What do elephants and Hindu temples have in common? 

As a student of art history, I often wondered when I saw a profusion of the images of elephants in Hindu temples – especially in India.  There are large statues of elephants prominently placed in the temple courtyards, for example, in Kailashnatha at Ellora.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of images, large and small, scattered in Hindu temples all over India.  What’s the reason?

After studying Hindu art and religion for many years, I have come to understand the ubiquitous presence of elephants in art.  Without saying much about their gracefulness, beauty, majesty they display, elephants have been used from the day man was able to tame them for his own benefit. At a time when there were no tanks, elephants served as tanks in wars. Whichever party had large number of elephants won the war.  It was that simple.

From written and visual records, we can tell that elephants were used in the construction of temples.  Hauling large slabs of stone to the location of the temple site and working along with the laborers in lifting the stone pillars and slabs weighing as much as several tons, their help was crucial.  In the days before mechanical cranes, elephants did much of the heavy lifting.  Without them, some of these magnificent temples – yesteryears’ skyscrapers – couldn’t have been built.  Hence, to pay respect and to show the indebtedness to them, elephant images were carved in and around temples with fondness.

To trace the divine origin of the elephant, all we have to do is turn the pages of some Hindu texts, such as the Bhagavata Purana and the epic the Mahabharata. There, the great Airavata elephant was produced from the churning of the Ocean (Samudra Mathana or Kheer Mathana).  After it came out of the ocean of milk, Indra, the king of the gods, claimed it as his royal vehicle.  Its divine origin has given the elephant a special status of royalty; no one but a king can afford to keep an elephant.  There is a saying: if you want to see your enemy’s economic ruin, give him an elephant.  The implication is obvious: in the process of maintaining the elephant, the enemy will go bankrupt.

As they are associated with the Hindu god Indra and the goddess Lakshmi, elephants are a symbol of royalty and abundance. It’s natural, then, to have images of elephants carved in a temple to represent all of those ideas.