At Dhauli, about eight kilometres from Bhubaneswar, there is a sculpture of an elephant on the summit of a small hillock, which also contains edicts of Asoka (r. 268-232 BCE), the Maurya king of the Magadha empire with its capital at present day Patna.
The Dhauli hillock and the nearby village are located on the banks of River Daya where the Kalinga battle of Asoka had taken place in 261 BCE. The edicts and the elephant sculpture must have been commissioned by Asoka soon after.
The Dhauli elephant is a well-known work, and nearly all prominent historians, archaeologists and art historians have written about it. Yet, the sculpture has not been viewed in its entirety ever since it was rediscovered in the early 19th century, as a result of which its real beauty and unparalleled sense of imagination still remain unrevealed.
In 1837, Markham Kittoe discovered the Dhauli edicts of Asoka, and reported the same along with a brief note in which he had described the sculpture as "the fore-half of an elephant", and ever since then, the work has been seen in the same way.
For instance, in 'An Album of Indian Sculpture', C Sivaramamurti had said, "The Dhauli elephant, carved in the living rock as almost to appear emerging alive, is an excellent example of loving study of animals so vividly presented with the utmost natural treatment."
More recently, Joanna Williams had written an essay on elephants in Indian art, and said, “The significance of the Dhauli elephant has never been explained to my satisfaction”, and described the work as “the animal that emerges from a matrix of rock”.
Of course, the Dhauli elephant sculpture is a work in stone/rock; but in my opinion, once the carving had been finished by the Dhauli artist(s), in about 261 BCE, under the patronage of Asoka, the work contains no more rock or stone, but a large round sculpture with two major components viz., the elephant in front, and behind the same a matrix of cloud, which had not been identified so far by anyone else.
In all earlier studies, no scholar took the hind part of the work into consideration as they had viewed that portion as mere rock, not as a large mass of cloud. Incidentally, the Asoka edict at the place ends with the word Sevto in Pali, and the same in Sanskrit means Sweto and the White One in English.
This suggests that the sculpture is not at all meant to depict any ordinary animal, but the all-white Bull Elephant - which figures in ancient Indian religions and culture by name Airavata and resides in Swarga. Thus, the sculpture represents the end of the Gajayana or the Bull Elephant’s Journey, which began in heaven and concluded on the summit of the Dhauli hillock.
Apparently, at the beginning of the journey, the cloud enveloped the White One completely at the gates of heaven, and brought the same up to the summit of the hillock. After perching on the summit, the cloud began receding backwards so as to leave the White One there. In the process, the cloud only revealed the front portion of the White One; the remaining part is still within it.
Airavata figures, for the first time in Indian literature, in the Ramayana of Valmiki, in which the first poet of Sanskrit literature addresses Rama as "O bull among men", and says further that "Matangi gave birth to elephants. The mighty elephant Airavata, who became the lord of the world, was born to Iravati". Interestingly, here Valmiki has described Airavata as "the lord of the world".
Such a statement clearly suggests that the all-white Bull Elephant had been considered an independent and most supreme divinity. Further, in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna, "Among horses know me to be Ucchaihsrava (the best horse) ...I am Airavata among all lordly elephants."
In the Mahabharata, Vyasa describes Airavata as a resident of heaven along with other divinities. But later on, the Puranas portrayed Airavata as the vahana of Indra, who figures as a prominent divinity in the Vedic literature, but without any association with any elephant, leave alone Airavata.
The Dhauli sculpture represents the concept of the all-white Bull Elephant as the most divine fertility symbol. This might even suggest a very ancient custom of animal worship, the adoration of the all-white Bull Elephant in particular, which most likely had been practiced by the forest dwellers of the Kalinga region, and perhaps even elsewhere in India.
Furthermore, the Dhauli hillock itself seems to have been worshipped as the divine and the all-white Bull Elephant even before Asoka had come to the region; for, the actual name of the hillock is Aswathama, which in turn reminds me of the name of a prominent war-elephant from Kalinga that had participated in the Kurukshetra battle of the Mahabharata.
The elephant fought on the side of the Kauravas of Hastinapur (city of elephants). Surprisingly, though the all-white Airavata figures prominently in Indian mythologies, like the Vishnu Purana and so on, to the best of my knowledge, the worship of the same has not been mentioned anywhere in classical Sanskrit literature.
But a few Marathi folk songs, which have been translated by Iravati Karve, and a few more legends in Kannada mention that Gandhari, the queen of Hastinapur, had worshipped the figure of Airavata that was made by her sons with clay and cow dung. To the best of my awareness, no modern scholar has considered the possibility of any existence of the worship of the all-white Bull Elephant either in the context of studies in ancient Indian culture, or in the ongoing studies of the Asoka edicts.
Yet, clear traces of the existence of such worship of the White One can be found in early Tamil texts. For instance, the Silappattikaram mentions, though in brief, a temple of Airavata at Puhar, though no temple or deity has survived at the place.
It seems most likely that the all-white Bull Elephant of the time may have been made with quickly perishable materials such as fresh clay or cow dung. Such a divine figure might have even been placed on an open-air platform, which could still be called a gudi or alayam (place of worship).
Incidentally, the White One of Asoka on the summit of the Dhauli hillock is an open-air sculpture. In his edicts, Asoka had insisted, time and again, that his message needs to stay and be communicated perpetually.
With the same intention, he seems to have commissioned the White One in stone, for the first time in the history of India. In spite of all this analysis, the cloud part of the sculpture still bewilders me: From where did such a unique idea occur to Asoka?
It is interesting to note that in the Dhauli edict, Asoka himself had said, "Now you do not understand how far this matter goes / Some individual person understands this / But he, too, only a part / Not the whole."
(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)