True colours: elephants in Indian art


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INDIAN art, with its unique vision and iconography, has always given an important place to elements from the natural world. Man was not seen as the most important being in this universe, controlling and ruling over nature; instead, he was only a part of the great, complex, cosmic life in which every living thing had its own special place. From a very early period, Indian art submerged itself in nature, worshipping its various elements and endowing its smallest facet with honour. Birds, animals and trees, in all their glorious beauty, were given equal importance as human form in sculpture and painting as well as in architecture.

The artist never strayed far from nature and wove its forms cleverly and skilfully into his art, whether depicting a religious theme or illustrating a folktale, narrating a tale of valour from an imperial battle or crafting an object for everyday use. Because of this extraordinary sense of kinship with nature, the artists and craftsmen, over the centuries developed a most remarkable ability to depict the elements from nature in a most amazing and unique manner. Indian art, celebrating nature in all its forms, thus gave the world’s some of the most remarkable and lyrical animal images.

The majestic form of an elephant first appears in art in a famous seal from the Harappan period. This intricate and beautifully composed seal is considered important for many reasons, not the least because it is the first anthropomorphic representation of a deity in India. Sir John Marshall, a renowned Indologist and archaeologist, in a report for the Archaeological Survey of India in 1872, wrote that it is a prototype for the later form of Shiva.

The seal demonstrates that the elephant was considered an important part of Indian culture and given a high status as far back as 2300 BC. The image of the elephant on this seal is overshadowed by a roaring tiger and a brooding rhinoceros, but the regal elephant holds his own. The elephant image, obviously a great favourite with artists, gradually becomes a dominant feature in sculpture and architectural forms during subsequent periods and is seen in temples all over India.


Some of the greatest and most beautiful examples of sculpture in Indian art were created during the Mauryan period when Buddhism became a major world religion and began spreading all over Asia. This was the time thousands of ‘stupas’ containing holy relics were built by Emperor Asoka to mark the sites sacred to Buddhism. According to legend, he erected 84,000 stupas to illustrate the various important stages of Lord Buddha’s life, though very few of them have been found. At this same time hundreds of edicts were cut into rocks and stone pillars to mark the pilgrim routes to holy places. These edicts honour the life of Buddha and at the same time speak of his innate love and respect for all forms of life in nature.

The most significant and finest of these stone columns is the one in Sarnath, the holy site where Buddha first preached the doctrine of Dhrama and thus set the wheel of law into motion. This stone column, which is the official emblem of India, was created during a time when Buddha’s image was never shown in art. He was only depicted by various symbols.

The pillar in Sarnath depicts the Wheel of Law supported by four lions and four lower wheels on an abacus. The elephant is one of the four animals depicted here along with a horse, a bull and a lion. This signifies the far reaching extent of Buddha’s sermons since each of these animals symbolized a direction in ancient times. The elephant was considered the East, the horse the South, the lion was the North while the bull was the West.


While the majestic stone pillar accorded the elephant its high status, its form is given a more elegant rendering in the stupas. The eastern gateway of the Great Stupa in Sanchi which was built during the second century BC, is a finely carved structure where every aspect of Buddha’s life is narrated by sculptors in great detail.

Sanchi, a glorious treasure house of Buddhist art, is one of the most important stupas to survive from that period and provides a vivid picture of life two thousand years ago on its eastern and northern gateways. The elephant is seen here in all its majestic yet playful form. We see it as an animal of great strength, effortlessly supporting a bracket figure, the graceful ‘yakshi’ Salabhanjika, as she leans out to see a procession. The elephant, bedecked with ornaments, watches her with steady, watchful eyes.

The toranas at Sanchi narrate many wonderful stories from Buddha’s life and we encounter the elephant once again in one of the Jataka tales as the noble Chhaddanta, the six-tusked elephant who willingly and generously bestowed his beautiful tusks on a cruel hunter. The are many more elephants carved with loving hands on the gateways at Sanchi, some marching slowly in a procession, others lifting their trunks to pay homage to a symbol of Lord Buddha. Each one of these elegant, bejewelled images add to the beauty and splendour of this great monument of Buddhist art.


From the stone sculpture of Sanchi we travel to another important site of Buddhist art – Bharut. This stupa, unfortunately in ruins now, was discovered by Sir Alexander Cunning-ham in 1873. The railing which remains, shows an incredible range of fine carvings and the rich and varied designs incorporate purely geometric as well as floral designs in which are set human and animal images. We see here a ‘yakshi’ holding a branch of a sacred tree as she balances gracefully on an elephant’s back. The elephant seems happy to carry such a beautiful form and the stone figures seem to be moving with fluid grace. The artist has lovingly depicted the elephant and shown it standing with a foot raised, as if in a gesture of tribute to the beautiful ‘yakshi’ he is carrying.

At Bharut we see that the sculptors had a deep knowledge of animals and trees as well as of myths and legends of their time and many motifs invoke the forest gods and goddesses – the ‘vanadevtas’. One such panel is devoted to ‘gajalakshmi where we see a graceful female form standing on a lotus, holding lotuses in her hands and being bathed by elephants. This motif captured the imagination of artists in later centuries and we see it repeated in the Gupta period too. In fact, we see this very image re-emerging in the popular calendar art of present day.

Along with forest gods, some of the panels in Bharut depict the daily rituals of life as it unfolded 2000 years ago. We see flashes of humour in a few panels devoted to Jataka tales. An amusing relief shows a monkey who thinks he is a dentist and has tied an elephant with a rope to a tree while he tries to pull out a giant tooth. This whimsical mood is seen in other depictions of ordinary stories which must have had a popular appeal and delighted the visitors thousand years ago and yet retain their charming quality till this day.

The series of complex narratives, carved in amazing detail, tell us stories from Buddha’s life. The reliefs also had inscriptions carved alongside but sadly most of the characters have been erased. But all of the stories were well-known to Buddhist pilgrims who must have visited this holy stupa in vast numbers as an important story depicted here in intricate and exquisite detail is ‘Queen Maya’s dream’. One of the most beautiful and lyrical reliefs to survive, this carving celebrates the conception of Buddha. A famous legend from Buddha’s life relates that ‘when it came time for the "Tathagata" (He – the Buddha – who comes in truth) to descend to the world of man for the last time, he took the form of a white elephant and entered the womb of a virtuous royal queen.’


The red sandstone carving is a railing medallion, dating back to the 2nd century. Here, the elephant in a sacred, noble form, is the main feature of the composition. He hovers gently, as light as a cloud, over the sleeping queen, wearing a crown of flowers and jewels. The medallion is only 19 inches but the artist has very skilfully managed to carve every little detail of the story. The queen’s jewellery, the ornaments and the flickering lamp by her side, the gracefully curved back of the elephant, and its curled trunk, is proof that this was a work rendered by a gifted master sculptor.

While the elephant shown in this medallion is a sacred symbol, another relief from Bharut depicts an elephant in a playful mood. This carving, now in the Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, shows the elephant lifting his trunk to break a leaf from a mango tree while his mahout struggles to restrain him. There is naughty gleam in the elephant’s eye and the sculptor must have taken great delight in carving this piece of art which reflects his affection and familiarity with an elephant.


The later panels of relief sculpture seen at Amravati also celebrate Buddha’s life and here we find the elephant amongst other animal images such as horses and lions. A carving from the Great Stupa’s railings at Amravati, dating from the third century AD, depicts one of the earliest forms of Buddha in human form. Here he is seen subduing a maddened elephant which was sent by Devadutta, a jealous cousin to harm him. The work, a superb example of the Amravati school of art, expresses facets of the story in minute detail and brings it to life. It is almost like an animation rendered in stone. The elephant is first shown in a great rage as he charges ahead, tossing aside the onlookers in his path with his huge trunk and then we see him kneeling humbly at Buddha’s feet, totally calm and pacified by His sacred presence.

In the later period of Gupta rulers, who were great patrons of art, sculpture and painting reached a higher level and this period is considered the golden age of literature and art. Sculpture and painting flourished under their benevolent patronage and flowered into extraordinary and aesthetically appealing works of art. Gupta sculptures are considered perfect renderings and expert manipulation of contour in both human and animal form.

The amazing narrative skill of Gupta sculptors is in full display on the panels of the great temple of Vishnu at Deogarh. The serene figure of Vishnu lying on the serpent couch, Brahma Haragauri on the bull, Skanda on the peacock and Indra riding an elephant are all composed with great artistry and these striking images were to be later copied by artists not only in India but also in neighbouring countries.

The glorious art traditions of the Gupta period in the fifth century AD became so embedded in the iconography of the period that the motifs were repeated by different schools of art in successive centuries. Later, these great and inspiring images travelled outside the borders of India and gained another dimension in the magnificent temples of Angkor Thom in Cambodia (Kampuchea) and temples in Bali and Sri Lanka.


Just as the Indian elephant was given a place of honour in Indian art, the African elephant too found its way to Europe. While complex myths and legends of India were carved on temples in every corner of the country and travelled with traders and pilgrims to far away lands, we also find the elephant images in folklore and myths from Africa. Pieces of pottery with elephant motifs were found in Rome and there is a black glazed vase dating from the 4th century BC which is in the shape of an elephant. This vase, in the collection of the British Museum, was found in Vulci. Rome had not yet conquered North Africa where elephants still lived and experts are still trying to find out where the potter had seen this elephant he had captured so beautifully in clay.

In one quiet corner in the bustling city of Rome, stands a column with an elephant which is unique. This obelisk of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva was created by the famous sculptor Bernini in the late 16th century. The elephant image, carved in white marble, has a playful look which is in total contrast to the gothic church building. The elephant was considered an ancient symbol of intelligence and piety by Romans.

Travellers and traders carried the elephant’s fame all over the world and gradually artists from other corners of the world too became fascinated by the elephant’s elegant form. Many of them had never seen the animal, unlike Indian artists who were totally familiar with its form and had also seen it in real life. Nevertheless, these artist from lands where the elephant had never been seen, still managed to create its form. An exquisite 16th century porcelain vase from Japan depicts elephants, though the animal had never been seen in the country till much later. It was probably made for the merchants of the Dutch East India Company for export. What prototype the Japanese and Roman artists had copied the elephant from remains a mystery.


The great master Rembrandt too was fascinated by elephants and made several studies of this exotic animal rarely seen in his part of the world. A charcoal study by him can be seen in the British Museum collection. Dated 1637, the drawing is of a female elephant called Hansker known to have been in Holland during that time. The great master’s rendering of the dark shadows on the elephant’s rounded body and rough skin, shows he had studied the animal’s form at great length.

While the majestic elephant marched on in sculptures and paintings, storytellers were also equally fascinated with the noble animal. Myths and legends, folk tales and ballads of India speak of the elephant’s grace and intelligence. Elephants in Indian mythology are mostly seen to be white and we see Indra riding his noble elephant Airavata as he hurls thunderbolts to bring rain on earth. This elephant is often described in legends as the great white cloud that appears in the sky after the monsoon, a symbol of bounty and new vegetation.


Though many of these myths and legends were best depicted in Kangra miniatures, it is less known that the elephant was given equal importance in the paintings created during the earlier Moghul period. Emperor Akbar was a great patron of the arts and during his reign a state atelier was established in 1580 where hundreds of beautiful miniature paintings were created. A painting made during a later period shows an action-filled scene from the Akbarnama, from the collection of Victoria and Albert Museum. The emperor Akbar is seen on an elephant chasing another great elephant across a pontoon bridge over the river Jamuna. In this turbulent, lively composition, the elephants seem calm and cool as they move swiftly ahead as graceful as dancers. Several other paintings from the Akbarnama feature the elephant in action since the emperor was fond of elephant battles.

Elephants are one of the favourite animals of folk artists all over India and their form can be seen embossed on clay pots, carved in wood, printed and embroidered on textiles. Many article of everyday use like wooden combs, canes and wooden toys were decorated with elephants. Even now we find images of the elephant finely etched on palm leaf paintings, rendered in miniature painting and worked in exquisite detail on gold and silver ornaments. Indian artists and craftsmen continue to be as fascinated by the graceful form of the regal elephant as their counterparts two thousand years ago. The elephant image on the seal from the Harappan period still lives in the hearts of the artist today.