On September 25, 1949,  former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru gifted an elephant named Indira to Japan. Her arrival in Ueno, Tokyo, sparked a lot of excitement.

Named after Nehru’s daughter, Indira was brought from the former princely state of Mysore in response to letters from Japanese children who had requested elephants. The journey covered thousands of kilometres to fulfil this special gift!

On the day the elephant arrived, thousands of people crowded the zoo to catch a glimpse of the new elephant. Tadamichi Koga, the zoo’s head at the time, expressed that receiving Indira was one of the happiest moments in his life.

So, why did the Japanese children write to Nehru with this unique request?

In 1943, during World War II, the mayor of Tokyo issued an order to kill the three elephants lodged in Japan’s oldest zoo, Ueno.

Two of the three elephants were brought from India and had become popular attractions at the zoo, especially among young children. However, during bombing raids, there was a concern about the elephants escaping.

To prevent this, the authorities tried to euthanise them with needles and even attempted to poison their food. But when both methods failed, the elephants were left to starve to death.

While the adults in Japan did not have time to grieve the loss of these elephants amidst the war, the children never forgot them.

After the war ended, two children submitted a petition to the Japanese Parliament expressing their unhappiness at not being able to see an elephant at the zoo. This petition would eventually snowball into a public campaign.

In the end, the Tokyo government collected over a thousand letters from children, all addressed to the then-prime minister of India, requesting him to send them a replacement elephant.

One such letter in English written by a school girl stated: “At Tokyo Zoo we can only see pigs and birds which give us no interest. It is a long cherished dream for Japanese children to see a large, charming elephant … Can you imagine how much we want to see the animal?”

Meanwhile, another letter noted, “The elephant still lives with us in our dreams.”

Upon receiving these letters, Nehru directed the officials to transport an elephant to Japan. This elephant served as an emblem of the friendship between Japan and India.

In a letter, Nehru wrote, “You must look upon this elephant as a messenger of affection and goodwill from the children of India. The elephant is a noble animal. It is wise and patient, strong and yet, gentle. I hope all of us will also develop these qualities.”

But this wouldn’t be the last time that Nehru would receive such unusual requests.

In World War II, zoo animals in Berlin also faced a treatment similar to those in Tokyo. In response to the children’s requests, Nehru sent a three-year-old female elephant named Shanti, meaning ‘peace’, to Berlin in 1951.

In 1953, Nehru received another similar letter from a five-year-old boy in Canada, Peter Marmorek. “Dear Mr Nehru,” it began. “Here in Granby, a small town in Canada, we have a lovely zoo, but we have no elephant[s].”

In 1955, a two-year-old elephant named Ambika was brought from the then-Madras state forests to Montreal and later relocated to the Granby zoo. Peter welcomed her and delivered a speech to celebrate her arrival.

Other than gratifying children worldwide, the gesture of gifting elephants helped postcolonial India to be viewed as generous and friendly on the international stage.