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Cover story: 10 Dec / Vol. 24 No. 17
Elephant Duel
  The Honorary Combat
          on Elephant Back
By Dararai

Even though elephants have huge bodies and weigh about three tons each, they are regarded with affection in Thai society and have been tamed to be used as household labour since the Sukhothai Period (circa 1238-1438 A.D.) as evidenced by a stone inscription dated from King Ramkhamhaeng's reign (1279-1299), which reads in part: "...Who wants to trade in elephants, trades. Who wants to trade in horses, trades...The citizens feel happy." Elephants in ancient times were not only important for household use, but were also indispensable during wartime, especially in the elephant duel.

A painting in Wat Suwandararam,
Ayutthaya, depicts King Naresuan
in the elephant-back battle
with the Crown Prince of Burma in 1592.

What is an elephant duel?

An elephant duel is a battle on elephant back between ancient king warriors. It was praised as a highly honourable fight due to the enormous size of elephants and because of the fact that it was a face-to-face fatal combat between two great warriors. The Thais call a battle on elephant back "Yuttha Hatthi".

Brief history of elephant duels

History recorded the employment of elephants in warfare as early as 200 or 300 years before Christ in Ptolemaic Egypt and in Carthage. The huge African animals played a notable role in Hannibal's invasion of Italy in 218 B.C. In Asia, elephants were first employed in India, where the elephant corps served as one of the powerful weapons of the Indian Army. Their use in war was successful not only because of their great size and strength, but also because of the fear they inspired -- the psychological shock -- especially when several were used together. They served the same purpose as the tanks of modern times.

A painting depicting
Queen Suriyothai in the
elephant-back battle
with the Burmese in 1548.

In ancient Thailand, elephants occupied a very prominent role in battles. Almost all the famous Thai kings in history were great warriors on elephant back. King Ramkhamhaeng, King Naresuan and King Narai were the most outstanding examples. Nowadays murals depicting battles on elephant back still exist mostly in temples. One of them is in the ordination hall of Wat Suwandararam in Ayutthaya, showing the brave King Naresuan defeating the Burmese Crown Prince in 1592.

A spectacular elephant show at
Nong Nooch Tropical Garden & Resort

Not only men, but women also played a role in war in ancient Thailand. Ayutthaya history, in particular, is rich in legendary exploits of heroines such as Queen Suriyothai who, during a battle with invading Burmese in 1549, charged her war elephant at the enemy in an attempt to save her endangered husband King Mahachakraphat. Unfortunately she got herself killed together with a daughter of hers.

About war elephants and their riders

It is widely thought that all war elephants were male ones in a rut to add to the fierceness during the battle. But a female elephant was used by Phraya Tak (later King Taksin 1767-1782) to charge into the enemy ranks. And size did matter here because being large gave the bigger elephants an advantage over the smaller ones, which were normally defeated by being pushed upwards by the larger rivals. At this moment, the riders on the smaller ones are prone to death as the opponents would seize this opportunity to attack them. One slash of a curved-blade pike was lethal. It was also mentioned that just before going to battle, war elephants would be forced to drink some liquor to make them drunk and fiercer.

A war elephant
Click to enlarge

As for the riders, there were three men on a war elephant. The one on its neck was the warrior (most warriors were kings or high-ranking people), the one in the middle was to give signals and provide weapons for the warrior, and the mahout at the back was to control the elephant.

A mock elephant-back
battle at Samphran Elephant
Ground & Zoo.

Armours were necessary for war elephants but the ones in ancient Thailand wore armours covering parts of the body; such as the eyes to prevent them from panic; at both tusks to prevent them from being broken and both feet to protect them from oversized caltrops. Besides, their four feet were guarded by four specially-trained infantrymen called "chaturongkhabat", who were armed. If they failed to follow the war elephant of the king or fled from the combat, they would receive the death sentence.

Regarding the howdah, people today are usually misled by some paintings and films depicting war elephants fully decorated with regalia and a howdah (the one for kings or royalty was gracefully decorated). However, in fact such things were never used in real elephant duels. This was because the howdahs would have been too heavy for war elephants to move freely and this clumsiness would have left their riders fixed targets easy to be attacked and killed.

Drawings from
the residence of King Naresuan
at Wat Don Chedi in Suphan Buri
show violent elephant duels.

Weapons used by warriors on elephant back were spears, throwing spears (shorter than spears) and a curved-blade pike. The lessons of the art of fighting on elephant back were a must for Thai kings in ancient times. Being experts in using the aforementioned weapons would of course serve as an advantage when it came to fight on a difficult-to-control elephant and would at least assure victory.
Besides being used in elephant duels, elephants, as enormous animals, could carry heavy cargoes, trample the enemy and break their ranks and provide a useful means of transport.

At Million Years Stone Park
& Pattaya Crocodile Farm,
you can't help being attracted
by the loveliness of these elephants.

Elephants nowadays

The use of elephants as shock weapons gradually became obsolete after the advent of firearms. Nowadays the most important roles of elephants, at least so far as foreign tourists are concerned, are to offer rides and to give performances.

A lovely baby elephant
is trained by a mahout
at Samphran Elephant Ground & Zoo

The grandest of such performances is the world-renowned elephant round-up (annually held in November) in Surin Province in the Northeast of Thailand. The highlight of the festival is the colourful parade of battle elephants reminiscent of the battlefield in ancient times. In Chiang Mai and other northern provinces, there are several elephant camps offering elephant rides.

Be excited by the tease of playful elephants at
Nong Nooch Tropical Garden & Resort.

If you don't have time to go to witness the greatness of this world-famous event, you can still have a great time watching elephant shows or mock elephant duels at your convenience at many places near Bangkok. Some of them are named here: Samphran Elephant Ground and Zoo in Nakhon Pathom, Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm & Zoo in Samut Prakan, Sriracha Tiger Zoo, Nong Nooch Tropical Garden & Resort and Million Years Stone Park & Pattaya Crocodile Farm in Pattaya and Phuket Zoo in Phuket.

Elephant riding and a cute
elephant at Phuket Zoo

At these places, you will be impressed by the loveliness of the elephants and amazed by their intelligence demonstrated by their various performances, such as dancing, painting and playing football. (Please ask for the show programme from one of these places in advance.)

For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see
Romanization System of the Thai Language.

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