It was going to be a long wait. These kinds of events often were. But then, they were usually – but not always – worth the wait. As this one had proven to be.

To see 60-plus magnificent elephants descending the foothills of the Mae Sa Valley, mahouts riding bareback at their necks, was remarkable enough. But then to witness a great elephant feast, laid out on giant  khantoke (traditional northern Thai feast) tables, was a sight to behold.

The huge, wide tables, laden high with watermelons, bananas, pineapples, corn, squash, pumpkin and every manner of grass and bush, had been grandly laid out for the pachyderms – honouring them on this special ‘National Elephant Day’, held annually every March 13th  around the country. There was even an ‘elderlies’ corner for those animals whose teeth were now too worn out to bite and chew, where the fruits and vegetables had been peeled and cut for them.

The sheer weight of the animals and the food could be felt throughout the grounds of the Mae Sa Elephant Camp – just outside Chiang Mai, along with the huge crowds that gathered to watch the animals feast.

The pachyderms munched contentedly and continuously, laying their trunks on the piles of food, as if to get a feel for how much food there was for them and what would be their next delicacy of choice. There was no rivalry or aggression between them – they stood calmly side-by-side, tails slowly swishing, ears fanning in and out in the thick, hot, humid air.

This was their day, completely different from all others in the year, for they and their companions by and large lived a hard life.

Earlier that morning, I had watched scores of elephants cart around camera-toting tourists seated in large howdahs atop their backs, along with a mahout riding bare-backed at the neck.  Their weight, along with the chains and ropes many dragged, clearly over-burdened the animals, and they appeared worn down and stressed.

Before that, hundreds of tourists had watched ‘elephant shows’ where the animals performed such demeaning tricks as swinging a hula hoop, kicking a beach ball (playing football), moving logs and the like. In a separate area, young elephants were made to ‘paint’ pictures, producing hundreds of identical images, their brushstrokes controlled by a sharpened fingernail which the mahout inserted behind its ear, should his charge get out of line.

The elephants were controlled by the cursed ankus, a bronze or steel hook held by the mahouts, which they pressed into the side of the animals’ heads, often a wound already opened and slightly festering, to get them to do the required, by inflicting pain in order to control them.

Later, when their ‘work’ was done, the animals were marched, many dragging chains and ropes around their necks, often with just enough leverage to move a step or two at a time.

In Bangkok, I had seen elephants endure the extreme heat, pollution, car fumes and headlights of the sprawling city, as their mahouts led them along the streets, highways and byways – often at night to avoid the authorities, for this was illegal - the hot concrete burning the soles of their feet, begging for food or money, or performing the curious Thai ritual of allowing people to crawl under the belly of the animal three times, believed to bring good luck.

Elsewhere around the country, I had seen films of shows where elephants were made to feign sexual intercourse with humans, or do tricks in local versions of circuses, or play polo in the famous competitions of Surin.

In all these situations, the sadness in their eyes, and a tired resignation to the life of servitude they had been forced to live, were palpable. And always came the perplexing question: ‘How does an animal thousands of times heavier, scores of times bigger, and hundreds of times stronger, than a human being allow itself to be controlled by its diminutive masters?

For many, the answer lies in the phajaan.

In this barbarous and cruel practice, otherwise referred to as ‘elephant crushing’ where the animals are tamed for domestication, a baby elephant – of approximately two years old – is abruptly and mercilessly separated from its mother.  It is led to and forced into a bamboo pen, exactly the size of its length and breadth. This hardened straightjacket, along with poles and ropes, prevents the baby from moving. When it tries to do so, thrashing about, hysterical and screaming, the ropes are pulled tighter to constrict it even more, and it is beaten, or it is pricked with nails and hooks.

Eventually the youngster is overcome with exhaustion and stops trying to get out of the pen. At this time its intended mahout gives it some food, and proceeds to climb on its back, to acclimatize the animal to having a human being ride it.  The animal remains calm for a few minutes, but then, squealing and screaming, tries to get out of the pen again, and this is again met with verbal and physical abuse.

This heart-wrenching and paralyzing sequence is played out over and over again, often for a full seven days, until the ‘will of the animal is broken’.

I wondered how many of the elephants I was seeing at this grand and elaborate feast had gone through this tortuous experience.

I also wondered at the contradiction in this often brutal treatment of these highly intelligent and sensitive animals.

A deep reverence for elephants is indeed inherent in traditional Thai culture; and whilst the present-day treatment of domestic elephants is as varied as the personalities of their mahouts and owners, with some being treated well, it is difficult to fathom the horrific treatment meted out by others.

Elephants traditionally were an integral part of the Thai way of life – used as a mode of transport, for ploughing fields, as beasts of burden, and as the mounts of Thai kings who rode them into battle against Burmese invaders.

Later, when the teak logging industry in South East Asia began to boom, elephants were widely used to lift, move and carry the logs to rivers where they would be floated to ports for export. With the banning of the Thai logging industry in 1989, due to over-exploitation of the country’s teak forests, many elephants were rendered useless, and their economic value diminished.

At one time, it is believed, approximately 100 000 wild elephants roamed Thailand and its border areas; that number has now been reduced to an estimated 2 500.

A symbol of peace, intelligence and wisdom, with white elephants associated with royal power, it is apparent even today that the elephant holds a revered place deeply embedded in the Thai psyche.

Certainly here in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s ‘Rose of the North’, regarded as a living repository of northern Lanna culture, there are images of elephants virtually everywhere. (Lanna – the ‘land of a million rice fields’ - is a northern Thai kingdom founded over 700 years ago, its culture still vibrant in Chiang Mai and other northern provinces.)

Bridge crossings, lamp-post adornments, lanterns, signposts, ancient city walls, new and ancient temples, murals, hotels and spas, restaurant entrances and menus, stairwells, as well as beer brands (Chang), TV commercials, painting and sculpture exhibitions (many devoted uniquely to the elephant) and the coat of arms all feature elephants in their decorative motifs; even the local football team has been depicted inside a silhouetted elephant!

At Chiang Mai’s bustling markets and numerous arts and crafts villages, elephants serve as motifs on wood-carvings, silver plaques and jewellery, silk and cotton weaving, clothing, hand-painted umbrellas, embroidered tablecloths, table runners, curtains, children’s toys, key chains, T-shirts, bags and tourist souvenirs.

The massive and restored chedis (pagodas) of Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh, two of the city’s oldest temples dating back to the 14th century, are held up at their four cardinal points by elephants. And elephant statues, sculptures and murals abound in many of Chiang Mai’s temples, galleries and antique shops.

Shrines devoted to the Indian elephant-headed god Ganeesh exist side-by-side with statues of Lord Buddha; and many Buddhist Thais come to pray and make offerings to this god of wisdom, prosperity and equanimity.

Go to any of Chiang Mai’s colourful festivals, staged nearly throughout the year, and you will see representations of elephants festooned on the many ornately decorated floats that process through the city streets. This includes Chiang Mai’s famous Flower Festival that features giant elephant floats ingeniously filled in with fresh flowers.

All this and more, here in Chiang Mai, and around the country, serve as strong indications of the symbolical and arch-typical importance of elephants to the Thai people.  Yet, side-by-side, there exists the unthinkable, seemingly inexplicable kinds of abuse elephants suffer throughout the country today.

The festivities of the Thai National Elephant Day – colourful traditional dances, hill tribe craft-making and exhibitions, flower festooned stages and the feasting of the elephants – paled in comparison to a scene I witnessed near the VIP stand.

Just outside the bandstand, where officials had sat for the day’s festivities, a huge bull elephant, with incredibly long, curving tusks that crossed in front of him and nearly touched the ground, was clearly agitated. He tugged indignantly at the chain that kept him in bondage to a pole. So tightly tethered was he that he could barely move his one free foot a step forward.

He constantly swirled his head around, left to right, panic-stricken eyes searching for anything or anyone who could put him out of his misery, occasionally rumbling displeasure. After some hours, his mahout approached; and rather than loosening the chain, he landed a hard and loud slap on the animal’s face, the sting felt from where I was sitting, as was the affront to its dignity and integrity.

But simply loosening that chain could not remove the impermeable bondage this animal suffered every day of its life. The image of his sad and troubled face was –and remains to this day – my lasting memory of Thai National Elephant Day.

© copyright: Linda Pfotenhauer


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