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Stories of famous animal companions from across the world

From a Sri Lankan king’s war elephant to Egyptian Queen Isiemkheb’s pet gazelle, history is full of stories of how an animal could teach humans, even pharaohs and emperors, the meaning of true humanity

'The Blue Horse and Other Amazing Animals From Indian History' features a chapter on animal companions from across the world as well, such as Emperor Yongle and his pet giraffe. Photo courtesy: Hachette India
'The Blue Horse and Other Amazing Animals From Indian History' features a chapter on animal companions from across the world as well, such as Emperor Yongle and his pet giraffe. Photo courtesy: Hachette India

History is full of stories of famous people and their love for their pet animals. Many of them, like English King Edward VII for example, had conventional pets like horses and dogs. But some had exotic pets like grizzlies, gazelles or even giraffes. The funny thing is that history tells us many of these figures were known for their extreme cruelty or ruthlessness. Caligula and Genghis Khan are figures that inspire loathing and fear even today. And yet, despite all the bloodlust, madness and erratic anger, they still had enough heart left in them to love an animal, even if fleetingly. Just goes to show that it takes an animal to teach humans—even emperors and pharaohs—the meaning of true humanity.

Caligula and His Horse Incitatus

The Roman emperor Caligula (37–41 ce) is known through history for his extreme cruelty and bizarre bursts of temper. However, even he, with his perpetually aggrieved temperament, had a pet—at least for a while. Caligula’s favourite was a Spanish racehorse called Incitatus. Caligula loved his horse so much that he built a marble stable for him and presented the horse with a bejewelled collar. The horse drank out of a golden bucket and often had gold flakes mixed with his oats for dinner. The emperor also gave Incitatus a saddle that had a red border. In ancient Rome, the senior-most officials in the empire were called senators and they wore a toga or robe with a red border. By draping Incitatus in a saddle with the colours of the senate, Caligula was basically appointing his horse as a minister. Incitatus himself behaved like a senior official—he would routinely have dinners to which the high and mighty were invited. The horse also had a retinue of servants to look after him. Eventually, though, the emperor’s famously erratic temper turned on the horse and he had Incitatus beheaded.

The horse and Caligula’s obsession with it is mentioned by Roman historian Suetonius in Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 ce).

King Dutugamunu’s War Elephant

Kandula was a famous war elephant that belonged to the Sri Lankan king Dutugamunu (101–77 bce). The king’s love for his pet elephant is mentioned in the Sinhalese chronicle Mahavamsa. The story goes that when Dutugamunu was born, many people brought gifts for the newborn prince. Among them was a fisherman who gifted the child a pet elephant. The fisherman’s name was Kandula and the elephant was named after him. Dutugamunu was very fond of the elephant. Although war elephants were often badly injured in battle—and also died on battlefields—Dutugamunu cared so much for Kandula that he once actually withdrew from a battle to look after his injured elephant. In a particularly vicious war with the Indian king Ellalan in Anuradhapura (which was the capital of Sri Lanka back then), Kandula helped his king secure a major victory. The two kings decided to face-off against each other riding on their respective war elephants. Kandula carried Dutugamunu and Ellalan was carried by his elephant Maha Pambata.

In that duel, Ellalan was killed, but he was considered so wise and just that Dutugamunu built a memorial for him. After Kandula died, King Dutugamunu built a monument commemorating him as well

Queen Isiemkheb and Her Pet Gazelle

Egyptian Queen Isiemkheb of the 21st dynasty (1069–943 bce) lived 3,000 years ago when Pinedjem II (990–976 bce) was the Pharaoh. Isiemkheb had a pet gazelle and she loved it so much that she made sure the animal got the same treatment reserved for Egyptian nobility in death. The queen ordered a specially designed and beautifully decorated sarcophagus for her gazelle. It was carved with the image of the animal and was built to fit its mummified body. Egyptians believed that when pets died they passed over to the Field of Reeds, where they enjoyed a free and happy afterlife. The mummified gazelle was found in Isiemkheb’s tomb along with several pieces of jewellery, such as precious amulets, which show that the queen did not want to be separated from her pet even in death, and was certain she would reunite with the gazelle in the Field of Reeds.

Ancient Egyptians kept a number of pets like cats, dogs, baboons, monkeys, falcons, and even mongoose and hippos. Cats of course were the most favoured and the punishment for intentionally killing a cat was death. Dogs too were popular pets. They were used for hunting and guarding homes, and were sometimes mummified as well. Ancient Egyptians would often shave off all their hair, including their eyebrows, to show their grief for the death of a pet.

Emperor Yongle and His Pet Giraffe

Yongle was the third emperor of the Ming dynasty in China (1402–1424), and under him a Chinese fleet went around the world in what was certainly the most dramatic burst of exploration in the medieval times. The fleet, under Admiral Zheng He, brought back plants and animals from across the globe, but the one specimen that held the emperor spellbound was that of a giraffe. Funnily, Zheng He got the giraffe not from Africa but from Bengal, from a bunch of Kenyan ambassadors. The Kenyans had brought the animal along as a trade tribute. They gave it to Zheng He, who took it back to the Chinese court. Everyone in China thought the giraffe was the mythical qilin, a Chinese unicorn. There were pictures painted of the giraffe and it became the toast of the Ming court. Yongle was used to exotic pets – in his special park he had bear cubs from Siam (modern-day Thailand), rhinos from Champa (modern-day Vietnam), and parrots and peacocks from Java. But the giraffe surpassed all of them in importance!

Excerpted with permission from The Blue Horse and Other Amazing Animals from Indian History by Nandini Sengupta, published by Hachette India

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