The death penalty is one of the oldest methods of criminal sentencing. Although different countries have had equally gruesome methods of inflicting the highest form of punishment, India had one of the most brutal methods of criminal torture: execution by elephant.
Designed to demonstrate to the people that even the awe-inspiring power of nature was under the iron grip of the emperor, execution by elephant — or gunga rao, as it’s called in India — became a choice method for capital punishment during the Middle Ages and continued well into the 19th century. Although the execution method was thought to have originated in ancient Rome, the practice of stomping the punished via elephant became popular in both western and Southeast Asia and in India. However, this method of execution declined as the British Empire grew in power.
Sources say that Hindu and Muslim leaders executed citizens for tax evasion, rebellion, and being enemy soldiers alike. Thieves and Mongol prisoners were also punished by death.
As for the elephants, they were often trained to “instantly crush [the offender] to atoms … but if it was desired to torture him, the elephant would break his limbs successively, as men are broken on the wheel,” observed Robert Kerr, a writer from the 19th century.
Crushing the victim, however, was not the only method of elephant-inflicted torture. According to François Bernier, a French traveler who witnessed such executions in the Mughal sultanate of Delhi, the elephants were also capable of slicing the prisoners to pieces “with pointed blades fitted to their tusks.”
Another traveler who visited Delhi in the year 1330, Ibn Mattuta, witnessed and recorded his account of the event, stating: “If the order was to cut him to pieces, the elephant would do so with his irons, and then throw the pieces among the assembled multitude. But if the order was to leave him, he would be left lying before the emperor, until the skin should be taken off, and stuffed with hay, and the flesh given to the dogs.”