Understanding Elephants in Thai Culture

14 January 2018
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Understanding Elephants in Thai Culture

The importance of the elephant in Thai culture and society dates back thousands of years, and is still closely tied to Thailand’s image today. Elephants are stunning animals, and their grace and strength have made them deeply symbolic in several cultures around the world. However, few places value the elephant more than Thailand. The two have become practically synonymous. Elephants have been invaluable assets in the construction of the past empires of Siam, where their great strength was utilized in labor and in battle. Today, the Thai navy still features the elephant on its flag.

elephant in forest

In Buddhist belief the mother of Buddha, Queen Maya, conceived her son with the aid of a white elephant. She knew in that moment that her child would be both pure and powerful. By law, all white elephants belong to the king. The white elephant is directly connected to Thai royalty. Elephants were war animals, and the more of them a king had to take into battle the more powerful he appeared. Additionally, if a king was unhappy with a member of his court he might gift them one of his white elephants. A “white elephant” creates an exceptional burden for its owner, with its cost greatly exceeding its value. The astronomical cost of taking care of one of these revered creatures could bankrupt even the wealthiest in society, because they were forbidden from being used for labor or productive purposes. This is where the expression “white elephant” comes from.

queen maya white elephant dream illustration

In 1900 there were over 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Sadly, today there are fewer than 4,000 domesticated elephants left, and fewer than 1,000 in the wild. They are seriously endangered. Logging has destroyed much of their wild habitat. Elephants are some of the smartest animals in the world, and their memories are exceptional. There are few species on earth that are more intelligent, and they are essential parts of the ecosystems that they live in.

For many people visiting Thailand a photo with an elephant is at the top of their list. However, elephants are in need of protection, and there are numerous groups devoted to educating tourists about ethical ways to interact with these endangered animals. Elephants can certainly be a part of your visit to Thailand, just be sure to know which sanctuaries to visit! There are many resources available for those who want to see Thai elephants. As exciting as it might be to interact with them, the best way to experience elephants might simply be to watch them.

elephants playing

The elephant is symbolic to billions of people across multiple faiths and cultures. The most well known is the association between elephants and mental strength, wisdom, and memory. In Buddhism, gray elephants symbolize a mind that has not yet achieved enlightenment. The mind still lacks control, and can cause harm to oneself. The white elephant is symbolic of the enlightened mind, at peace and in control. Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva, is depicted in Buddhist belief as riding a white elephant to guide people towards the Buddhist practice itself.  In the past it was also believed that the elephant could bring rain and good harvests.

At Hippie Pants we’ve included elephant patterns in a few of our products. We try to honor Thai tradition and culture in everything that we do, and incorporating the symbolism of the elephant was totally natural when designing our pants and bags. For those seeking wisdom and enlightenment, the elephant is a spirit animal that can help guide them down the right path. Keeping it close is a reminder to keep the mind calm and focused.  Those that are drawn to it are often intelligent and hold knowledge in high esteem.

brown elephant pants

These amazing animals have so much incredible meaning and history behind them, and they deserve to be honored and protected! The reason the elephant appears in so many designs and patterns is because people are drawn to its spirituality. It’s essential we continue to protect them so that their legacy can live on.

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