The proverbial white elephant is an actual reality in Indian literature. This noble creature is the vehicle of the King of the Devas ( celestials)…Indra …. a la Zeus with his Thunderbolt. Not only is he white but has 33 heads.

Here is a depiction from a mural painting …

mural sravanabelagola.jpg

Though there are other white elephants.. the Airawatam ( Erawan in thai/cambodian culture )is said to be the most powerful of all. Described as a huge elephant with silvery white body of 33 heads, each head has 7long ivory tusks. Each of his tusk is 16 million meters long, so huge that it can house 7 large lotus ponds, within each tusk also live thousands of angels and their servants.

This massive modern sculpture greets visitors at the entrance of the Erwan Museum in Thailand.

erawan museum thailand.jpg

Without doubt its almost impossible depict this creature in stone…and hence quite rare to see the full version of Erawan elephant with 33 heads, instead, many artists prefer to draw Erawan as a 3 headed elephant instead.

The Irrawaddy River in thailand is also named after Erawan …

We find the workship of indra and airavatam among the temples of ankor,
prasat preau, siam reap …

beng malea - siam reap cambodia.jpg
indra onairavartasiam reap cambodia.jpg
indra siam reap cambodia.jpg
prasat preau vihear cambodia.jpg
siam reap cambodia.jpg
what phu khmer.jpg

In india some wonderful depictions exist…. in a cave at Bhaja not far from Mumbai that was the site of a Buddhist monastery - there is a stone relief carving showing Indra, king of the gods.

bhaja caves long shot.jpg
cave19 bhaja buddist vihara near mumbai.jpg
indra baja caves.jpg

He is seated upon Airavata with his thunderbolt in hand …in somnathpur.

kesava temple somnathpur.jpg

In The famous chola murals of tanjore big temple…there is airavatham…oh thats the subject of an entire new post….

Whats amazing is that the indian sculptor restricted to just one head while his cambodian couterpart depicts him with three heads.

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Category: Sculpture

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This entry was posted on Sunday, August 31st, 2008 at 10:57 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

3 Comments so far


where is it in the big temple ?

October 14th, 2008 at 15:19

hi lakshmi,

Sundarar ascending to the heavens on airvatam along with cherman perumal ( who is on a beautiful horse) is one of the most celebrated chola fresco panels - this painting has been the subject of much research - including why the depiction of the ocean and also the fact that there is someone hanging on to airvat’s tail. will post in detail shortly.


October 14th, 2008 at 15:24
N.Srinivasan (Cheenu)

yes VJ a really fantastic collection of photographs… you took us on a small around S.E. Asia trip.

November 7th, 2008 at 16:34

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