Vegder's Blog

March 18, 2015

Oh Pooh! Heffalumps – 象 – in Japanese Art and Elsewhere: Part One

“Is there more God in an elephant than an oyster?”
From Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones

Why I started this post – because I needed some kind of intellectual sorbet for a change:

Sorbet_homemade_mango_licquer_Premshree_Pillai_Flickr_7e   This image was posted at Flickr by Premshree Pillai.

I decided to write a post about elephants in Japanese art because I thought it would be short and sweet and quick and I could give it – my mind – a rest for a while before I tackled a larger topic. It would like act like the sorbets which are offered to the diners in over-priced, hoity-toity restaurants which are intended to clear a person’s palette before the next course is served. Boy was I wrong. Oh, not about the scope of the use of elephants in Japanese art – there aren’t all that many – but about all of the other elephants I had forgotten about which I would find elsewhere. They are everywhere and they are damned impressive.

I must be getting old – no wait – I am getting old – no wait – I am old! What a trite thing to say. Like it needed to be said? Nooooo. But that is why a flood of elephants came back to engulf me after I started searching around for really juicy material to write about. It is a veritable cabinet des curiosités which I would hope will astound and amaze you.

One more thing before we begin: my use of the word ‘intellectual’. How presumptuous when I really meant only ‘a mental sorbet.’ ‘Intellectual’ sounded better, even if it wasn’t true. It sounded better, damn it – like the word ‘perspicacity’ always does. You know, one of those show-offy words used by pseudo-intellectuals (and others).

Now on to the elephants – a man in a disguise – he has his reasons:

Kunisada_man_disguised_as_an_elephant_Lyon_Collection_7_detail3.   This print is the right-hand panel from a triptych found at the Lyon Collection. The artist is Kunisada and dates from ca. 1847. The full triptych is shown below. Click on that image to go to the page dedicated to it.

Kunisada_man_disguised_as_an_elephant_Lyon_Collection_7b   Lyon Collection

Just sittin’ on an elephant -

There are quite a few examples of figures on elephants, some religious, some militaristic, some comical, some  others that are religious, some as drivers and in certain other cases some more religious individuals. Caution: if you see a courtesan or an elegantly dressed and coiffed prostitute sitting on an elephant she might actually be a stand-in for a Buddhist deity or even a completely different Buddhist deity. Don’t worry about the confusion this may cause. It can all be figured out later.


Fugen = Samantabhadra = 普賢

There is a lot of intellectual – there’s that word again – gobbledygook when it comes to the names associated with the Buddhist pantheon. It is the kind of thing you want to learn in the classroom so you can get an acceptable grade on a test. To the uninitiated Fugen means one thing, while Samantabhadra means something else – maybe. And this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. It isn’t even an atom on the most tippy-top of that oversized ice-cube. It is an sub-atomic particle of the atom which rests up there until, of course, it melts, and again becomes one-again with the universe. But that said, even the character of Samantabhadra can be a bit confusing.

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism Samantabhadra can be either a Buddha or a bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint. In Japan it is generally viewed as the latter as evidenced by this beautiful shrine shown below from a museum in Paris where it is referred to as Fugen Enmei, the life prolonging Fugen.

Guimet_Fugen_Enmei_7b   Musée Guimet

“In China, the center of Samantabhadra’s worship is Emeishan in Sichuan province, which began to develop in the early Tang. According to legend, Samantabhadra arrived at the mountain by flying there on his white elephant, his usual mount.”

In the Tokyo National Museum is a designated ‘National Treasure’, an 12th century painting of Fugen.

TNM_Fugen_elephant_12th_c_Heian_7b   Tokyo National Museum

There is a scroll painting from the Kamakura period in the Guimet showing Fugen in radiance atop a white elephant surrounded by the ten Rasetsunyo (羅刹女) or ten demon daughters. “Although some paintings of individual Rasetsunyo [female protectors of Buddhism] are known, they appear most commonly in groups of ten surrounding Fugen Bosatsu, a manifestation inspired by a passage in the last chapter of the Lotus Sutra in which Fugen promises his protection to all beings, including women, who read, recite and venerate this scripture.”

Although it isn’t clearly visible in this reproduction the elephant has six tusks which “…symbolize the six cardinal virtues of Buddhism” and much more –

In a description of the birth of the historical buddha, Guatama, Edwin Arnold wrote:

Thus came he to be born again among men.

That night the wife of king Suddhodana,
Maya, the Queen, asleep beside her Lord,
Dreamed a strange dream : dreamed that a star from heaven —
Splendid, six-rayed, in colour rosy-pearl,
Whereof the token was an Elephant
Six-tusked, and white as milk of Kamadhuk —
Shot through the void; and, shining into her,
Entered her womb upon the right. Awakened,
Bliss beyond mortal mother’s filled her breast,
And over half the earth a lovely light. Forewent the morn.

Bharhut_stupa_Maya_elephant_wiki_7b   The dream of Maya from the Bharhut stupa, 2nd century B.C. Found at wikimedia.


Another versions says: “Queen Maya dreamed, the night before conceiving the Buddha, that she lay on a heavenly couch in a golden mansion in the Himalayas. The Buddha became a beautiful white elephant, bearing in his trunk a white lotus flower. He seemed to touch her right side and enter her womb. From this dream, some Buddhists believe that is how the Buddha was incarnate into Queen Maya.” Late the queen gave birth while standing by a tree holding onto one of its branches. The Guatama buddha was then born out of the side of her upper torso and when he was born he could walk and talk unlike ordinary infants.

Guimet_14th_c_Kamakura_Fugen_7b   Musée Guimet

For good measure, there is another image of Fugen from the same collection, but this one they believe to be Tibetan and from the 18th or 19th century. I just thought it was too striking to leave out. Also, if you look closely at the bottom of this painting a triangular stack of multi-colored sacred jewels bracketed on both sides by what appear to be six white tusks or something that looks very like them.

TNM_Tibetan_18th_to_19th_c._Samantabhadra_on_elephant_7b   Tokyo National Museum

As an object d’art – inro

All I can say about this next piece is WOW! It was created by Ogawa Haritsu (小川破笠: 1663-1747). It is made of coral, porcelain, mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer.

BM_Ogawa_Haritsu_inro_7b      © Trustees of the British Museum

A carved cinnabar example from the Met -

This inro is done in the tsuishu (堆朱) or layed red style of carving.


Here is another stunner from by Kakosai from ca. 1850-75. The curatorial files regarding this object state: “This example shows an elephant in rich covers on one side, and boys in Korean dress on the other. The spectacle of the relatively rare processions of Korean embassies through Japan to Edo resulted in an enormous interest in things Korean. Re-enactments formed part of certain Japanese festivals. Although elephants were never included as part of the official presents by the Koreans, elephant floats began to be included in some festivals. This inro shows one of these festivals.” I didn’t feel the need to show the back side of this inro, because images of Korean and Chinese boys will appear elsewhere in this post.

VAM_Kakosai_inro_c._1850_75_white_elephant_7b   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When foreigners came to Japan – sometimes with their elephants – it would cause quite a stir:

“The arrival of each foreign embassy was a major event that attracted hordes of curious sightseers. ‘A million onlookers swarmed like ants on the riverbanks,’ wrote one Korean when he passed through Osaka in 1682…”

Below is a triptych by Chikanobu from 1897 in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that shows a replaying of the Korean delegation visiting Japan in the 18th century. This particular triptych represents the Sannō festival (山王祭) with the Chiyoda Palace in the background.

“An ancient Shinto shrine had long existed on Mount Hiei, an auspicious site outside Kyoto. When a Buddhist monastery was established there at the end of the eighth century, the monks continued to respect traditional Shinto practices. Buddhism’s official policy was to incorporate indigenous religions, and religions tended to absorb each other and be able to coexist in Japan. When the Buddhist monks of Mount Hiei presented a petition to the emperor in Kyoto, they would take with them the carriage containing the image of the Shinto deity. One of the names of this god was Sannō, meaning ‘Mountain King,’ and the tradition of carrying the image in a procession developed in the Sannō festival.”  (Quoted from Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon by John Stevenson.)


“The Sanno shrine became a shrine of exceptional importance in Edo. It was moved three times as a result of enlargements to the castle, and in 1650, it was finally placed at Hoshigaoka near Akasaka where it is to this day. The Festival of Sanno on 15 June was one of the most spectacular of the year. An immense procession involving 60 decorated chariots, bearing figures of monkeys and a white elephant, passed through a large area of the town and, by special favour, it was allowed to go through the castle. There are prints which show the procession entering the Hanzo gate. The Shogun also took part in the parade. In modern times, Sanno Hill, with its beautiful sanctuary surrounded by old trees, with its long flights of steps and the restaurants which were grouped on its slopes, formed one of the most agreeable parts of Tokyo. Sadly, the fire bombing of 1945 destroyed it, thus making the rebuilding a lengthy process.” This is quoted from The Shogun’s City: A History of Tokyo by Noël Nouët, pp. 30-31.

Japanese lacquer on wood bowl (saucer or plate or tray or dish) of indeterminate age, but strikingly beautiful -

BM_Lacquer_tray_dish_or_bowl_7   © Trustees of the British Museum

Washing the elephant in Japan -

There is a print by Harunobu from ca. 1766-67 of a young man selling fans. He has set up his portable booth and has approximately 26 fans or more on display. One of them is an image of some boys washing an elephant. Notice that a ladder is needed. Next to the full image is a detail of that fan.

MFA_Harunobu_fan_seller_7b   MFA_Harunobu_fan_seller_detail_7b


On a fukusa (袱紗): Made of satin (shu – 繻) embroidered with silk and metallic threads. The curatorial files at the Victoria and Albert Museum say: “This textile cover is called a ‘fukusa’. Traditionally in Japan, gifts were placed in a box on a tray, over which a fukusa was draped. The choice of a fukusa appropriate to the occasion was an important part of the gift-giving ritual. The richness of the decoration was an indication of the donor’s wealth, and the quality of the design evidence of his or her taste and sensibility. This fukusa is beautifully embroidered with the image of an elephant being washed. In 1798 two elephants were taken to Japan. Their apperance aroused great interest and excitement, and one of them was presented to the shôgun (military leader). The design on this fukusa implies that the gift it covers is likewise a great rarity that has been carefully prepared.” This dates from the first half of the 19th century.

VAM_Fukusa_elephant_washing_7c    ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On Imari porcelain of the Edo period, 19th century –

Tokyo National Museum

As a zōkimoto, an elephant shaped vessel -

This dates from the 18th century. Below that is a detail from a Chinese bronze casting from ca. 1000 B.C. Amazing how traditions live on.

TNM_zoukimoto_7b   Tokyo National Museum

Below is a ritual wine vessel, a zun (尊), in the shape of an elephant. Only a detail of the front is shown. It dates from the latter half of the second millennium BC.

Guimet_elephant_Chinese_ca._1000_BC_7c   Musée Guimet

Below and from approximately is this tiny jade elephant found in the tomb of the warrior queen Fu Hao. It is very small physically, but huge in conception. If my calculations are correct it is only 2.36 inches long and about 3,250 years old, at least. Amazing.


On screens -

This next piece is by one of my most-very-favorite Japanese artists, Ito Jakuchu (伊藤若冲: 1716-1800). This man’s art is so far ahead of its time it is scary. This white elephant is only one of a pair of screens. The other one shows a black whale sending a column of water up from its spout. Glory, glory.


Perhaps even more remarkable is the screen from the Price Collection. I mean, look at this thing. It looks like tile-work, but it isn’t. It just looks that way. Brilliant.

Jakuchu_white_elephant_screen_Price_Collection_8   Price Collection

As a part of an elemental – dare I say ‘obsessive’ -motif: Filial piety

Kuniyoshi_paragon_filial_mitate_with_elephants_7   Kuniyoshi from a private collection

This next print by Kuniyoshi is one of my ultimate, most, absolutely favorite prints of all time. Not only is the Daruma in a golden circle gorgeous, but the blind men with the elephant is whimsical and charming in the extreme.


A great king summons blind men and has them touch various parts of an elephant.
The one who touches the tusk says an elephant is like a Japanese radish (daikon);
the one who touches the ear says an elephant is like a winnowing basket;
the one who touches the head says an elephant is like a stone, etc.
The elephant is the buddha nature,
and the blind men sentient beings of ignorance.

The quote seen above comes from Zongmi on Chan, footnote 62, p. 250.

For the quibblers: I know that some people who read the above quote will be gnashing their teeth. So, this is for you: the blind man feeling the trunk compares it to a giant snake, the one feeling the tail thinks it is a rope, the one at the leg thinks it is a tree trunk, the ear a fan, and the body a wall.

In 2012 77% of Americans thought we had been visited by aliens. That came from a survey taken by the National Geographic Society. Only 17% said they didn’t believe in such things as aliens or UFOs, but some of them just weren’t sure. Why am I mentioning this? Because, below I have posted a humorous print by Kuniyoshi of a tengu and an elephant making contact. To me, this print is like the 77% that believe. Show me a tengu. Show me an elephant.

Here is an early description written in 1639 of a visit of foreigners in the 1500s:

From this ship emerged an unnamable creature, somewhat similar in shape to a human being,
but looking rather like a long-nosed goblin. Upon close investigation, it was discovered that
this was a being called a “Padre.” The length of the nose was the first thing which attracted
attention: it was like a conch shell attached by suction to his face. His head was small;
on his hands and  feet he had long claws,- his teeth were longer than the teeth of a horse.
What he said could not be understood at all: his voice was like the screech of an owl.
One and all rushed out to see him, crowding all the roads.


As long as men have conceived of tengu, half-man/half-bird, there are men who swore they had seen them. But how many of them could prove it? At the time of Kuniyoshi, many men could swear that they had actually seen an elephant, but none of them could prove it except to other ‘true’ witnesses/believers. Which men were more credible? It all depends on which chorus you belong to. And, oh, by the way, I am in that diminished less than 17% who don’t believe in aliens, UFOs or anything else – and, yes, I CAN prove it. Just ask me.

One other point which I find absolutely hysterical is that 65% of Americans thought that Barack Obama would do a better job of fighting off an alien invasion than George Romney would. That’s sounds about right to me. What if we were invaded by hordes of tengu? Would anything be different? Now all we have to do is take a new poll and see if Obama or Netanyahu would be better at fending off (imaginary, fictitious) birdmen. My vote goes to…

An aside – how the Virgin was impregnated aurally: In Buddhism the historic buddha, Guatama, was born out of the side of the upper torso of his mother while she was standing holding onto the branch of a tree. This is a curious concept which seems to have its own version in medieval and Renaissance European Christianity. In Europe true believers thought that Mary was filled with the radiant light of God when the archangel Gabriel was sent to tell her that was to give birth to the Christ Child.

The image shown below from the collection of the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City. It probably represent s a passage from Luke and dates from the late 15th century in Italy.Below is part of the text from the King James version – written some time after the sculpture.

34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

It shows the Virgin kneeling on the right with the archangel kneeling before her just left of the column in the center. In the upper left corner – it is very difficult to make out here – is an image of God with his hand raised in blessing. However, below that and to the right on a diagonal is the image of the Holy Ghost, the dove, flying toward Mary. Hanging on the the tail feathers of the dove is the Christ Child. His spirit enters through her ear by the word of God.

Nelson_Art_Gallery_Annunciation_7b  Nelson Art Gallery


Please come back often because I will be adding comments and images over time. Thanks!

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at