In this article, you will get to know Thailand through the eyes of its national animal: the elephant. The animal has played an important role in the history of Thailand, and has an important meaning and value for the Thai people to this day. In this article you will get to know the Thai elephant from three perspectives: a historical perspective, a cultural perspective on Buddhism and superstitions, and finally the tourist perspective; how is the elephant doing today?
Elephants have played an important role in Thailand for decades. Long before the elephant became the national symbol of Thailand, and before elephants were used as a tourist attraction, the elephant was used very differently. They were captured and trained for heavy physical labor and transportation. To prepare they were trained for the first ten years of their lives, and then put to work until they were fifty or sixty years old. When logging was still allowed in Thailand, the elephants were used in this industry, which also provided employment for the Thai people. The use of elephants for logging wood was only banned in 1989.
Elephants were also used in warfare. Only male elephants were used for this purpose. The training of elephants for war purposes took place in a noisy environment to accustom the elephants to sounds and thus prevent the elephants from being startled during battle. Also, the training of elephants often did not last ten years, because elephants of about six years old were considered the most suitable. Often young male elephants were removed from their herd, in the process their relatives were sometimes killed. The young males had to be trained before puberty. They go through a very hormonal phase in which they can kill an average of 500 people a year. Catching and training elephants is therefore not without risk.
The taming of wild elephants was, and still is, horrific. For example, elephants are beaten in the head with sharp iron hooks. The spirit of the elephant must be broken, so to speak. Elephants are put in small cages and are regularly physically punished. The ‘training’ of elephants is also called “phajaan”.
Although all of this is extremely brutal, it was tactically a good strategic choice to use elephants in war. Thailand was not the only country to have used elephants in warfare, many Asian and later some European countries did the same.
King Naresuan the Great
Thailand has a rich history and the land area that is now called Thailand has had many names. Historically, the area is known as Siam.
King Naresuan the Great was the king of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (a Siamese kingdom that existed in Southeast Asia from 1351 to 1767) from 1590 until his death in 1605. He is a well-respected monarch in Thai history as he campaigned many times to liberate Ayutthaya from the vassals of the Taungoo Empire. The map on the right shows the Taungoo Empire, which included parts of present-day Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
In his battles against the Taungoo Empire, Naresuan made extensive use of war elephants. King Naresuan is most known in Thailand for his elephant duel with the crown prince of Burma in 1593, which is very romanticized. The image on the left shows the duel.
In the picture on the right we see King Naresuan entering the city of Bago, Bago is now known as Pegu and it is located in present-day Myanmar (Burma).
In the image underneath, King Naresuan shot his rifle across the river from Satong and killed Surakamma, the leader of the Burmese army.
The transformation of the Thai flag
Under King Narai the Great, the king of the Ayutthaya Kingdom from 1656 to 1688, the flag of Siam was completely red. But this was not distinctive enough to be used as a national flag for international relations. Therefore, some two hundred years later, the first official Thai flag was created under King Mongkut (picture on the side), who ruled from 1851 till 1868, and whose title is too long to mention in its entirety. This was a red flag with a white elephant (เธ, z.d.).
There have been several variations of Thai flags featuring elephants. But in the end the flag became what it is today: red, white and blue without an elephant. The story goes that the flag became this way because King Rama VI (picture on the side), who ruled from 1910 until 1925, saw the flag hanging upside down during a flood. To prevent this from happening again, he decided that the flag had to be symmetrical (Thailand, z.d.).
A Buddhist legend
In Buddhism there is a legend about Maya, the mother of Buddha. She would not have been able to conceive until one night she had a dream about a white elephant. After this she gave birth to Buddha. This is one of the reasons why the white elephant is considered very valuable in Thailand and some enjoy royal status (Iverson, 2017).
Significance of the elephant in Buddhism
The wild elephant represents an uncontrolled, passionate being in Buddhism. It is believed that we as humans, like wild elephants, are often controlled by uncontrolled passions, desires and feelings. People would blame other people and environmental factors for their suffering. But Buddha brought forth another view, namely that suffering arises from within yourself. An untrained mind would produce certain negative reactions to events. To free yourself from suffering, you should train and subdue your mind. A tamed elephant symbolizes a disciplined mind which through meditation is stable and powerful. By training the mind, you should be able to turn events of adversity into growth. Thus, the degree to which you are unhappy and experience pain depends on your internal reactions, not external circumstances according to Buddha.
It is law that all white elephants in Thailand belong to the king. But not all white elephants are automatically a royal white elephant. For this, the Bureau of the Royal Household must first inspect the elephant for physical characteristics and character.
If someone had good relations with the king, the king might give them an elephant and a piece of land as a present. But if the king wanted to punish someone indirectly, the king only gave them an elephant and no ground. It was forbidden to sell or give away a white elephant, so keeping the elephant without land and financial means could be disastrous for that person (Cavanagh, 2019).
Elephants also brought prestige, the more elephants the king had, the more prestige he got. In 1861 when King Rama IV found out that the leader of the United States of America had no elephants, he offered to give Abraham Lincoln some elephants as a gift. But he kindly declined this offer (Cavanagh, 2019).
Superstition and meaning
Besides the fact that the elephant is the national animal of Thailand, brought prestige and has significance in Buddhism, there is also a strong superstition that elephants bring good luck. The elephant is also seen as a metaphor for heterosexual marriage. The man would represent the elephant’s front legs. He determines the direction. The woman represents the hind legs of the elephant, she provides the strength to go in the direction the man chose. Thailand also has an annual elephant holiday where 100 to 300 elephants come together. The life and significance of the elephant is celebrated here.
The elephant in Thailand today
As seen in the infographic, the number of elephants living in Thailand has decreased dramatically. With 100,000 elephants in 1900 and only 3000-4000 now, of which more than half are in captivity. Due to strong urbanization and industrialization much of the elephant habitat has been lost since the 1950s. As a result, but also due to for example poaching, the number of elephants has decreased sharply.
People who keep elephants are called mahouts. A mahout is responsible for the care and training of his elephant. He gets his title from an older mahout. There is status associated with the title of mahout. Some mahouts are very good to their animal, they can dedicate their life to one elephant and spend more time with their animal than their relatives.
“The elephant in the room”
But unfortunately a lot of elephants are treated very badly. They are exploited for tourism. They are mistreated and harshly trained so that they can do tricks for tourists. Many elephants are also forced to carry people on their backs in rainforest tours, for example. Tourist elephant parks can pretend to treat their animals well. Sometimes it also seems that the elephants are having a good time. But meanwhile, they are chained, beaten or malnourished.
Elephants are incredibly intelligent, and they can experience emotions such as joy, playfulness, fear, sadness and grief. They also have self-awareness and can show compassion. The degree of emotional intelligence of elephants makes the way many are treated even more heartbreaking.
Fortunately, there are people like Lek (owner of Elephant Nature Park), who you can watch in this video, who are doing everything they can to save elephants in Thailand. This is of immense importance. Because if nothing changes, this could very well be the end of a centuries-long history of elephants in Thailand.
Images in this video can be very confronting and emotional. But be please realize that this is the reality in which many elephants live. Don’t close your eyes, but educate yourself. Especially if you come to Thailand as a tourist and want to see elephants, it is very important that you inform yourself about ethically responsible places. Do not reimburse animal cruelty!
Linked below are two websites that list ethically responsible elephant sanctuaries. Be sure to check out Lek’s website as well:
Other sites with ethically correct elephant sanctuaries:
Thank you on behalf of the gentle giants in Thailand!
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