He is said to have been a princely beast, an elephant of the noble Chaddanta caste, those with the golden, elongated eyes, and his appearance at the time of the infant king's birth 2,000 years ago foretold fame and honor.
He was called Kandula, which means strength and virtue in Sinhalese, and he and his king would ride to legendary victories and mythic feats of strength, uniting the land now known as Sri Lanka under one rule.
Yesterday, the National Zoo announced that it has named its infant Asian elephant Kandula, in honor of the most famed of the island nation's elephants, linking the 3-week-old calf with the lore of his forebears.
Zoo director Lucy H. Spelman revealed the name at the elephant house, where the frisky 327-pound baby and his mother, Shanthi, 26, were being fussed over by the zoo's staff of watchful elephant keepers.
Shanthi was born in Sri Lanka; the calf's father, Calvin, who was born in a Canadian zoo and is currently in a German zoo, is a descendant of Sri Lankan parents.
"It's a very old name, a historical name," Spelman said, that "refers to, essentially, the king of elephants, the most famous elephant in Sri Lankan history. Kandula [pronounced KAHN-du-lah] was known for his courage, strength and loyalty."
"We wanted a name that linked this elephant to his country of origin," she said, as well as a name the elephant keepers liked, "because they have to use it more than anybody else."
As she spoke, the calf, which she said appears to be in excellent health, nursed and ambled around his enclosure, never straying too far from his mother. His gait was at times comical, almost like that of someone clad in an elephant suit.
Zoo officials said that name suggestions started pouring in after the calf's Nov. 25 birth, from the public via phone and e-mail, from the zoo staff and from Sinhalese language instructors at the State Department.
"We had literally probably hundreds of names," Marie Galloway, the zoo's elephant manager, said yesterday. "Stuff that we researched ourselves. Stuff that people sent us unasked for. Stuff that we asked people for."
The Sri Lankan Embassy consulted an astrologer back in the capital, Colombo, who, after getting the baby's date and time of birth, suggested Thilina, which means gift. But that sounded too feminine for a creature that, as a full-grown bull elephant, could weigh 13,000 pounds and live 60 years.
"Didn't fit," Spelman said yesterday.
Plus, Galloway said: "We didn't want to name a little tiny baby boy. We wanted to name a great big bull."
Galloway read the story of Kandula in a book about the history and legend of elephants in Sri Lanka, where, according to myth, elephants emerged from the creator's cosmic egg and once had wings.
She tried the name out on the other keepers, some of whom had heard it, too, and everyone loved it. "It was unanimous that we all liked this name," Galloway said.
Spelman agreed: "It's a neat name."
The story goes that Kandula became the wise war elephant of the young king, Dutugemunu, and that the two led their armies to victory in many battles.
In one, molten lead had been poured on Kandula's back, so he sought relief in the waters of a pond. His master urged him on: "To thee, I give dear Kandula, the lordship over the whole island of Lanka." The elephant then battered down the gates of the besieged town.
"I think it's a great name," Rajika Jayatilake, a spokeswoman for the Sri Lankan Embassy, said yesterday. Kandula "was the elephant of one of our most famous kings, one of our national heroes. . . . I think it's a very appropriate name."
Elephant keepers said they would begin using the calf's name soon to begin his training and conditioning. Elephants can recognize their names, the names of other elephants in their group and about 45 words, Galloway said yesterday. The zoo now has four elephants.
"He will learn what his name is," she said. "We'll use it to call him. We'll use it in front of every command that we give him. They have to differentiate and hear their name and then the command so that they know who's expected to listen. They are very intelligent animals."