Airavata can be found on temples all around Angkor, most notably on the 12 km-long outer wall of Angkor Thom where he looms out from the gates in full three-dimensional form. But you’ll also find him on lintels in Banteay Srei and East Mebon, where he is depicted in intricately elegant sandstone carvings above the doorways of the towers and sanctuaries, and of course on the famed Elephant Terrace in front of the ancient Royal Palace and Phimeanakas temple. East Mebon is most notable for the huge two-metre high elephant statues that flank the corners of its first and second tiers.
According to the legends, Airavata came into being during the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, the creation myth describing the battle between the gods and the demons for possession of the divine nectar, Amrita. That battle sparked the birth of more than a dozen extraordinary treasures, goddesses, gifts and three types of supernatural animal. There was Surabhi, the wish-granting cow who was taken by Vishnu, Uchhaishravas, the seven-headed horse who was given to the demons, and Airaveata (and several other elephants), who was taken by Indra and eventually made the king of all elephants.
In Asia, elephants, and Airavata in particular, are regarded as sources of protection, presiding over the eight points (four cardinal and four intermediate) of the compass. At Arunreas, he faces north, but protects all those who come under his shelter no matter which direction they come from.