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An elephant's European conquest



Karl Saurer

IN THE summer of 1551, a `splendid animal,' as a historian called it, arrived at Valladolid in Portugal on the order of King John III. The animal was an elephant, imported from India in one of the best-documented cases of animal trade in the 16th Century. The king meant to present the elephant as a wedding gift to his nephew and future emperor of Europe, Maximilian II.

It was an 18-month, gruelling journey for the elephant that was rechristened Sultan Suleyman by the king after the great enemy of Europe in those days.

The idea of a documentary film on the journey of Suleyman through Europe was born at a small hotel at Bolzano, says Karl Saurer, writer, teacher and documentary filmmaker. After all, the elephant experienced the "onset of a long history of appropriation and exploitation which continues until the present time," he says.

Mr. Saurer says that he was intrigued by the painting of an elephant on a wall at the entrance to what used to be called hotel Am Hohen Feld. Enquiries revealed that it was here that Suleyman, renamed Raja for the documentary by Mr. Sourer, rested for 14 days in January 1552. The owner of the hotel wanted to keep the spectacle going and put up a huge fresco of the elephant passing in front of his hotel, which was also renamed The Elephant.

Curiosity took the better of Mr. Saurer, a film and television teacher. He followed the route taken by Raja from Valladolid to Vienna where Maximilian II went after his marriage to Marie, his cousin and daughter of Emperor Charles V.

A well-researched paper on the journey of the elephant by Mr. Saurer and Elena M. Hinshaw-Fischli is the basis of the documentary that will be filmed through 2005 in Europe and India.

Mr. Saurer says that he has not been able to place the point of origin of Raja. It must have been brought from somewhere in Kerala to Goa and from there shipped via the Cape of Good Hope to Portugal. There is absolutely no record of the mahout who accompanied Raja and handled him Europe, he says.

The royal couple and Raja survived a risky sea trip from Portugal, including an aborted robbery by a French fleet, to arrive at the port of Genoa. The entourage with its exotic accompaniment averaged 30 km to 40 km a day in the difficult terrain of the Austrian and Italian Alps. Incessant journeying, insufficient nourishment and the weather had their impact on Raja who died in December 1553. In 1554, Maximilian immortalised the memory of the elephant through a commemorative medal, says Mr. Saurer.

Bones of the elephant last to date. In 1554, the front right foot was gifted to the mayor of Vienna who had the bones of the foot and the shoulders of the elephant turned into a chair that stands today in an abbey in Vienna. The dead elephant was stuffed and exhibited, and it stood in Vienna until Maximilian sent it to Munich. It was transferred to the Bavarian National Museum in 1928 but was damaged during World War II.

By K.A. Martin Photo: H. Vibhu

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