15 January 2023

Elephant Trunk Hill – Guilin’s Legendary Protector

Tramping through the hills around Guilin in China is busy work, so at the end of the day an elephant gets thirsty. There’s nothing like dipping your trunk in to the river to cool off and taking a long, thirst quenching drink. Yet when you’re made of stone you might be there for quite a long time.

For hundreds of years the people of Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang province of southern China have imagined this hill on the outskirts of their city to be a giant pachyderm. So, don’t reach for your spectacles – this elephant really is made of stone.  This particular elephant stands where two rivers meet, the Li River and the Peach Blossom River.  For fifteen hundred years it has been a symbol of good luck for the town.

Elephant Trunk Hill is made of limestone karst. It was shaped by the dissolution of a layer or layers of soluble bedrock until its outline became decidedly elephantine. The first settlers along this stretch of river must have seen it as some sort of sign – the city of Guilin has thrived for over 1500 years. Yet there is a rather sad legend attached to the Guilin’s elephant.

In the very far past, it seems, the Emperor of Heaven looked down and did not like what he saw.  He decided that he would conquer Earth and would lead his army atop an enormous war elephant.  He worked the elephant so hard during his campaign that it became exhausted and was close to death.

It arrived at the confluence of the two rivers and was discovered by local farmers.  They slowly nursed the elephant back to full health, despite their lands being ravaged by a famine caused by the Emperor.  The elephant was so grateful that it decided to stay with the farmers and help them plough their fields.

When the Emperor discovered the elephant’s betrayal as punishment he thrust his sword deep in to its back, turning it to stone.  The centuries old pagoda on the hill is a symbol of the sword. The grip is visible, the guard and pommel embedded with the blade deep inside the animal. (You can just see it in some of these pictures: here is a close-up).

Yet this was not the end for the kind-hearted elephant. It vowed, as it turned to stone, to guard over the city and welcome its guests for all time. It gave the farmers a final, everlasting gift that they could see each time the moon came out.

The cave which forms the gap between the trunk and the body is known as Moon over the water cave. Sure enough, when the moon appears on a cloudless night, those in the cave can see it floating on the water’s surface. Furthermore, the reflection of the cave also looks like the moon so visitors get to see the moon in the sky, in the hill and on the water.

Something of a small industry has been created around Elephant Trunk Hill. Those who return a second time tend to rent a boat from one of the local cormorant fishermen to ferry them around rather than pay the somewhat overpriced $US12 entry fee.

There are also some charming baby elephant statues in the river itself.

Yet the real star is Elephant Trunk Hill itself. One can picture the steadfast old beast gently greeting each new visitor with a silent acknowledgement and a soundless bestowal of good luck: solid, silent and amiable but immovable and resolute for all time.

First Image Credit Flickr User Francesco Muratori

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