emperor’s pet that had captivated Europe since 1505, has been immortalized in currency, medal’s and sculptures, and has finally been resurrected into a Spanish novel by a Nobel Prize winner, soon to be published in English.

I have to take up the story from my history blog about the Savages of Calicut and Burgkmair, for we have the same culprits featuring in this story too, namely Emperor Maximillian II (though not the Maximillian I from the History blog), the Portuguese in Malabar and the German Fuggers.

This is the sad story of Soliman the Elefant, one that is quite familiar to Europeans of an older era, and they are reminded of it constantly by museums, pictures, hotels where Maximillian stayed and where the elephant is still being proudly shown off in a sculpture or a picture. At the end of it all, I still think, If only they had fed him rice with sesame oil, if only they had given him coconut palm leaves, if only they had fed him bananas, if only they had moved him to warmer climes, he would have lived a hundred years…..maybe.

Now you should also know that this is not the first elephant to reach Europe. The first was Bulebaz (actually an inebriated or illiterate mumbling of the name Abdul Abbaz) gifted by Haroun Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad to the Charlemagne in 802.

They say that Moghul India accorded 12 servants to an elephant, 2 to feed him, 2 were mahouts, two were to ensure it was in control, 2 rode in advance on horses to keep away crowds, 2 were to set off fireworks in front & behind to acclimatize the animal to noises, one kept its stall clean and the final soul swatted flies and doused the body frequently with water.. Wow! That is the way to live; though all I need is one man Friday, like Jeeves. Anyway as is well known, all this makes for an expensive upkeep, even in Guruvayoor, the home for elephants, you cannot gift (nada iruthal) an elephant unless you also deposit money for its lifetime upkeep.

In 1548, the archduke Maximillian II, an animal lover visited his uncle Charles V. The 21 year old chap was quickly caught by his short hairs and married off to Maria the daughter of Charles, then made a royal and sent off on a grand tour of Lisbon during a state visit. And at the Lisbon zoo, he saw elephants which had been brought in by the Portuguese from Malabar & Goa. John III of Portugal, his uncle promised him one from the next animal shipment from Malabar, which was to take place in1551 around the port of Valladolid.

John III seems to be a mischievous guy; he advised Maximillian that the elephant should be named Suleiman with a reason. Suleiman was the much feared and magnificent Turkish Sultan, hated by the Europeans. Naming the elephant Suleiman would mean having a slave with the name of his enemy. The pachyderm’s original name is not known, but some people have referred to it as Rajah. This name soon became Soliman in medieval Europe.

The elephant and the royal entourage endured two sea trips, first to Barcelona in the summer of 1551(I believe it then went to Valladolid in Central Spain – though not much details are available about that stop) and then up to Genoa by Nov 51. On the way it was nearly captured by French pirates, but escaped. From there it walked to Milan where it was displayed and subjected to a mathematical examination by the celebrated Girolamo Cardano. Then trudging through Liguria, Lombardy and Venizia, it reached Tyrol in the Austrian Alps near Trent to an enthusiastic reception. It took 30 km -40 km of walking per day. By the time they reached Bozen, it was winter. Soliman accompanied the entourage to Brixen (Dec 1551), where it was finally given two weeks time to rest. This was at the ‘am hohen feld’, which became the hotel Elefant thereafter and exists to this day, 500 years later, boasting of the short time Soliman spent there. Soliman left through the mountains wearing special boots for the cold pathways, and the hotel owners put up a huge painting though not bearing any likeness of the animal, for the many visitors that followed to see the grand sight, the enormous animal.

To summarize, its voyage took it from Malabar to Goa, thence to Losbon, from there a walk to Valladolid, and a longer walk to Barcelona. Then the voyage to Genova and finally the walk from Genoa to Milano, Mantova, Trent then through the Alps to Brixen, Innsbruck, Tirol, Salzburg, Passau, Linz and finally Vienna. The travel took the time between Summer 1551 to Spring 1552.The total distance covered would have been many thousands of miles, some 7,000 miles from Malabar to Lisbon by sea, 300 miles to Valladolid by walk, 400 miles to Barcelona again walking, 500 miles to Genova by sea and then the arduous walk through the mountains for another 650 miles. In total it covered close to 9,000 miles. The poor thing, considering the terribly difficult terrains and frugal shipping conditions those days, even if it was a gift for a king.

Suleyman - a fine specimen thus walked across the Pyrenees, through France and onwards to Vienna, amazing the populace and exciting interest as far away as Moscow. Poets wrote jingles in his honour. Folklore developed about his courtesy and wisdom.

The fresco shows not only the elephant, but also two Indian mahouts wearing Turbans and smocks, holding ankuses. I can safely assume here that it was a Malayali, but you will soon read towards the end that a writer gave one of them a Bengali name and descent, for which I do not know the reason.

In January 1552, Soliman crossed over the pass to Innsbruck and after a long trek reached Vienna in March in time for a grand parade on May 7th in Vienna. Not surprisingly the monarch was disgusted by the people lining up to see Soliman, not him or his wife.

The elephant soon endeared itself to the public, after it was put up in a huge shed ‘elefant house # 619” on the corner of Grabenm and Stefensplatz for display (the building was demolished in 1866). In the melee to see the animal, a child in the crowd fell over into the pen (unconfirmed story). Soliman apparently drew a circle around the child with its trunk, lifted the child gently and handed it over to the hysterical mother. The onlookers were spellbound.

But the initial written reports about the elephant were interesting – Amazing dreadful, huge, horrible beast only 12 years old, grows until thirty, will get bigger than it already is…..went one description. Local reports about it grew and grew, and so fascinated people that they wanted more. The news coverage it got was even more than the visiting monarch or the queen, wherever they went. But the king soon saw the expenses growing and I understand that the mahouts were sent back home soon after. Some reports mention a support staff of 30 which were disbanded as well. With that the poor elephant had by now lost its last two friends, the two who could talk and calm him down now & then or take care of him. Neither was it given the food it wanted nor was it properly cared for. It is even mentioned maliciously that Soliman was also fed with red wine.
On Dec 18th 1553, Soliman died, mercifully. A lead medal was quickly struck by Micheal Fuchs, in his honor.

After its death, Soliman was stuffed and exhibited, as a hunting elephant with a moor atop it with a full drawn bow. Maximillian became an emperor in 1562. When Duke Albert IV of Bavaria visited him in 1564, he asked for the stuffed animal, which Maximillian eventually gifted to Albert in 1572. The dead Soliman, after another arduous voyage & road trip was placed in the art gallery of Munich. There it remained until 1928 till it was moved to the Bavarian museum with a new title ‘brixen” elephant. It was not to be its resting place, however. Soon it was rushed into a bomb shelter when the war started and there it decomposed and disintegrated due to the damp conditions.

Sebastian Huetstocker the Viennese mayor had a three legged chair made of Soliman’s bones which can still be seen (or so it seems, at the Kremsm√ľnster Abbey). An inscription there purportedly states that the elephant died of the carelessness of its keeper.
Finally the mahout’s who had been sent back to Malabar, got the blame, but naturally. A postmortem though, had indicated that it had died of malnutrition. The right foot was gifted to the burgomaster of Vienna. The other bones were sent here & there. The final bits and pieces were used to make shoes…Thus the elephant continued to walk…interminably…

Soliman was an elephant no more, it rested in the imagination and memories of thousands from that era.

The books on Soliman

Suleiman the Elephant – Margret Rettich ; translated from the German by Elizabeth D. Crawford, a picture book for children

El viaje del elefante. - (The Elephant’s Journey) by Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago is being released in English in 2010. The reasons why he wrote this book are equally interesting.Nobel laureate Saramago was inspired to write this novel while dining at a Salzburg restaurant called The Elephant and learning that in the mid-16th century, John III, king of Portugal, made a present to the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, who was visiting in neighboring Spain. Saramago takes poetic license to describe the journey made by the elephant, Salomon, from Lisbon to Vienna with his Bengali keeper, Subhro. When the Archduke Maximilian rechristens them as Soliman and Fritz, the elephant keeper shows himself to be more sagacious than the capricious archduke. The elephant is ultimately the major character of this tale and has a personality and style totally his own, gaining the admiration, love, and awe of those who come into contact with him. The elephant’s great dignity and perspicacity are totally credible, making him a far wiser judge of character than the archduke himself.

Saramago says. "I was fascinated by the elephant's journey as a metaphor for life. We all know we'll die, but not the circumstances”. Through Subhro, too, Saramago engages as he had never done before with the culture of India, as when, in inquisitorial Portugal, Subhro recounts the story of the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesh.

A second book in Portuguese is also available, but this one is apparently more about the animal and its history.Salom√£o - O Elefante Diplomata by Jorge Nascimento Rodrigues & Tessaleno Devezas

Watch the youtube video on the places visited by Soliman.

More on Soliman’s heritage
Annemarie Jordan Gschwend - Visiting Curator Museum Rietberg has this to say - To ease the loneliness of their five year old grandson, Prince Carlos of Spain, King John III of Portugal and his wife, Catherine of Austria, sent him an elephant as a playmate. The young bull born in 1539, most likely in captivity in the royal elephant stables of the King of Kotte, Bhuvaneku Bahu, in Ceylon, was sent as a diplomatic gift to reconfirm a political alliance made with the Portuguese monarchs in 1542. Shortly after October 22, 1549, a special entourage comprising of two of John III’s equerries, two Indian mahouts (nairs) and a gentleman of the court, left Lisbon to accompany this pachyderm, on foot, to Spain, where the young prince resided in the small town of Aranda, arriving there a few weeks later.

If this unusual gift delighted Prince Carlos, the elephant caused great consternation for the Spanish court. Officials were at a loss on where to stable him and how to take care of the beast, even though the two Indian mahouts, specialized in the elephant’s care, remained with him. Expenses and staggering costs were the biggest issue; the other was the cold temperature of northern Castile. The prince’s guardian, Leonor of Mascarenhas, begged the boy’s absent father, Philip II of Spain, and his grandfather, the Emperor Charles V, to move the elephant south to warmer climes, to the royal palaces of Aranjuez or El Pardo.
Instead, the elephant was given away to the prince’s aunt, Maria of Austria, recently married to her Habsburg cousin, the future emperor, Maximilian II, both of whom were returning to Vienna, with their two small children, after having governed as regents of Spain between 1548 and 1551.

And so, we come to the question at the end of the story… Was Soliman the proverbial ‘white elephant’ gifted in spite by Charles?? And how right Saramago was when he said ‘We all know we'll die, but not the circumstances’.

Interestingly we know from the above that the two mahouts were Nairs from Malabar. So the elephant should have been from Nilambur as confirmed in other sources and movies.

Soliman Elefant hotels

Best Western Premier Hotel Slon - Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia
Elefant hotel – Brixen
Elefant Hotel - Salsburg

Art film

Raja Reise – Karl Saurer - Trailer


As Told at the Explorers Club: More Than Fifty Gripping Tales of Adventure
George Plimpton (Ref- The elephant that walked to Vienna by J Monroe Thorington)
Maritime Malabar and the Europeans – KS Mathew (Suleiman – Karl Saurer & EH Fischli)
Asia in the making of Europe - Donald F. Lach
Hindu article


Wikipedia entry
Soliman Stool pic extracted from Emperor Maximillian II - Paula S. Fichtner