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Power, Royalty, Reverence: Elephants in Asian Culture

Updated: Oct 20, 2018

Elephas maximus—the monumental archetype of power and wisdom, compassion and prosperity, charisma and reverence—is one of the largest terrestrial organisms and rightfully acknowledged as a megafauna species. Long story short, we are in awe of Asian elephants. They command respect and love in equal measure.

For centuries, elephants have enjoyed a reverential status in Asian countries, particularly in the continent’s religious courtyards. Well, not quite.

When Sangita Iyer, a multiple award-winning nature and wildlife journalist and filmmaker,  and the founder of Voice for Asian Elephants Society, VFAES,  brought to fore the plight of temple elephants in Kerala—a tropical southern coastal state in India—through her award-winning documentary Gods In Shackles, it was definitely a wake-up call, and one that urges to take up the cudgel and lead the wagon.

Nominated at the United Nations while winning several international film festival awards, the film attempts to cultivate empathy and bring about a shift in attitude.

Watching the film is never easy, especially if you have a beating heart. It’s unsettling and excruciatingly painful to see elephants being tethered, hooked, spiked, flogged, chained, parched, starved, even paralyzed.

The distress of captive elephants is a veiled tale of injustice in many temples across South India. Interestingly, the festivities and parades that pander to the mass hysteria and imagination take centerstage and force us to shift gaze from the issue of cultural appropriation of elephants.

Elephants in Asian culture and history

Asian culture is replete with stories and parables surrounding this royal giant of the wild. Elephants have always been looked at with great admiration for the sheer size and power they wield while free.

In fact, the first reference of elephant-taming dates back to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization in South Asia, as early as 4500 BC, supposedly for agricultural purposes.

Also, the Thais have held elephants in high esteem, and their skills were harnessed to win wars against the Burmese, Malays, and the Khmer dynasties. No wonder the elephant is celebrated as the national symbol of Thailand.

In Myanmar the white elephant is a cultural icon, a revered deity. A dive into the Theravada culture and traditions tells us the fascinating lineage of elephants and their role in Buddhist cosmology and the Jatakas. It's believed that when Gautama practiced austerity alone in the Paraleyya wilderness, it was an elephant that provided him with food and shelter.

Sri Lanka has a long-standing history of training elephants for royal occasions, temple ceremonies and, of course, for many traditional practices. They are also known to have entertained crowds. The country’s ruined walls carry inscriptions and carvings depicting the grand animal in many forms, suggesting close ties with humans.

Elephants are wrapped into the ethos of Cambodia. Nowhere is it more evident than the intricate artwork at Angkor Wat—the exotic temple largely built by the massive power of elephants. Also, the ethnic Bunong community of the country’s east is that rare tribe whose harmonious living with elephants is part of a curious cultural narrative.

The depiction of elephants in royal ceremonies, training, and warfare is also seen in Vietnam as early as AD 40. Vietnamese honor the Trung sisters riding on elephants, revolting against the Chinese invasion of their land.

Elephants played a huge role in the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC when Porus, the Emperor of India, fought with heavily armored war elephants to confront Alexander the Great. Also the great Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, have glorious tales of elephants being an integral part of cavalry and kingship.

Decoding the elephant god—Myths and Beliefs

The much loved Hindu deity, Lord Ganesha, owes his facial allegiance to none other than the flamboyant tusker. More reason why the god is considered to be the epitome of intellect and authority, and the patron of arts and sciences.

There are several anecdotes abound on how Ganesh bears an elephant head, but the most popular one goes somewhat like this: Goddess Parvati had asked his loyal son to stand guard at the door while she bathed. Ganesha was so obedient that he even denied his father Lord Shiva an entry. Enraged, Shiva cut off his head which infuriated the mother and led to the search for the first living creature that would replace their son’s head. The only deal was that it had to be the first living being, which just so happened to be an elephant!

So there you have the elephant, an embodiment of Lord Ganesh and a front runner in the pantheon of Hindu gods.

In Buddhism, the elephant is elevated to the spiritual stature of the Buddha himself for the qualities they both manifest. Legend has it that Buddha’s mother had a dream of a white elephant entering her womb, shortly after which Buddha was born.

How ironic then, that in places of worship people turn a blind eye to the inhuman conditions in which captive elephants live and barely survive the rigmarole of daily atrocities!

If you are an elephant lover and want to be a voice for these beautiful species on earth, give us a shoutout! We are blowing the trumpet here at Project Asian Elephants 101.

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