Intrigued by the importance of the elephant in the Thai Culture, Lenaexpat wrote this article when she was living in Bangkok.
My interest on Asian elephants started about one year ago, when we moved to Thailand.
Just before we left Europe, a friend of mine gave me a ceramic elephant saying that it is a symbol of good luck especially because its trunk was lifted. Why not, I need luck, I thought. After a few days in Bangkok I realized that the elephant was everywhere: statues in the Royal Elephant National Museum, the National Thai Elephant Day on the 13th of March, souvenirs like these and also a beer called “chang” which means elephant.
During one of my Thai lessons my teacher said that because I am studying art I should pay respect to the elephant-headed god Ganesh. All of that “pushed me to start” my interest and my personal search.
Why is this animal so important here?
Elephants are omnipresent in Thai arts, they are prominent in Thai Buddhism. Visiting a temple we can see murals representing the story of how the Gautama Buddha was conceived (Queen Maya after a dream in which a white elephant entered her womb through her ribs), also the Thai Jakata Tales (instructive Buddhist folks tales) tell many stories of wise and kind elephants. And because Thai Buddhism is tolerant of Hinduism we cannot forget the Erawan Shrine, the celestial vehicle of Indra, and of course Ganesh.
|Decorative elephants in Bang Pa-In Palace
I do not want to go too deep talking about the religion and so on, I prefer to talk of historical episodes which show how much elephants are an important part of Thai culture.
Elephants represent power and peace. They are also key to royal pageantry. Kings chose the biggest, most magnificent elephants for royal ceremonies and processions.
Kings and courtiers spent a lot of time and energy hunting elephants from the forest. And the most powerful kings kept thousands in their stables.
Here Thai princes devoted much time and study to the art of training and riding elephants
In fact in the past elephants were used to transport goods and people; despite their awkward look elephants are really able to go up and down hills. They were also used in warfare.
It is interesting to know that in the late 17th century a Thai King had 20.000 war elephants trained for battle.
In fact long ago, when Thai kings waged war against invading enemies, it was the elephant which provided the “heavy” war equipment.
Frequently the commanders of the two opposing armies would engage in a duel. The object was to get the elephant's tusks under those of the opponent's, causing the elephant to lose its footing and fall. The battle would then be over.
In metaphysics any animal represented by the colour white is given the greater power, in fact white represents purity, the light. In legends the Royal White elephant brought sacred power, and fertility.
The Royal White Elephants were not taken to war, and not ridden in procession, they were kept within the confines of the palace, entrusted to the care of senior officials, fed well, washed regularly, and worried over constantly.
For the kings of Burma and Siam the possession of these sacred beasts became very important. A king who had many fine white elephants would be successful. His kingdom would prosper and his reign would be long. If his white elephants died, it foretold disaster for the king and the kingdom.
In the middle of the 16th century, white elephants were responsible for a series of wars with Burma. When seven were captured in Thailand during an elephant roundup and presented to king Maha Chakrapat of Ayuttaya (better known as the "King of the White Elephant"), the King of Burma requested two as a gift. When the granting of the gift was refused, as the Burmese king knew it would be, Burma declared war on Ayuttaya.
The kings hunted eagerly for these fine and special beasts. Occasionally royals presented white elephants to one others country as mark of diplomacy.
In the 1860's king Mongkut heard that America had no white elephants. He offered to send some over. “If on the continent there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in the forest where there was an abundance of water and if the climate there should prove favorable to an elephant, we are of the opinion that after a while they will increase till the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them of benefit of the country”. President Lincoln replied that the American climate was probably unsuitable and they preferred to use steam power. But he thanked the king for the gift of two magnificent elephant tusks. In fact ivory gifts were very precious.
A white elephant was employed as the symbol for the flag of Siam for many years until Rama VI removed it, because no modern country portrayed an animal on its national flag.
But in 1907 King Chulalongkorn traveled to Europe. One of his German hosts heard about the Siamese love for the white elephant. He hired a local artist to make a flag with a white elephant and hang it all around the house where the king was lodged. The king thanked him very much for the thought. It made him feel very much at home. But it was a pity that as the artist had probably never seen an elephant before, the animal on the flag looked more like a cow.
When Siamese envoys traveled to England and had audience with Queen Victoria, they were most impressed with her appearance:
“one can not be struck with the aspect of the august Queen of England, or fail to observe that she must be from a race of godly and warlike kings and rulers of the earth, in that her eyes, complexion, and above all her bearing, are like those of a beautiful and majestic white elephant”.
|Erawan, the three-headed elephant
Along the years white elephants became less common. There is a law demanding that any white elephant found in the kingdom has to be presented to the king where a few experts in the Thai Royal palace can analyze the attributes of the white elephant.
Even today the Thailand present king Rama IX possesses eleven “auspicious elephants”. The most recent white elephant was discovered in 1978 near Petchburi. After a white elephant has been identified there is a ceremony of exaltation to the rank of Royal Elephant.
Today elephants are still used for ceremonial and religious purposes, for festival and rituals like marriages. They are dressed in elaborate jeweled robes.
They are also engaged in the extraction of heavy teak logs from forest areas where machines would cause too much devastation. Do not forget they were also used just after the tsunami.
Nowadays Thais use elephants to please the tourists; there are many elephant villages where it is possible to see different shows like dance, playing football, elephant racing, painting, etc.
Unfortunately Thais also use elephants to beg.
As we have seen elephants are still very important, in fact “Chaang Thai” the National Elephant Day is to honor, support and pay respect to this wonderful animal which is so much part of Thailand's heritage and culture.
The Royal Elephant National Museum displays tusks from white elephants, old photos of ceremonies, section of skin.
I would like to conclude with a few legends very popular in Thailand.
Thais believe that a pregnant woman who walks three times under an elephant's belly is ensured of an easy delivery.
A marriage is like an elephant; the husband is the front legs, choosing the direction, the wife is the back legs, providing the power!