AIRAVATA, the king-god of elephants, is the mount of god Indra. This elephant emerged out of the waters when the gods churned the ocean. That is why its name is derived from IRAVAT signifying one produced from water. Elephant is the mount of each one of the eight guardian deities who preside over the eight points of the compass.
The deities presiding over the four cardinal and four intermediate points of the compass are:
- East – INDRA
- Southeast – AGNI
- South – YAMA
- Southwest – SURYA
- West – VARUNA
- Northwest – VAYU
- North – KUBERA
- Northeast – SOMA
Now each of these deities has an elephant that takes part in the defense and protection of the allotted quarter. The chief among them is Airavata of Indra. He is also called ARDH-MATANGA(elephant of the clouds), ARKASODARA (brother of the sun) and NAGA-MALLA (the fighting elephant). The name of the wife of elephant Airavata is ABHARAMU.
Airavata has four tusks and is spotless white. Prithu, according to Vishnu Purana, made him King of all elephants. As per legend, Brahma held in his hands two halves of an eggshell over which he read seven sacred hymns. From the right half portion of the egg eight elephants including Airavata emerged and from the left half eight cow-elephants. Another interesting myth says that initially all the elephants had wings, and they could fly in the skies. Once one of these flying elephants descended heavily on a tree under which a sage was performing his puja (worship rituals). The branches of the tree broke and the sage felt much disturbed. He laid a curse upon all elephants that they should lose their wings. Notwithstanding this curse, they are still believed to be capable of producing clouds. Hence Indra, when seated on Airavata, sends rains on the earth.
The cult of the white elephants as sacred deities is widely practiced in some other parts of Asia too, e.g., in Thailand and Burma.