Elephant Warriors (Absolute Thai. 2008)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

In ancient times elephants in full armour charged into violent battle like warm blooded, armoured tanks. The general who had elephants in his army possessed a psychological advantage over an enemy who did not. The impact of an onslaught of relentless, raging giants would often have been a frightening enough sight for an enemy to surrender straight away. The elephant was trained to use its tusks in close contact fighting against both man and horse, and to trample with the feet whilst using the trunk. Another technique was to train the elephant to pick up an enemy soldier and pass him to the man riding on its back, who would effortlessly slice him up with a sword. The elephant would also hold an enemy with the foot and then impale him effortlessly with the tusks. Elephants, however, are not naturally violent creatures. Quite the opposite in fact.

Thai people will tell you that their country is shaped like the head of an elephant, its eyebrows in Lampang, its eyes in Sukothai, its mouth in Bangkok and the end of its trunk in Had Yai. Elephants are at the heart of Thai culture and tradition. An integral part of Thai identity they represent the positive qualities to be found in both peace and power. Until Thailand changed its name from Siam elephants even figured on the national flag. Not just beasts of burden, elephants have always been an honoured national emblem. The king of Thailand traditionally rode an elephant at the front of royal ceremonial processions. At the turn of the 19th century, elephants were practically everywhere. Some 300,000 wild elephants roamed wild in Thailand alone, and 100,000 more were domesticated for farming and forestry.  As logging increased, wild elephant numbers fell dramatically. Domesticated elephant power was used to drag teak logs from the forest, demolishing the creatures’ own habitat. By the late 1900s, Thailand’s rain forest, which previously covered 90 percent of the country, had diminished to less than 15 percent, with an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 wild elephants. In 1990, Thailand outlawed logging to preserve what forest remained.  This left thousands of working elephants unemployed, their former forest habitats destroyed by the force of their own labours.

Once a year in Surin in North Eastern Thailand a festival is held that celebrates all the facets of Thailand’s national symbol. It culminates in the spectacular re-enactment of a noisy medieval battle. In addition to a historical reminder of the awesome power of elephants the event celebrates the relationship between man and one of the most intelligent, complex and intuitive beasts on the planet. Held on the third weekend in November the town fills up with hundreds of elephants and their mahouts wandering the streets begging food from the many visiting tourists. Many of the mahouts are from the ‘Suay’ ethnic group. They have tended and trained elephants for generations. They are thought, originally, to have migrated from Cambodia to settle in the north-eastern provinces near the border. Known for their expertise in capturing, domesticating and training wild elephants, the life-long relationship of the mahout with his elephant is an integral element of the Suay way of life. The elephant is both a companion and a family member.

The festival usually begins with a procession where all the elephants take part. The number ranges from 120 to 150 and includes calves and adults. Then there is the ‘wai kru’, a solemn ritual performed as a gesture of respect to ‘grand masters’ and teachers in martial arts as well as the performing arts. Indra, the Vedic god of the sky, clouds and monsoon and Guardian of the East then descends to earth on his elephant, Erawan.  The scene changes with village children accompanying baby elephants into the arena. This represents the almost sacred relationship between mahout and elephant. Acting in father and son pairs it is a close family tie based on a mutual dependency that lasts a lifetime.

Once the procession is over, the elephants begin to demonstrate their prowess through a number of choreographed events. They are designed to show that the elephant is not only a strong animal but also an intelligent, gentle and obedient one. There is traditional dancing, a tug of war between 70 burly Thai soldiers and one easily victorious tusker. The elephants paint pictures, play football and pirouette demonstrating the delicacy and precision of their skills.

The festival concludes with a mock battle involving hundreds of costumed soldiers and elephants festooned with elaborately ornamental silk and armour. Horsemen ride out into the arena jousting, charging at each other and waving their swords, turning their horses on a pin. They are followed by massed ranks of infantry and artillery. Then come the elaborately armoured elephants to the sound of explosions and the acrid smell of gunpowder.  Prior to the 18th century the elephant was the main machine of Southeast Asian war. A Thai king of the late 17th century having had 20,000 war elephants trained for battle.  This aspect of war was most renowned in the 300-year-war between Burma and Thailand which resulted in Burma’s sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767. In Surin no one actually gets hurt but it gives you an idea of what the awesome power of elephants trained for battle might have looked like.

The battle reaches its height as one side (presumably the Burmese or Khmers) is vanquished.  Finally all the elephants troop into the arena to wave their trunks in farewell. They then disperse to mingle with the crowds. Petted and fussed over they eventually lope off slowly back to town in a traffic jam of pickup trucks, trunks, costumed medieval warriors, Honda dreams and mahouts selling sugar cane. It’s a very Thai form of chaos as the stars of the show plod home to whichever part of the country from whence they came.

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