A village in Surin province marks the ordination of its young men on elephant back
The elephant has long played an important role in Buddhist beliefs, symbolising strength of mind and often depicted in murals as offering a beehive to the Lord Buddha and in statues guarding the stairway to chapels.
In Surin, Thailand’s unofficial elephant capital, the elephant also transports novice monks, and visitors to the province last week were treated to the sight of 30 pachyderms, each groomed and exquisitely painted by his mahout, carrying young males to the temple for their ordination.
Original as it is colourful, this traditional ceremony has passed down through generations of the Kui people in Baan Ta Klang, home to Thailand’s largest mahout community.
The Kui, a Khmer-speaking ethnic group, are famous for capturing and taming the wild elephants. In the old days, they would train the wild elephants for the kings and warlords. Today, with the tourist regarded as “king”, they train the descendants of those original beasts for the tourist trade and while the Ordination on Elephant-back ritual remains part of their custom, it has also become a tourist attraction.
The work starts several days before the ordination, with the pachyderms standing patiently as they are washed, painted and groomed in all finery by their loving mahouts. Fine embroidered velvet rugs are placed on their heads and backs while their skin becomes resplendent with colourful motifs.
The young Kui too dress up for the occasion, putting on traditional crimson sarongs, white shirts and brightly coloured cloaks. With colourful head crowns and head sets and parasols, the young men look less like monks and more like young princes on elephant back.
On ordination day itself, the 30 elephants parade majestically from Ta Klang village to the temple, negotiating the water of the Chi River to delighted squeals from the visitors.
In ancient times, long before the chapel halls existed, the ordination took place on the sandbars and small islands in the river, in keeping with the story of Prince Siddhartha who left behind his privileged life at the river.