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The elephant "as large as a snow mountain" is usually painted white in the "colour of the moon" in Tibetan art. In artistic representation it is often drawn proportionally smaller than its actual size. The rare white albino elephant was highly venerated as a royal or temple elephant in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. The proverbial "white elephant" derives its title from the fact that albino elephants were reputedly difficult to control, and much care and expense was involved in their keeping. Elephantine "pearls" were believed to form in the forehead or temples of the rare albino. Only two main species of elephants survive into the present time -- the African and Indian species. The African elephant has large ears which resemble the shape of the continent of Africa; the Indian elephant has smaller ears which resemble the outline of the India subcontinent.
The word elephant has it etymology in the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph -- meaning an ox. In Sanskrit the elephant is known as gaja or hastin -- which means "possessing a hand" (hasta) -- referring to the versatility of the elephant's dexterous trunk and its creation from the hand of Brahma. An Indian dance posture, adopted by Shiva as Nataraja -- "Lord of the Dance," places one arm horizontally across the chest with the hand held downwards to resemble the elephant's trunk. This posture is known as gajahasta mudra, meaning "elephant-hand." A hand mudra formed by pointing the middle finger outwards to resemble an elephant's trunk, whilst curving the other four fingers inwards to resemble an elephant's legs, is known as hastiratna mudra ("elephant-jewel"), and is used in invocations to the "seven precious gems of the chakravartin."
The domestication or taming of the naturally wild Indian elephant dates back to remote antiquity. Clay images of ridden elephants have been unearthed in excavations of ancient Harappan civilisation sites (circa 2500 BC), such as Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus valley. Images of a domesticated horned elephant have been recently unearthed form the Harappan site of Kalibangan in Rajasthan. Images of tamed elephants are also found in ancient Egyptian relief carvings, and occur in Chinese historical records dating back to before the first millenium BC. The once populous Chinese elephant of the Yangtse valley became extinct around the fourth century BC. Once abounding throughout all the lands of western Asia the extinction of the elephant was noted by Alexander the Great, who first encountered elephants on the threshold of the Indian subcontinent in the fourth century BC. Eastwards from the Indus river and downwards into South East Asia the native elephant population remained widespread, until the advent of gunpowder curtailed its military importance and the greed of ivory hunters forced it to its present-day brink of extinction.
In ancient warfare the elephant formed one of the "four limb" (chaturanga) of the Indian military system, which was divided into elephants, horses, chariots, and infantry. The elephant of war was highly trained to be able to withstand the clamour of battle, the thrusting of lances, and the savage onslaught of hand-held weapons. Perfect obedience, and the ability to stand its ground amidst the bloodthirsty frenzy of the battlefield, were prerequisites of the valiant war elephant. Armour, bells, tassles, conch earrings, harnesses, and a coarse blanket would equip the elephant's battlewear. On its back would ride six or seven warriors bearing hooks, swords, lances, clubs, bows and arrows. A contingent of foot soldiers would guard its flanks and protect against attack from the rear. Due to its sheer physical might the elephant destroyed much that was in its path; it could ford rivers, blaze trails or clear pathways, and batter against doorways and fortifications. As such it became the unstoppable "remover of obstacles," an appellation that the elephant-headed god Ganesha acquired. In warfare the main defence against elephants entailed the deployment of iron spikes which studded vulnerable doors and walls, or the use of sharp iron staves, which were anchored into the ground before the defensive battlefront.
The Kalachakra Tantra gives a description of the wild elephant, "The great blue elephant thunders like a dragon. His eyes are tawny and his temples full of aromatic rutting musk. He uproots and smashes trees, binding with his trunk and chopping with his long tusks."
Wrathful deities often wear the blood-stained skin of a freshly killed elephant stretched across their backs, which is sometimes referred to as "Indra's skin." The qualities of wrathful forms which are comparable to the wild elephant are revealed in their symbolic activities of bellowing, crushing, tearing, trampling, and uprooting. The symbolism of the flayed elephant skin refers to the deity "having torn the elephant of ignorance asunder." The elephant, human, and tiger skins which adorn wrathful forms symbolise the destruction of the three poisons of ignorance, desire, and anger respectively.
Ganesha, whose head had been decapitated by the gaze of the plant Saturn (Sani) was the first son of Shiva. In place of his original head he received the head of Airavata, the white bull-elephant who was the mount of Indra. Etymologically the name Airavata comes from the Sanskrit "iravat," meaning "produced from water," referring to Airavata's emerging from the churning of the ocean in the creation myth (see page 109). Queen Maya, the mother of Shakyamuni Buddha, dreamed that a white bull-elephant entered her womb at the moment of conception. She gave birth to the Buddha in the royal gardens of Lumbini, which were said to resemble Indra's paradise grove known as Chitraratha. Maya's dream of the white elephant entering her womb perhaps indicates that the child destined to become the Buddha was originally perceived as an emanation of Indra. Indra and Brahma -- the two great gods of the heavens -- appeared to the Buddha at the precise moment of his enlightenment requesting him to remain in this world for the liberation of all beings.
The precious white elephant is the vehicle of many Vajrayana Buddhist deities. In particular the elephant is identified with Akshobhya, the blue Buddha of the east or centre. Eight elephants support Akshobhya's throne, equating him with the continent of India itself as the centre of the universe, also supported by eight elephants. Akshobhya means "the immutable" or "unshakeable," and the elephant symbolises his vajara-like unchangeable and immovable nature. Thangkas illustrating the life of Buddha invariably depict the episode of his subjugation of the wild bull-elephant. Devadatta, the cousin of the Buddha, through jealousy caused a schism to arise in the sangha. As Devadatta's pride increased he attempted to murder the Buddha. One of his schemes involved loosing a rampaging elephant into the Buddha's path, but as it approached the elephant perceived the radiant compassion of the Buddha, and coming to its senses it knelt down meekly at his feet. The elephant is one of the seven possessions of the chakravartin. It is both the most gentle and powerful of creatures, representing the endurance, self-control, patience, gentleness, and power of the Buddha.
An elephant can live as long as a hundred years. A fifty or sixty-year old bull-elephant was considered the most appropriate age for warfare, as a great degree of experience and maturity ensured full obedience and steadfastness. After sixty years the last of the elephant's twenty-four replaceable molar teeth wear away and the animal's health begins to decline. The treasured ivory tusks of the elephant are actually frontal teeth, which can grow to an enormous length of ten feet. A large pair of such tusks are displayed in the shrine room of Nyenri monastery at Mt Kailash, close to the Hidden Elephant Cave of Padmasambhava.
Plate 52 At the centre is the "precious elephant," adorned with an elephant's saddle blanket and a jewelled harness bearing hanging tassles and bells. On his back is the wish-fulfilling gem, and in his trunk he bears aloft a mandala offering of the universe. His head and rump are adorned with single jewels, set in a head ornament and a golden wheel on his rear.
To his right is the head of Airavata, the six-tusked white vehicle of the god Indra. In his trunk he wields a sharp-pointed chakra, a weapon he uses as a flail to destroy the enemy. His six tusks are a magical symbol of power, formed from a triple row of teeth -- a symbol of immortality -- which represent his "six perfections." Airavata, in this form, is depicted in the "wheel of life" painting leading the army of the gods into battle against the asuras. Indra, mounted on Airavata, wears the full armour of a warrior and wields his mighty vajra in his right hand whilst he holds a rope snare in his left. His "secret weapon," the "jewelled net of Indra," symbolises interdependence, and is like the stars of the night sky which he can cast to infinity.
Examples of elephants as depicted in thangka painting fill the rest of this page. The elephant is usually painted with long pointed tusks, and five nail-capped toes are spread across the front of his circular feet. The elephant was rarely seen by Tibetan artists and its representation tended to degenerate to a variable stylistic form through copying.
Two elephant steering hooks or goads (Skt. ankusha; Tib. lcgs kyu) and a rope noose (Skt. pasha; Tib. zhags pa) are illustrated in the drawing. The sharp point of the goad symbolises penetrating awareness or clear understanding, and the rope, mindful recollection or memory. The goad is used by the mahout or elephant driver to control the creature, and the rope to tether or bind it.
The spotted elephant drawing at the bottom centre shows the sensitive spots on an elephant's body where the mahout inserts the point of the goad to convey various commands to the elephant's instinct or intelligence. These marma or "sensitive points" on an elephant's skin, which were originally identified in remote antiquity, are believed to have been one of the possible sources of origin for the Chinese system of acupuncture.
Copyright © 1999 by Robert Beer. All rights reserved.
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I love this book! I am an artist and this has been a wonderful book to reference. Very beautiful drawings with detailed explanations of the symbology behind the art work. This book is worth every penny.