Asian elephants, domestic work force and tanks of the past

Asian Elephants

A picture from the 19th century travel account of the Frenchman A. Neis.

‘There can be no animal of more absorbing interest and fascination.’
Reginald Campbell

With the exception of the waterbuffalo, no other animal has been of greater importance to the Thai than the elephant. Whereas buffaloes mainly served farmers by ploughing their fields, elephants were used in various ways: hauling timber, forming the vanguard in armies, and as transport animals. White animals were worshipped.

In the 1850s French naturalist Henri Mouhot crossed Isan (Northeastern Thailand) and Laos on the back of an elephant, calling his vehicle ‘a creature of special amiability and sagacity, designed for the service of man.’
Thirty years later the Norwegian adventurer Carl Bock was one of the first Westerners to explore Northern Thailand, the country of the ‘black belly Laosians’. He named his travelogue Temples and Elephants, as he was equally impressed by the abundance of elephants as by the wealth of Buddhist temples. All the way from Tak to Chiang Rai he rode one of the former.

‘Elephant-travelling was a new experience to me,’ he wrote. ‘And, although I had a commodious howdah (saddle), it was some time before I became accustomed to the curious swinging motion of the elephant’s gait. The sensation is something like that of being rocked — not too gently, and with a circular movement — in a huge cradle. The pace is slow, though, when the country is open, there is an advantage in the fine view to be had from a height of ten or eleven feet or more from the ground.’

Despite its massive body — up to 6000 kilograms — the elephant is a most reliable vehicle on even steep mountain trails. Visitors to Northern Thailand can experience such travelling for themselves during a trek or at an elephant training centre, and will admire the animal’s careful control of its subtle locomotion.

Not long after Bock’s journey, the region became the battlefield of foreign logging companies. In Europe the stocks of oak had been depleted and the local timber was in such high demand that the ‘teak rush’ was a major event in the region’s modern history. Because of the European’s craving for this wood, the threat of colonization became more worrying, leading King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to introduce numerous reforms.

Asian Elephants

Left: Transport by elephant in the nineteenth century. A picture from Jules Harmand’s travellogue Laos and the Hilltribes of Indochina. Right: An elephant hauling timber logs in Lampang in the 1920s. Reginald Campbell’s Teak-Wallah (1935).

The flourishing teak trade, of course, had a great impact on the environment since logging companies failed to replant saplings. Already in 1909 it was reported that large parts of the region had become depleted of its teak. The major labour source in this giant concession consisted of thousands of elephants that hauled the logs to the creeks, from where they were floated to Bangkok during the following monsoon floods.

Most animals had been captured from the jungle and intensively trained for their work in the forests. Thailand and adjacent regions were rich in wild elephants, and already in the first millennium Indian traders had been attracted to buy elephants.

Asian Elephants

Left: Elephants showing their skills at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang. Right: Tourists riding an elephant in a forest in Mae Hong Son.

Until well into the twentieth century, virtually every large village had a number of elephants. The pachyderms were respected for their power, keen memory and reliable labour, but were also known for certain character traits. They easily panic, for instance when confronted with a small animal like a mouse (it is true!) or a barking dog, or may become irritated by the flashlight of a camera. Individual animals occasionally suffer from musth during which they will destroy everything and everyone around them. As soon as the first signs appear the animal should be chained to a large tree. Because of the animal’s brute power, hundreds of Asians were killed annually in accidents with elephants. Herds of wild elephants plundering the fields of corn, sorghum or pineapple, could destroy a complete harvest in a single night. Even to this day, farmers in Prachuap Khiri Khan and Buriram have to protect their crops against roaming elephants.

It comes as no surprise then that this largest land animal of Asia has set its mark on local folklore and myths. In Thailand and Laos, Indra, the God of Thunder, traverses the sky on his flying elephant Erawan. The popular, gentle Buddhist and Hindu deity Ganesha has a human body bearing the head of an elephant. This johnny-come-lately to the pantheon, unknown before the fifth century AD, is particularly helpful to businessmen and travellers. The ‘Kindcheneffekt’ — the big head and round forms that evoke similar affections to those human babies do — may have contributed to his being widely beloved.

Asian Elephants

Left: A large statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha bearing the head of an elephant at Wat Don Chan in Chiang Mai. Right: A mural in a Chiang Mai temple showing an elephant offering a bamboo containing water to Lord Buddha.

In Buddhist lore the elephant is conspicuous. The Buddha’s conception is said to have occurred while his mother dreamed of a white elephant entering her womb. The Enlightened One is often depicted seated while an elephant and a monkey revere him, the elephant offering a bamboo vessel containing water. In the most popular of the 500 plus Jataka tales about the Buddha’s former lives, Prince Wetsanthon personifies the ultimate selflessness by giving away to a neighbouring country the kingdom’s white elephant, a rain-making palladium (the highest, most deeply venerated living symbol of the kingdom’s sacred potency).

In India, Burma and Thailand ‘white elephants’ (animals with characteristics of albinism, but never truly white) were symbols of power and prestige and were believed to bring prosperity to the country. As soon as an animal was captured, it was offered to the king. In seventeenth century Thailand, white elephants were served their food on golden plates. They were carefully scrutinized by the court astrologers for indications of what decisions should be made by the king. With their ancient symbolic link with the clouds, they were considered excellent predictors of a monsoon’s arrival, a matter of considerable concern to the rice farmer.

The Thai’s veneration of the white elephant was not a thing to make fun of, but Wilson’s English Circus visiting Bangkok in the 1880s did just that. It announced that the “only genuine white elephant in the world” would take part in the performance. The following day there was a large curious audience. During the show, a clown on an animal as white as snow appeared. It left white marks on everything it touched — it was chalked all over. An ominous silence showed the fury of the audience. Later they expressed their belief that the foreigners would be punished by the Buddha. The prophecy came true. The elephant died at sea a few days afterwards while on the way to Singapore, and Mr Wilson himself died almost immediately after landing there.

Asian Elephants

Left: Mara, the embodiment of Evil, is riding a war elephant while attacking the meditating Buddha. His army suffers defeat in the flood that was created by the Goddess of Earth to protect the Buddha. A mural at the Pha Wa Shrine, Mae Sot district, Tak. Right: Stucco elephants decorate the base of an old brick chedi in the Sukhothai Historic Park, Muang district, Sukhothai.

Traditionally, numerous elephants also served in the frontlines of Asian armies. When Alexander the Great first came up against King Porus’ battle elephants, he met with ‘a danger suitable to the greatness of his soul’ at last. However, battle elephants could easily panic and bring havoc to the lines behind — especially when alarmed by the noise of firearms that were introduced centuries later.

Nevertheless, commanders and royalty used to fight from the back of an elephant. King Naresuan’s heroic defeat of the Burmese crown prince during an elephant duel in 1592 is considered as one of the highlights of Thai history. In Ban Tak a similar victory of the legendary King Ram Khamhaeng of Sukhothai (thirteenth century) is commemorated by a stupa. However, of all feats of heroism while riding a battle elephant that of Queen Suriyothai during the Burmese invasion of 1548 is unsurpassed. When the elephant of King Maha Chakraphat lost its balance and turned back to escape from the King of Prome (Burma), Suriyothai proved her strong devotion to herhusband by urging her own elephant forward to obstruct the royal foe’s elephant at the cost of her own life.

The film Suriyothai, released in September 2001, came to a close with that historic moment. More than four million Thai flocked to see this epic, which broke all previous box office records. During that year Thailand was still suffering from the misery of the economic crisis that had ended many years of rapid economic growth. It is understandable that the greatness and heroism of Thailand’s past, as shown in the movie, was a source of consolation.

During the twentieth century the status of Thailand’s elephants rapidly deteriorated. Since King Mongkut’s reign the white elephant had been the kingdom’s national emblem, but in 1917 the red national flag with this emblem was replaced by the present one — it was as if the soul were cut out from the nation.

Transport by elephant became outdated during the country’s modernization. Powerful machines replaced the pachyderm in the workforce. After World War II, habitat destruction and hunting with modern machine guns led to rapidly dwindling populations of wild elephants, of which the tusk and penis (the latter for making amulettes) were still in high demand. When all logging was banned in 1991, hundreds of domestic elephants became unemployed. Many of them, thereafter, were involved

Asian Elephants

Left: a woodcarving in Chiang Mai’s Wat Buppharam showing King Naresuan riding his war elephant during the famous battle in which he killed the Burmese crown prince in a duel. Right: Pictures of domesticated elephants and their mahouts in a nineteenth-century mural in a village temple in Mae Taeng district, Chiang Mai.

in illegal logging, often fed with bananas laced with speed pills to get them to work harder, and thus doomed to addiction. Many others were roaming the streets of the big cities, begging citizens to buy vegetables and fruit for them. Such elephants often succumbed to traffic and other accidents.

As a result, after the crisis of 1997, there was a remarkable surge in stories about elephants in trouble. The condition of Motala, whose leg was mutilated by a mine near the Burmese border, was outlined on front pages and in news specials on television week after week. It was clear that such elephants had become symbols of self-pity of a nation in distress. In their much praised analysis of Thailand’s crisis Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker devote several pages to the role of elephants during the years of economic hardship. ‘Two of the elephants killed in falls into Bangkok’s subterranean infrastructure happened to be named Pang Thong Kham (gold) and Plai Setthi (millionaire),’ they write. ‘The elephant had come to represent not just the shock of unemployment, but the collapse of dreams of wealth, the dethronement of the god of money.’ (Indian businessmen, less sentimental, simply turn their Ganesha statue upside down following bankruptcy.)

Signs of identifying with the elephant, date, however, from earlier times. For a long time it was realized that Thailand itself is shaped like an elephant, the peninsula being the trunk, Isan a flapping ear and the province of Trat a protruding tusk.

Moreover, Thai gender relations are always expressed in terms of the legs of an elephant. Women used to compare their heavy duties with the stronger hind legs, while they see men as the weaker front legs that, however, dictate the direction the animal walks. On the other hand, men increasingly complain that at present the elephant usually walks backwards.

The number of wild elephants still roaming the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries has likely fallen to less than 1400, while most of the domesticated animals are now employed in the tourist industry. Visitors to the North can admire them at several camps where demonstrations of their skills are offered daily. During annual elephant festivals in Surin and Chaiyaphum (Isan) the capture of wild elephants is also demonstrated, while at the winter festival of Don Chedi (Suphanburi) the re-enactment of the famous duel of Naresuan with the Burmese crown prince is supported by spectacular sound and light effects.

All such events illuminate ‘The soul of the nation’.

©Sjon Hauser: text and pictures