Execution by elephant was a common method of capital punishment in South and Southeast Asia, particularly in India, where Asian elephants were used to crush, dismember or torture captives in public executions. The animals were trained and versatile, able to kill victims immediately or to torture them slowly over a prolonged period. Most commonly employed by royalty, the elephants were used to signify both the ruler’s absolute power and his ability to control wild animals.
The sight of elephants executing captives both horrified and attracted the interest of European travellers and was recorded in numerous contemporary journals and accounts of life in Asia. The practice was eventually suppressed by the European empires that colonised the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. While primarily confined to Asia, the practice was occasionally adopted by Western powers, such as Ancient Rome and Carthage, particularly to deal with mutinous soldiers.