Thailand Elephants Show Celebrates Traditions

surin elephant roundup mahouts and their elephants wikicommons

Since ancient times, the Surin Province of Thailand has been known for elephants. This past week marked the annual elephants roundup in Surin, a lively celebration of the faith, history, and culture of both the area and its elephants. Hundreds of elephants and their “mahouts,” or caregivers, converge on Surin to relive and maintain the spirit of their ancient faith and ways of life.

Surin Province is the home of the Kui, or “Suay” in Thai. Thought to have migrated from Cambodia, the Kui tribe settled mostly in the northeastern provinces near the Cambodian border. The Kui are famous for their expertise in capturing, domesticating, and training wild elephants. They have great respect for their elephants, adopting them as family members and companions for life.

Thailand’s Auspicious Elephants

Regarded as symbols of wealth, power, and dignity befitting that of a monarch, elephants were used in ancient times as war mounts. A King was perceived to be more or less powerful, depending on the number of elephants in his service. Elephants are still used in Thailand’s royal ceremonies and rituals today. White elephants, or “Chang Samkhan,” are still considered to be the most auspicious of animals. They are associated with the three key foundations of the country: nation, religion, and king.

The white elephant is the traditional mount of Indra, the Vedic Hindu god of the sky, clouds, and monsoon. One of his many names is “guardian of the East.” Indra is a familiar deity found also in Buddhism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism. In the Hindu religion, Indra descends to earth on his mount, Erawan, a beautiful white elephant. In the Rigveda, Indra is the king of the gods and ruler of the heavens.


Indra in the Rigveda

In the Sanskrit language, “Rigveda” is a compound word meaning “praise,” or “verse,” and “knowledge.” It is a collection of sacred Vedic hymns. Still in use today, it is counted among the four canonical sacred texts (Ĺ›ruti) of Hinduism known as the Vedas.

In verses with messages highly reminiscent of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures, the Rigveda states:

He under whose supreme control are horses, all chariots, the villages, and cattle; He who gave being to the Sun and Morning, who leads the waters, He, O men, is Indra. (2.12.7)

Indra, you lifted up the pariah who was oppressed, you glorified the blind and the lame. (2:13:12)

The Surin Elephant Roundup Exhibition

Held every third week of November at Si Narong Stadium, the exhibition is composed of several acts, or scenes:

The Invocation Ritual:

The exhibition begins with “wai kru”, a solemn ritual performed as a gesture of respect to “grand masters” and mentors in the martial and performing arts. In commemoration of scripture, a representative Indra “descends” to earth on his mount, Erawan, and verses are recited.

Entering the Human Realm:

The scene opens with children in the village bonding with baby elephants. The children are dressed in traditional costumes of Thailand and play with the elephants.

image (Image note and source: A young mahout and his elephant in Thailand. By samthe8th, Flickr)

The caregiver of an Elephant is called a “Mahout.” In earlier days, as soon as a boy was born, the father would scout around the neighboring villages, looking for an elephant born at the same time. Upon finding it, he would pay for it, and when the two were old enough, the young elephant was brought to the young boy. From that day forward, the child cared for the elephant. In daily life, the elephant is treated as part of the “family,” and both become equally loyal to, and dependent upon each other.

The Hunt for “Cha-khlong”

This scene depicts hundreds of elephants as they exist in their natural habitat. They live in herds, led by their “Cha-khlong,” or mighty leader.

The Capture of Wild Elephants

This scene opens with the “Phi Pakarn.” This is a sacred ritual performed to ward off danger during elephant round-ups. Over 300 domesticated elephants take part in this demonstration of ancient techniques used in the capture of wild elephants. Historically, the capture of wild elephants was extremely dangerous. Tremendous expertise was required, as well as patience. The men of the village would be away from home for months while rounding up wild elephants, and usually several would not make it back home.


Celebrations of Everyday Life and Traditions

Everyday life in the community is celebrated in this scene, as well as training techniques for teaching elephants to work. From forest to domestication, this scene illustrates local traditions and customs, as well as the inseparable ties and the relationship of respect existing between man and elephant.

The relationship between the career mahout and his elephant often extends back much further than respective childhoods. In rural communities, elephants are often kept by families for generations. Age-old knowledge and skills in caring for and controlling elephants are passed down from father to son. Likewise, generations of elephants are born into the same family unit. The lines between man and elephant blur through the years of loving care, and they truly become one big family.


Elephants in Warfare

This next scene is a presentation of the ancient art of warfare on elephant back. Under the early kings of Siam there are famous accounts of legendary “war elephants.” However, serving in the front line of battle was reserved for only a few of the finest elephants. Historically, more elephants were trained in the transportation and service of people and goods.

Grande Finale and Farewell

The Surin Elephant Show closes with a spectacular array of over 300 elephants and 2,000 performers in full regalia. Bidding farewell to the visitors, a sense of continuing history vibrates in the air. A whole new understanding and appreciation of an ancient way of life is gained in the illuminating, brilliant performance.

Faiths, families, and ways of life revitalize in the pageantry of such spectacular displays. It is easy to share in these kinds of commemorations, even if they represent cultures and faiths unlike our own — respect for others grows easily in the rich soil of other’s self-respect.


(All images are from wikicommons, except young mahout)

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About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid (Birth-name Kathleen Vail) is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, sustainable economics, corporate social responsibility, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.