Elephants in Belief, Ritual, and Ceremony in Thailand
The elephant, as both animal and symbol, is inextricably woven into the fabric of human spiritual belief in many parts of the world. Represented in formal religious traditions, mythologies, folklore, superstitions, animism, and magical practices, elephants have, for millennia, captivated us with their immense power, poise, and intelligence. In addition to being present in the iconography, canon, and non-canonical religious texts of major religions such as, among others, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Brahmanism, elephants have also played a role in traditional African religions, such as the Ashanti tradition, and were even depicted in the architecture of Judeo-Christian places of worship and illuminated manuscripts. Accordingly, the structures and proceedings of many religious celebrations, ceremonies, and rituals throughout the world have evolved to include the presence or participation of elephants, and some rites and practices that continue to the present day exist specifically to honour elephants and celebrate their cultural and religious importance.
In Thailand, the impact of the elephant on human society cannot be overstated. As the national animal of Thailand, the Asian elephant has played an instrumental role in the shaping of the Thai national identity and way of life. In addition to this, they are significant to the culture, history, politics, and even the economy of the nation, and elephants consistently feature in Thai religious beliefs, folklore, and superstitions. Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion in Thailand, though the prevailing belief system is influenced significantly by Hinduism as well as local folk religions. In Buddhism, the Lord Buddha is said to have appeared to his mother in the form of a sacred White elephant shortly before his birth, and the elephant features as a prominent symbol throughout Buddhist texts. Buddhism originally made its way to Thailand from India via Sri Lanka, where it first appeared in the 3rd century B.C. According to myth, the scriptures were initially sent from India on a ship, tied to the back of an elephant which was on board. The vessel ultimately capsized and sank in a storm, but the elephant managed to survive and swim to shore. Thus, many believe that if not for the strength and courage of elephants, Buddhism may not have reached Thailand.
Elephants also feature significantly in various folk religion beliefs and superstitious practices in Thailand. Worshippers often bring elephant figures to shrines as an appeal for luck or longevity, and many believe that walking under an elephant will bring good luck, or, for pregnant women, an easy delivery. Older systems of superstitious belief involved a variety of healing practices involving elephants. For instance, in several south-east Asian cultures, elephant tail hair and ivory from a tusk were said to counter the effects of poison and reveal the presence of poison, respectively. In Thailand, as recently as 1930, people have been recorded engaging in a practice which involves pouring water down the left side of the head of a particular type of tusker, and collecting that water which runs down the left tusk. It was believed that this water could be bathed in in order to cure fever.
Given their status as a revered and established fixture of both organised and informal belief systems, it is unsurprising that elephants should play a significant ceremonial role in festivals and religious celebrations in Thailand. At Ban Ta Klang – the largest “elephant village” in Thailand – located in the north-eastern province of Surin, an annual tradition dating back more than 200 years is observed. The Kui people who live in this area have lived closely with elephants for centuries, and the animals are considered an integral part of their communities. Each year, young men who have reached the age of 20 years participate in an ordination ceremony to become monks known as Buad Nak Chang (“Ordination Procession on Elephants). Candidates for monkhood are dressed elaborately, and ride a short distance on the backs of elephants, often accompanied by more than 1,000 people on foot. In addition to the symbolism represented by the elephants, Kui people believe that fame and good fortune will be brought to the family of the ordained if they travel to the ordination ceremony on elephant-back.
A more contemporary event involving elephants in Thailand not only incorporates them into the proceedings, it exists specifically to celebrate them and their contribution to Thai culture and history, as well as to raise awareness about the importance of elephant conservation efforts. Thai National Elephant Day (Thai: วันช้างไทย) was established in 1998 by the Thai government, and annual celebrations are held nationwide. Blessing ceremonies are held for both elephants and humans, and traditional Kui rituals, such as Pakam chang, a protection ceremony, are sometimes observed as a means of keeping such practices alive. Special elephant buffets featuring a variety of fruits are also a staple of Thai National Elephant Day, and serve as a token of appreciation for the incredible contributions and sacrifices elephants have made for the people and society of Thailand.
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Bangkok Post (2022). The Legend of Thai Elephants Through the Lens of the National Elephant Institute.
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Rituals, Ceremonies, and Local Festivals in Thailand Database (2016). Buad Nak Chang (Ordination Parade on Elephant’s Back.