Jumbo Exports

India’s history of elephant diplomacy

Murugan arrived in Amsterdam in November 1954. He was greeted by thousands of schoolchildren. Courtesy National Archives of the Netherland
01 March, 2019

In the winter of 1953, the Indian prime minister received an unusual letter, from a five-year-old boy. “Dear Mr Nehru,” it began. “Here in Granby, a small town in Canada, we have a lovely zoo, but we have no elephant.” Peter Marmorek had heard from his father that Jawaharlal Nehru had “lots of elephants and could probably dig up one for us.” Having understood the need to “dig up” quite literally, the child added, “I never knew that elephants lived underground, [but] I hope you can send us one.”

It was an odd letter to merit the attention of a prime minister involved in the whirl of postcolonial nation-building. But it was not altogether surprising to government officials. Since Independence, the Indian government had cultivated an international reputation for generosity when it came to gifting baby elephants—often in response to requests from children. Nehru’s personal fondness for children aside, the highly favourable international publicity that accompanied these gifts advanced the diplomatic interests of a poor, young nation-state looking for international aid, straining to remain non-aligned during the Cold War and aspiring to cultivate a positive image on the global stage.

In the first decade and a half after Independence, India sent numerous elephants—as symbols of the nation and emissaries of its goodwill and friendship—to zoos in Japan, China, the Soviet Union, the United States, Germany, Turkey, Iran, Canada and the Netherlands. The Indian government’s willingness to gift elephants was so well established that the offer was sometimes made by private citizens without official authorisation. In at least two instances, Indians speaking out of turn while abroad eventually led to the government sending elephants as gifts to children overseas.

The letter sent by the Canadian child to Nehru was part of one such case. Two social workers—Kameshwari Kuppuswamy and Krishnabai Nimbkar—had been on a study tour of the United States, Canada and Japan. They had been nominated by the Planning Commission, and funded by the Ford Foundation, to tour North America and study rural community-development programmes, which had been recently adopted in India, and attend a conference in Toronto of the Associated Country Women of the World, in August 1953. During a tour stop in Granby, a small town near Montreal, they were impressed by the local zoo but noted the absence of elephants. In a speech she delivered at a lunch reception, Kuppuswamy assured the city authorities that India would be able to send a pair of “baby jumbos.”

Kuppuswamy’s offer caused considerable consternation. Officials at the ministry of external affairs complained that they had not been consulted and were put in a “very delicate position.” The Planning Commission regretted the inconvenience caused, making clear that Kuppuswamy did not represent them. And RR Saksena, the Indian high commissioner to Canada, added that it was “rash” of her to have made such a promise without considering its viability or cost. As a result, the possibility of sending the elephants seemed remote, until young Peter’s message showed up on Nehru’s desk.

In early December 1953, Peter Marmorek received a response to his letter, which bore the official seal of India in red wax. Nehru stopped short of promising an elephant, but assured Marmorek that he would not forget the request. Addressing the boy’s confusion, he clarified, “Elephants do not live underground. They are very big animals and they wander about in the forests … It is not easy to catch them.”

The letter caught the attention of the Canadian press. It was reported widely in several newspapers and covered on national television. The Canadian prime minister was made aware of the situation. The boy became a local celebrity, the subject of interviews and news articles. Over the Christmas holidays, his request was amplified through a petition circulated in Granby, drawing the signatures of over eight thousand children.

The children of Granby eventually had their wish granted. In 1955, a two-year-old elephant calf named Ambika was transported from the forests of Madras state to Montreal, before being moved to the Granby zoo. Peter Marmorek was there to welcome her, and even gave a speech to celebrate her arrival. Despite Ambika’s friendliness, he was nervous about her size. His parents reassured him that Ambika was vegetarian, and therefore not a threat. The boy responded, “But how does the elephant know that I’m not a vegetable?”

The official reasoning behind the gift had to do with more than Nehru’s desire to make children happy. As the Indian high commission in Canada wrote to the ministry of external affairs, “No doubt it will be an appealing gesture of friendliness and goodwill.” Kuppuswamy laid out the diplomatic stakes more clearly in a letter she wrote to the mayor of Granby: “India has been receiving several Gifts from your Country, particularly Food Stuffs like Wheat and Milk Powder. The only way by which we can show our appreciation and return the kindness is by way of sending something which your Country does not possess.”

During the same winter, Nehru’s staff was dealing with another elephantine request, this time from the Netherlands. The circumstances leading up to it were rather strange. “Someone of the name of Datatrya, who is posing as P.M.’s nephew in Holland, has played a hoax on Dutch children,” the foreign secretary wrote in December 1953. “He informed some Organisation in Holland that P.M. was sending a baby elephant as a gift to Dutch children. A Dutch child has sent a letter to P.M.”

Indian diplomats were naturally alarmed. Some officials wondered if this individual was indeed a relative of Nehru’s. “He certainly had no business to link the Prime Minister’s name with this proposal,” wrote another. Nehru soon made it clear that he did not know any such person. Increasingly weary of fellow citizens making promises that he had to keep, he added, “As for sending the elephant, this business is getting slightly embarrassing.”

When questioned by the embassy, Ram Mohan Dattatreya, an Indian medical student in Amsterdam, assured the embassy that it was all a misunderstanding. He said that he had visited a children’s community centre, where he spoke—in broken Dutch—with one of its directors. When he saw a painting of an elephant on the wall, the conversation turned to how wonderful it would be if a real elephant could replace the painting. He speculated that a request from the children to Nehru might work, based on his memory of similar gifts made in the past. When asked about the best way to approach the Indian prime minister, he responded by saying that he would ask an uncle in Allahabad, who was a government employee. It was not his fault, Dattatreya explained, that the director misinterpreted this to mean that Jawaharlal Nehru was his uncle.

The letter that reached Nehru’s office in Delhi was a handwritten note by an eight-year-old girl struggling to keep her sentences straight on the blank page. “Dear Mister Nehru, I am Thea de Boer. I am living in Amsterdam,” it began. “I am in the third class. I should like so very much to see an elephant … All the children in the quarter also like so very much to have such an elephant. Is it not possible for you to arrange this?” The plaintive note was backed by another one, with signatures of thousands of Dutch children, addressed to “Uncle Nehru.” The diplomat BN Chakravarty recommended responding positively to the request, despite the unorthodox circumstances behind it, based on its “tremendous publicity value.”

The elephant India sent to the Amsterdam zoo was a calf named Murugan, from the Malabar forests. Murugan arrived at the port in Amsterdam on a cold and grey morning in November 1954, where a thousand flag-waving children formed a welcome party. Once he reached the zoo, he was greeted by thousands more schoolchildren waving homemade Indian flags—scenes that were featured in newspapers, radio and newsreel programmes.

Murugan thrived at the Amsterdam zoo. Over the years, he sprouted two long, gleaming white tusks that were distinctive for their asymmetry in curvature, and for pointing in different directions. He died in June 2003, as a diabetic 50-year-old with stomach problems. Meanwhile, in Canada, Peter Marmorek often visited Ambika at the Granby zoo, but lost touch with her once he grew up and moved out of town. Nevertheless, she sparked in him an abiding interest in India, and he would later travel to the country. As he recalled in a blog post in 2005, it was “Ambika from whom I had learned that India was a magical country; if you wrote to it, they would send you an elephant.”

A 2005 ban by the ministry of environment and forests on transferring animals across international borders as gifts brought to a close decades of India’s animal diplomacy. At no point was it used to greater effect than during the years in which Nehru was both prime minister and foreign minister. Besides gratifying children, the gesture of gifting elephants such as Ambika and Murugan symbolised how postcolonial India wished to be viewed on the international stage: generous and friendly, with a keen sense of fostering ties with the peoples of the world. During a period in which it relied so heavily on external aid, these gifts provided India laudatory news coverage and helped shape a flattering image, as an indulgent young nation that showered presents on children the world over.