Elephants in a seed

S Balakrishnan
I am the proud owner of elephants within a seed; so tiny that six of them are inside an equally tiny red seed and closed with an elephant-shaped stopper ! This is one among my rare curio collections, and is almost 60 years old. How small is this set can be compared when placed on a ten rupee coin – it just equals in size the National Emblem minted on the coin. While the stopper-shaped elephant is just around 5 mm (1/2 a cm), the six tiny–puny elephants safely placed inside the seed are hardly 3 mm!
Where and when I bought this curio set, I do not remember now. But it was definitely during our stay in Madurai (South Tamil Nadu) between 1963 and 1968. While I do not remember its price as well, I saw in the Net that a foreigner had bought such a piece for a mere One Rupee in 1972 from a street vendor in Mahabalipuram, the world-famous tourist town, near Chennai. As I had got it earlier than 1972, it must either be the same One Rupee or even lesser! You see, our vendors usually try to extract the maximum from foreign tourists. What a small amount for such a minute art piece !
The red Circassian seed is known by the botanical name Adenanthera  pavonina; it is from a perennial and non-climbing species of leguminous tree. The seed is known by various other names as well, including red lucky seeds, Acacia          Coral, Arbre,  Jumbi, etc., etc. In my mother tongue Tamil it is called Aanai kundumani (Aanai=elephant) in comparison to the smaller Adenanthera bicolor with a black tip which is merely called kundumani. In Malayalam it is             man-jadi/manjadikuru. The red, shiny seeds are used in jewel making.
It is said that circassian seeds are almost same in shape & size, having a notably uniform weight of about four grains. Hence four of these seeds weigh one gram and about 109 of these red seeds measure an ounce.
I thought I was perhaps one of the few rarest owners of such a minute “Elephants in a red seed” art piece, but the web gave a strong blow to my prideness. There are several claimants to this title, and equally all such pieces are indeed old … antique pieces. They have generally been handed over from one generation to another, bought in various parts of the world during 1940s, 50s and 60s. No wonder that no one remembers its actual price. The search also revealed that such masterpieces were hand-carved not only in India but in various parts of the globe.
Now only six tiny elephants are left in the seed that I possess; how many were there originally I am not sure. Maybe some were blown away in the wind when I, as a kid, took off the stopper and spread the tiny elephants; I had to switch off the ceiling fan to photograph them.
So thin and delicate are these tiny elephants that I had to be very, very careful in handling them. Generally there will be 10 or 12 pieces of these tiny elephants within the seed that had been emptied and cleaned. There are reports that one set had 100 elephants within a seed, perhaps tinier than what I have. Just imagine! Some seeds contained various animals as well. It is said that for every elephant hidden within the seed, a wish is fulfilled.
Hand-carved, the elephants are made of ivory as there was no ban on ivory items when I bought it. While the stopper-shaped elephant is quite visible, only one among the six tiny elephants resembles an elephant. You need to coax your imagination and belief to think that the rest five are also elephants. Anyhow, kudos to the artist who made such a minute showpiece!
There is a belief that artists making such minute pieces ultimately lost their vision as the work involved much concentration. Hence this art of making ‘Elephants within a seed’ was either banned or stopped. As ivory trade/items have been banned, maybe this is nowadays made in camel bone, plastic, etc. But whether such fresh pieces are really available now in the market, I am not sure. I checked Amazon.com for ‘elephants in a red seed’ but the result was negative. In that case I must guard my tiny elephants like a demon. Better insure them for one crore rupees.
How I recently discovered this unique piece from among my considerable collection is like a thriller story. As a retired old man I thought I would spend my time usefully by listing out all my antique/curio collections. As I downloaded one trunk after another from the loft and spread the items for photographing & listing, this particular item could not be located. I was distraught that it was lost forever. When I downloaded the last trunk containing ‘trash’ like old documents, letters, postal collections, cuttings/clippings, etc., etc., to my great relief this curio was found hidden in a small transparent plastic box. I was overjoyed to discover my objet d'art, the ‘Elephants in a Seed’ and decided to write this inspirational thesis !
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