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


Dreamer said...

That was so sad. This majestic animal has been captured and displayed for ages now, just to boost man's ego. Sadly the elephant's lot does not seem to have improved to this day.

Indrani said...

Sad story indeed.
How much of research you have put in this! Great story narrated Maddy. I will watch out for the book.

YOSEE said...

What a strange and sad story ! I had not heard it before. The illustrations , old pictures are wonderful.

Maddy said...

thanks dreamer - in India the elephant was used for work as it is today too..the problem with other importers in early days was that they could not take care of the animal..

Maddy said...

thanks Indrani - I will - one fine day

Maddy said...

thanks yosee - and welcome to my world..

Happy Kitten said...

The mighty elephant again..

sad that it was left to die..

a book please....

Maddy said...

Thanks HK - will try to get on in that direction..requires far more time than i have presently

Unknown said...

Hello Maddy:
I am impressed with your efforts on bringing info about kerala people on the news. Please keep it up and I am a telugu from the Fiji Islands, but very much in touch with Andhara.

very well done.

Ben Venktash

Maddy said...

Thanks Ben - There is more than Kerala in my blog...and keep reading. I hope you will like it and visit often...

Sreekanth Menon said...


Really a great read.

- sreekanth

Maddy said...

Thanks sreekanth - pls keep visiting