Maharaja Jayachandra’s White Elephant that Refused to Salute Muhammad Ghori

An extraordinary episode from the history of the ill-fated Gahadavala emperor Jayachandra shows the ennobling Hindu ethos reflected in the training of war elephants
Maharaja Jayachandra’s White Elephant that Refused to Salute Muhammad Ghori

SOME UNDESERVED NOTORIETIES of history have a lasting quality to them. The underserved aspect also makes the notoriety profoundly unkind. Of all the truly great Hindu kings, none apart from Maharaja Jayachandra has earned this sort of undeserved infamy. A measure of how long this blot has endured is available in how,  for centuries, the term Jaichand became synonymous with treachery. The source of this slur is located in Chand Bardai’s Prithviraj Raso. It is understandable that Bardai composed his epic poem as a celebration of and a tribute to his master, Prithviraja Chahamana to whom he was deeply attached. But by unfairly imprecating Jayachandra, he has done historical disservice to both Prithviraja and Jayachandra.

Both Prithviraja and Jayachandra were extraordinary monarchs who commanded substantial empires and had vast and formidable armies. But both were shortsighted in their understanding of the intrinsic nature of the Turushka enemy who had already made deep inroads into a huge swathe of northwestern Bharatavarsha. This enemy was dogged and unrelenting. This myopia cost both of them their empires. With that, Hindu political power in northern India was permanently extinguished in just two years, a topic I discuss in detail in my Invaders and Infidels: Book 1. 

A futile exercise of historical speculation clearly shows that the course of India’s history would’ve been irreversibly altered if Prithviraja and Jayachandra had buried their hostilities at least in the short term and had united against the Turushka. The same speculation also tells us that if Jayachandra had a poet like Chand Bardai, he too, would have similarly castigated Prithviraja Chahamana. 

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Maharaja Jayachandra’s White Elephant that Refused to Salute Muhammad Ghori

ON A LARGER CANVAS, one obvious outcome of the Jaichand slur is the fact that it has pretty much obscured his glorious legacy as an exemplary champion of Sanatana Dharma. The twenty-plus inscriptions that he personally issued and others issued by private individuals in his regime are ample proofs for this truth. That story will be narrated in a future essay. Among other things, Jayachandra was the patron of Sri Harsha, the scholar-poet, whose Naishadiya Caritam still commands immense respect as one of the Pancha-Mahakavyas (Five Great Poems) in the annals of Sanskrit literature.

His freak and unfortunate defeat and death at the hands of Muhammad Ghori also ended the century-long rule of the Gahadavala dynasty that had emerged at a critical period in Hindu history.     

The end came befittingly for this great Kshatriya, on battlefield. At the hotly-fought and decisive Battle of Chandawar, near Firozabad in Agra district. All Muslim chroniclers are unanimous in describing Jayachandra’s valour, the size of his army and the ferocity of the battle. Here is Ibn Athir describing Jayachandra’s prowess: 

The king of Benares [Jayachandra] was the greatest king in India, and possessed the largest territory, extending lengthwise from the borders of China to the province of Malawa, and in breadth from the sea to within ten days' journey of Lahore.

Ibn Athir clearly exaggerates the territory under Jayachandra’s suzerainty but it only proves that he commanded a vast empire. This is how he describes the fateful battle:

…the two armies met on the river Jumna, which is a river about as large as the Tigris at Musal [Mosul]. The Hindu prince had seven hundred elephants, and his men were said to amount to a million. There were many nobles in his army…When the two armies met there was great carnage; the infidels were sustained by their numbers…but in the end the infidels fled, and the faithful were victorious. The slaughter of the Hindus was immense; none were spared except women and children, and the carnage of the men went on until the earth was weary. Ninety elephants were captured, and of the rest some were killed, and some escaped. The Hindu king was slain…

After this, Muhammad Ghori and Qutub-ud-din Aibak sacked Varanasi and in a spree of unbridled fanaticism, destroyed one thousand temples in about a week and erected mosques in their place. In the end, Muhmmad Ghori “carried off the treasures of Benares upon fourteen hundred camels.” Kashi would never be the same again. It still isn’t. 

Which brings us to our story. 

OF THE NINETY ELEPHANTS that Ghori’s army had captured was a white elephant. It was no ordinary elephant. Jayachandra had special reverence for it for reasons rooted in Sanatana and Buddhist spiritual traditions. In the Sanatana tradition, the white elephant symbolises the Airavata, Indra’s — the foremost Vedic Deity — elephant. In the Buddhist tradition, it is associated with the birth of Bhagavan Buddha. All Buddhist texts mention that the Buddha reincarnated from white elephants, which descended from heaven. 

This neatly ties in with Jayachandra who was initiated into Bauddha Dharma by a monk named Srimitra. An inscription dated around 1183 CE found near Bodh Gaya describes in detail how Parama-Maheshvara Jayachandra adopted Srimitra as his Diksha-Guru: “Of that emancipated being the illustrious Jayachandradeva… who was served by a hundred kings, became, out of reverence, himself the disciple [of Srimitra] with a pleasing heart and an indescribable hankering.” Jayachandra did not convert to Bauddha Dharma but remained a staunch Vaishnava — the Gahadavala rulers were primarily Vaishnavites. His initiation into Bauddha Dharma was entirely consonant with the accommodative spirit of his profound ancestors who patronised and honoured all panthas and margas including Shaiva, Ganapatha, Shakta and Bauddha. 

The white elephant, an extremely rare animal, was Jayachandra’s practical method of showing his veneration both towards the exalted monk Srimitra and Bauddha Dharma. 

This sacred elephant, captured by the unclean Turushkas, naturally attracted their wonder. Its white colour was one reason but there was another reason. The aforementioned Ibn Athir tells us what it is: “Among the elephants which were captured there was a white one. A person who saw it told me that when the elephants were brought before Shahabu-d din [Muhammad Ghori] and were ordered to salute, they all saluted except the white one.” (Emphasis added)

The white elephant did not salute the Turushka because Jayachandra had not taught it to salute anybody including himself. Sages do not salute kings. 


As I never tire of repeating, the real history of Bharatavarsha is found in such episodes. Like I said, estimating the legacy of extraordinary kings like Jayachandra solely through the political prism blinds us to these profound facets of his rule.  

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