Ancient Indian Buddhist elephant statue discovered, dated back to 2,300 Years Ago

The Buddhist Channel, 8 June 2023

Odisha, India -- A team of archaeologists in East India recently discovered a rock-carved elephant statue, believed to be approximately 2,300 years old, from a period when Buddhism was the predominant faith in the region.

The elephant statue, approximately 1 meter in height, is carved in a style similar to other Buddhist elephant statues found throughout the state of Odisha, dating back to the same period when Buddhism had a strong presence in the region.

Anil Dhir, a historian and member of the excavation team from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), made the discovery in a village on the banks of the Daya River in Odisha's Puri District in April. "Our objective was to document the rich heritage of the Daya River Valley, which is replete with artifacts from the era of ancient Buddhism that thrived here," Dhir mentioned in an email to Live Science.

Along with the statue, the team discovered several other archaeological relics in the vicinity, including elements from a Buddhist temple.

The newly found elephant statue bears striking resemblance to another one found in Dhauli, also known as Dhaulagiri, a historical Buddhist center located around 12 miles (19 kilometers) upstream. The latter statue has been dated to somewhere between 272 B.C. and 231 B.C.

Buddhism, which originated in northern India in the sixth or fifth century B.C., was a primary religion under the reign of Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Empire in the second century B.C., as outlined by historian Upinder Singh of Ashoka University in "History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century". The empire covered most of India, excluding the southernmost parts.

From the third century B.C. until roughly the second century A.D., Buddhism was highly prevalent in most of India, especially the Odisha region. However, Buddhism's influence waned as its practices became integrated into the diverse traditions of Hinduism and as Islam gained prominence in the region post the 10th century. Currently, only about 0.7% of India's population practices Buddhism, as per a 2011 census, despite its widespread following in other parts of Asia.

INTACH has indicated that the floodplains of the Daya and Mandakini rivers abound with Buddhist antiquities. Historical records suggest that a fort was constructed on the site in the 16th century, with INTACH also discovering remnants of defensive walls and a moat.

Elephants have been widely recognized as a common motif in Buddhism, as per Dhir, and have been prominently featured in numerous Buddhist monuments.

According to INTACH, the recent elephant statue was found close to a laterite pillar - a reddish clay material - and other stone blocks, similar to discoveries made near another elephant statue found in the village of Kaima in Odisha's Jajpur District.

Christian Luczanits, an art historian from SOAS at the University of London, informed Live Science that elephants were regarded as royal animals in ancient India, symbolizing monsoon rains and fertility.

Peter Harvey, a historian of Buddhism at York St John University in the U.K., added that elephants were also associated with the pre-Buddhist deity Indra, who was viewed as a follower of Buddha and referred to as Sakka (or Sakra) in early Indian Buddhism.

Further linking elephants to Buddhism, Harvey referred to the tale of Siddhartha Gautama's mother - Gautama was the Indian prince who would later become the Buddha - who dreamt after conceiving him that "an auspicious white elephant [had] entered her womb."
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