ELEPHAS MAXIMUS: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant

Stephen Alter, Author . Harcourt $25 (320p) ISBN 978-0-15-100646-5

Alter (Sacred Waters ), a writer-in-residence at MIT, was born and raised in India, and in 2001 and 2002 he traveled to various parts of that country, observing elephants roaming wild in national parks and sanctuaries and in captivity in forest camps, zoos and temple precincts. In this entertaining and informative book, his lyrical descriptions of these venues serve as springboards for accounts of the elephants' biology and natural history, including an explanation of the differences between the African elephant (Loxodonta africana ) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus ), which has a longer tradition of being captured and trained. He shows how, throughout history, the elephant—used for work and warfare and in religious ceremonies—has played an important role in Indian life, and the book is replete with colorful accounts of elephant lore in Indian mythology, literature and art. To emphasize the symbolic significance of the animal, Alter provides a lively description of the Ganesha Chathurthi festival in Mumbai, where images of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity that embodies the power and mystery of creation, are worshipped for 10 days and then cast into the sea. Alter spends time with mahouts (elephant keepers and drivers) and writes movingly of the close relationships they develop with their charges. He visits a market where elephants are sold, and he talks with naturalists who are trying to protect Indian elephants from poaching and preserve their habitats. His book is an elegant paean to the Indian elephant and a wake-up call for its protection. B&w illus. throughout. (May)

Reviewed on: 02/23/2004
Release date: 05/01/2004
Genre: Nonfiction
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