Who doesn’t love elephants? This massive yet cute animal has captured our hearts since our childhood. All authoritative “Hathi” from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle book, the obedient pet “Shep” from George of the Jungle, the cute baby elephant “Dumbo” with abnormally large ears, “Heffalumps” from Winne the Pooh, Dr. Seuss’ elephant “Horton” just so many of them, each uniquely beautiful.
Elephants play a very important role in many cultures and traditions. But we do not have to go deep into the “cultural” and “religious” significance of these majestic animals to understand why they are such a hit with the public! Just type ‘elephant’ in your Google search and you will find so many adorable videos and images of elephants. Right from the “Manny” of Ice Age (although Manny is a mammoth) to “Snorky” of the Banana Splits Club, our cartoons, movies and Facebook walls are full of cute elephants. Today we find elephants all over the social media, but in the ancient and the medieval times, they adorned various paintings, sculptures and coins!
Elephants have always been a topic of artistic representation all over the world. But they find a special place in India. The elephant is a very popular animal in India and has been the subject of various cultural depictions in mythology, symbolism, and popular culture. Elephants are both, revered in religion and respected for their prowess. Ever since the Stone Age the elephants have been represented in ancient petroglyphs and cave art, they have also been depicted in various forms of art, including pictures, sculptures, music, film, and architecture.
Elephants find a special place in the mythologies and religions of the Indian sub-continent. The earth is said to be supported and guarded by mythical elephants according to the Hindu cosmology. The elephant which represents wisdom, divine knowledge and royal power is associated with Lakshmi, Brihaspati, Shachi and Indra. Indra is said to ride on a flying white elephant named Airavata. Indians, especially Hindus have worshipped elephants for centuries, elephant is a sacred animal and is considered as the living incarnation of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed deity.
In Buddhist iconography, the elephant is associated with Queen Maya or Mahamaya, the mother of Gautama Buddha. Further according to the Buddhist Philosophy the elephant is associated with the birth of Buddha and the stability of the “Dhamma” too. The elephant symbolises royal authority and majesty.
This strikingly beautiful and opulent animal has over the years come to represent India. It is impossible to think of India without thinking about elephants. Elephants till date remain an integral part of religion in South Asia and are even featured in various religious practices and folklore. Just as we relate China to Dragons! Hence it is not a surprise that some of the earliest specimens of elephant representations in art or otherwise are from India only! A seal from Indus Valley civilization (2500 BCE – 1500 BCE) depicts this majestic animal on it.
Considered as symbols of good luck and fortune, elephants have played a major role in Indian religious ceremonies, social functions and popular arts. A representation of wisdom, loyalty, strength, honour, stability and persistence, the elephant has for long exerted a powerful hold over the human imagination and Indian numismatic art is no exception. Elephants were a common symbol to have been portrayed in various designs and styles all through the Indian coinage.
Elephants have for ages symbolized many things in India, an animal truly revered in ancient times and still popular. The calmness and sheer strength of the elephant are virtues that many of us would love to see become a part of our own selves. The wisdom of elephants is something that we hope to see reflected in people. Elephants have played an important part in Indian history be it as being effective in the building of colossal temple structures, or in war strategies, or helping construction projects such as irrigation etc, to being worshipped!
अश्वपूर्वां रथमध्यां हस्तिनादप्रबोधिनीम् ।
श्रियं देवीमुपह्वये श्रीर्मा देवी जुषताम् ॥३॥
“(O Laxmi) who is abiding in middle of the chariots driven by horses, whose arrival is heralded by the bellowing trumpet of the elephants…”
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