Giraffe, a Signature Depiction of Medieval Trade at Konark!

As most children do, I as a child in 1970s had a fascination for giraffe, the exotic animal from Africa’s Savannah and Kalahari. Its long neck, and herbivores behaviour often synonym with evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, was a major fascination.  Alas, my fascination for giraffe was remained only in pictures. I did not have chance to see a giraffe in live as there was no giraffe in Odisha’s Nanadkanan Zoo. Like me other curious children who had not stepped out of Odisha’s soil were also been deprived.

Decades after of my childhood, when I was in late 30s, there was happy news for giraffe lovers in Odisha. The Nandankanan Zoo authority had decided to exchange an animal for a giraffe from the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata. I think with this decision many children hearing about a giraffe coming to their zoo would have been excited. Alas, the poor giraffe died in the transit due to electrocution. Perhaps rearing a giraffe was not in the fate of Odisha, even in the setting of 21st century technology driven world.

But I am surprised that how in the 13th century a giraffe could be brought to Odisha from far –off Africa in the absence of any modern means of transport. For those who don’t know the fact, here it is – in one of the panels of Sun Temple (a world heritage monument, and the culmination of temple architecture in Odisha) has a depiction of giraffe being gifted by African/Arabic traders to the king of Odisha.

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Both archaeological evidences and historical sources speak up Odisha’s trade contact with Southeast Asia for the last 2 millennia. But the evidences for trade with West Asia had been few. In fact until the excavation at the port site of Khalkatapatna near the Sun Temple at Konark, there was no evidence of trade with the west reported by archaeologists.

The timeline of Khalkatapatna coincides with the erection of Konark. It seems that a bulk of money needed for Konark’s erection had come through sea trade. Khalkatapatna excavation had yielded ceramics from Persian Gulf suggesting that traders from West Asia frequented the Konark region. Perhaps they brought in exotic gifts from Africa and West Asia for the kings of Odisha. One such gift was a giraffe, which is beautifully depicted in a panel at Sun Temple.

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So the 13th Century Odisha Inc was a multinational emporium and those having roots in the state must take a pride on their history. Surprisingly, no history books and even travel writers bring out these exotic aspects of our past and instead just focus on overall information about monuments, places or mere description of events.

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6 thoughts on “Giraffe, a Signature Depiction of Medieval Trade at Konark!

  1. Jitu can you share the Khalakatapatna ceramic details/pics or a link to them?
    Admiral He was supposedly in the bay of bengal enroute from Africa to China and he did take giraffes back home to China so it may just be that this was a pre-existing situation.

  2. here’s a link to a picture of a painting of the pet giraffe of ‘the sultan of Bengal’ that Admiral Zeng He took back to China

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