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by Daniel Stiles, Ph.D

August 14, 2003


Very little is known about the history and artistic aspects of ivory sculpture in Thailand. No art book has ever been devoted to it nor is Thai ivory even mentioned in Lee, Rawson, van Beek or Warren and Tettoni 1. Boisselier 2 only makes passing reference to Thai ivory use. Somchai Chousawai 3, Lecturer in Industrial Technology at the Rajabhat Institute in Nakhan Sawan, published a report in Thai on the ivory industry in Phayuha Kiri, the current ivory carving center of Thailand 4, but the information is very limited. This contribution aims to present an introduction to ivory carving in Thailand based on two months of research in Bangkok and central Thailand in early 2003 supported by the National Geographic Society.

Southeast Asia lost more than 50% of its elephants between 1990 and 2000, mostly due to poaching for ivory. There are now fewer than 50,000 wild elephants in all of Asia. The National Elephant Institute of Thailand estimates that there were 200,000 wild elephants in the country in 1782, 100,000 in 1900 and fewer than 2,000 in 2002. Habitat loss and the ivory trade were the main causes of this precipitous decline. A survey of the ivory trade in Thailand in 2001 found more than 88,000 worked ivory items for sale, the most of any country surveyed in Asia and Africa 5. Raw and worked ivory is smuggled in from Africa, Myanmar and China in contravention of CITES.

Because of the imminent demise of the wild Asian elephant and increasingly severe restrictions on ivory carving in Thailand and elsewhere it is imperative to learn as much as possible about this art form before it disappears. Elephant lore and ivory are intricately interwoven.

Cultural Traditions about Elephants

Fig. 1. white elephant

An elephant of beautiful color: hair, nails and eyes are white. Perfection in form, with all signs of regularity of the high family. The color of the skin is that of the lotus. A descendant of the angel of the Brahmins. Acquired as property by the power and glory of the King for his services. Is equal to the crystal of the highest value. Is of the highest family of all in existence. A source of power of attraction of rain. 6

The "white elephant" is the most revered animal of all in Thailand. It is actually white, or pale, only in places on the face, outer edges of the ears, nails, tail and testicles (fig. 1, above).

Fig. 2. White elephant tusks
It should also be genteel in demeanor. Elephants that meet these criteria become so sacred that they belong by law to the King of Thailand. The present King Bhumibol, Rama IX, owns a dozen. They tend to live very long lives and as a consequence their tusks can grow to lengths exceeding 2.9 meters (9 feet) (fig. 2, right). There is even a museum devoted to royal elephants in Bangkok. This type of elephant owes its high status to Buddhist mythology. Queen Maya, the mother of Prince Siddhartha the future Buddha, was barren until she dreamt that a white elephant had entered her womb. The 13th century King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai adopted the elephant as a symbol of the great and the divine.

Thai mythology recognizes four families of auspicious elephants, each created by a Hindu god and which carries certain properties (figs. 3-6, below):

Brahmaphong - created by Brahma; brings material wealth and knowledge to the king.
Isvaraphong - created by Shiva; endows the king with royal power.
Vishnuphong - created by Vishnu; produces rain and fertility and brings victory over enemies. Agniphong - created by Agni - ensures animal fertility and prevents war and inauspicious events in the kingdom.

Fig. 3. Brahmaphong

Fig. 4. Isvaraphong

Fig. 5. Vishnuphong

Fig. 6. Agniphong

Elephants also gain status from Ganesh, the Hindu god of knowledge and remover of obstacles, which features an elephant's head and Erawan (Airevata), the three-headed elephant mount of the Hindu god Indra. Ganesh is commonly seen in sculpture, architecture and paintings in Thailand and one of the most popular shrines in Bangkok is devoted to Erawan (fig. 7, below).

Fig. 7. Erawan shrine

Fig. 8. Domesticated elephant

The domesticated elephant used to be an important war, transport and work animal in Thailand and memories of its valor and service live on in Thai folklore, art and literature (fig. 8, above). Since the government ban on logging in 1989 hundreds of former timber elephants have been rendered largely unemployed, creating huge problems for them and their mahouts. They can be seen now performing at amusement parks and elephant camps or begging in the streets of cities. Thais believe that to pass under an elephant's trunk brings good luck and mahouts charge money for the privilege. They were recently banned from Bangkok and there currently is much discussion and controversy concerning elephants in Thailand. An "Elephant Law" is being debated that would prohibit the sales of all elephant products, including ivory.

History of Ivory Carving

Fig. 9. Royal ivory containers and snuff boxes

Ancient elephant fossils found in Nakhan Sawan Province show that elephants have been inhabiting Thailand for at least 15 million years, but the oldest use of ivory was only first documented at the Bronze Age site of Ban Chiang in Udon Thani Province dating to 3,600 BC in the form of necklace beads. Ban Kao, Kanchanaburi, dated to between 2,000 BC and 1,600 BC, produced many small, concentric circles incised into the surface of cut tusk sections. Ivory combs have been found in archaeological sites ranging between 700 BC and 200 AD, with one particularly interesting one from the Chansen Ancient City being carved in the style of Indian Amaravati art. Archaeologists uncovered an intricately carved ivory bracelet at the Iron Age site of Ban Sangdu dating to about 500 BC. 7

Fig. 10. Musical instruments

Although raw ivory was traded during the Ayutthaya period (14th-18th centuries AD), there is a large gap between about 200 AD and the late 19th century reign of King Rama V (1868-1910) when no carved ivory is seen in Thailand. The first users of Thai carved ivory were the royal family, specifically Rama V (of "The King and I" fame). Main items were various types of containers (fig. 9, above) sword and knife handles, parts for musical instruments in ceremonial orchestras (fig.10, right) official seals, chess pieces, jewelry, buttons, dolls and even small howdahs. Distribution was very limited. Rama V popularized the use of ivory and in the early 20th century the aristocracy and upper classes began patronizing the royal carvers as well and ivory utensil handles and combs became popular. Religious ivory sculpture was also important early on and the National Museum contains elaborately carved tusks with Buddhas (fig.11, below), Buddha figurines, Thepanom (worshipping deities) and stupas. The long, curved tusks of royal white elephants were often used for these.

Fig. 11.
royal carved tusks

King Rama V commanded a contest for carving ivory containers and he registered 17 different styles, much like copyrights, which the royal family and subsequently aristocrats used as personal designs. Chao Phaya Thammathikornnabhodi, the commander of the Royal Ceremony Department in the palace of King Rama V, kept many skilled ivory carvers to lathe and sculpt the ivory containers for the royal family. The best craftsmen received the title "Seal Sculptor" and were charged with manufacturing official seals for government ministries or persons of rank. Upper class families offered patronage to other superior carvers.

In the early 20th century the King of Chiang Mai presented a magnificently carved miniature ivory howdah to the king as a royal gift (fig.12, below).

Fig. 12. Royal howdah

In the early 1930s an artistically gifted Buddhist monk named Boonrod Lohartrakool began carving Buddhas in Monorom near Nakhon Sawan city in central Thailand at the request of Luang Paw Derm, a revered monk, who possessed many tusks from deceased temple elephants. The main buyers were other monks who used them to decorate temples or to resell to worshippers.


As demand for ivory grew amongst temple worshippers monks began ordering rosaries, Buddha amulets, singhas (lions) and Nanggwak (figs. 13, 14, 15, below)(Thai angel believed to bring customers to a business). These items would be blessed by the monks and sold to Buddhists for protection/good luck. The proceeds were used to support the temple monks and improve the beauty of the temples. Later, ivory knife and sword handles began to be made by a family of knife-makers in the area.

Fig.13. Buddha amulet

Fig.14. Singha

Fig. 15. Nanggwak

Fig. 16. Rama V
on far right

Fig. 17.
Revered monk
Boonrod left the monkhood, moved to Phayuha Kiri and trained other people to carve in the late 1930s and early 1940s as demand grew. People began ordering figurines of Rama V (fig.16, left), revered monks (fig. 17, right) and other religious subjects as well. These ivory items spread to Bangkok and elsewhere. Ivory carving started up in Bangkok fine arts schools in the 1940s to satisfy demand. King Rama V, Chulalongkorn, is a favored subject because he is credited with bringing modernization to Thailand and for introducing many popular reforms such as the abolition of slavery and the education of women.

Fig. 18.
Gong Yangthan
All second generation Phayuha Kiri carvers were trained by Boonrod Lohartrakool (died 1999) or Gong Yangthan (aged 82) (fig.18, right) , his brother-in-law. Boonrod moved from Monorom to Phayuha Kiri in 1937 when he married Gong's sister to live with relatives there. Gong joined him in 1939 and learned to carve. The first second generation carvers were mainly Ramayana dancer students of Gong's in 1943. WW II spurred demand for ivory amulets that would protect soldiers from harm. Two brothers, Són and Chim, sons of sword and knife makers, also began to carve ivory during WW II. They first made miniature, ritual knives (meadsan) with ivory sheaths and handles that monks sold in temples, then branched out into Buddha and singha protective amulets. These are all still sold today in temples.

When tourism grew in the 1970s mass-market jewelry became a main item along with elephants, elephant bridge tusks, lions, dragons, name seals, Thai dancers, erotic figures (mainly phallic), ear picks, chopsticks and cigarette holders (figs.19-21, below). Some Thai carvers from Bangkok and Phayuha Kiri went to Hong Kong to learn more about carving techniques and Chinese subjects.

Fig. 19. Mass-market jewelry and trinkets

Fig. 20. Name seals

Fig. 21. Erotic piece

Fig. 22. Imported Chinese carvings
With the economic boom in Asia in the 1980s Chinese subjects such as Kwan Yin, Laughing Buddha (Maitreya) and Long Life became popular. Buddhas of various Thai styles remained common throughout. Chinese subjects, including Taoist figures, netsukes, animals, fruits and pagodas are now imported from China in great quantities (fig.22, right). Fine arts schools stopped carving ivory in the late 1980s when prices of the raw material became too expensive and, after the CITES trade ban in 1990, became too difficult to obtain.

Technical Aspects

Fig. 23. Hand file

Fig. 24. Awls and gauges

Up to the late 1970s only hand tools were used for carving (hand saws, files, chisels, gauges, firmers, awls, drills) (figs. 23-24).

With the increased income that higher sales provided and the need for mass production in the face of higher demand, workshops purchased electric tools (ban saws, grinders, lathes, buffers) (figs. 25-27, below) in the 1980s, though hand tools are still used for the fine carving of sculptures. Three subjects are rated for skilled master carvers in Phayuha Kiri: Buddhas, animals and King Rama V. Each has a known master. There are no recognized "schools" of ivory carving, though the Buddhas are represented in the Ratanakosin (or Bangkok) School style of the 18th-20th century. Most craftsmen/ women specialize in certain tasks and/or subjects, though the most skilled carvers can craft a variety of subjects. The best raw ivory is reserved for the larger figurines, carved tusks and name seals (though some ready-made name seal blanks are smuggled in from Central Africa). The poorest ivory is used for pendants, amulets and necklace/rosary beads. Good raw ivory must be used for the bangles and carved bracelets.

Electric tools

Fig. 25.

Fig. 26.

Fig. 27.

Artistic Aspects

Fig. 28. Buddhas
The most aesthetic sculpture in Thailand consists of religious subjects such as the Buddha (fig. 28, left), various mythological creatures (fig.29-30, below) chess pieces (fig. 31, below) and bindings for palm-leaf Buddhist scripture (fig. 32, below). The best examples of these are kept in the National Museum in Bangkok and were carved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by craftsmen from the royal palace or those patronized by powerful families. 8

Fig. 29. Naga knife handle

Fig. 30. Musical instrument

Fig. 31. Chess pieces

Fig. 32. Buddhist scripture bindings

Even more recently carved pieces can be of reasonably high quality such as these pieces found in Bangkok retail outlets (figs. 33-36, below):

Fig. 33.

Fig. 34.

Fig. 35.

Fig. 36.

The quality of Thai ivory carving has been declining over the decades as the consumers have shifted from royalty and the upper classes to tourists and businessmen. In the early days craftsmen could spend months working with hand tools on a single piece. Since the 1970s mass-market electric tool production has reduced the time and attention carvers spend on individual items. In most workshops priority is placed on quantity, not quality, though a few carvers can still produce quality pieces that are ordered on command. These clients, often senior Buddhist monks or wealthy Thais (usually Chinese), expect fine pieces and provide good raw ivory to the craftsmen themselves. Unfortunately, most of the worked ivory displayed in hotels and souvenir shops can best be described as trinkets or curios and are, quite frankly, a waste of elephant lives and an insult to a superior raw material such as ivory (fig. 37-40, below).

Fig. 37. Low quality ivory carvings

Fig. 38. Cigarette holders and blank seals

Fig. 39. The elephant motif

Fig. 40. Reclining Buddha

The Future

Fig. 41. An elephant shrine

The future of the ivory carving craft in Thailand depends largely on the government's regulation of the ivory trade. There is considerable international and local pressure to ban ivory sales entirely as a result of the fact that elephants in both Southeast Asia and Africa are illegally killed to provide tusks to satisfy current high levels of demand. Conversely, there are an estimated 2,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand, some of which carry ivory 9. The present law technically allows this ivory to be sold by the elephant owners, either pruned from a live elephant or cut off of one that dies a natural death, and banning ivory sales by the proposed "Elephant Law" will render this ivory economically worthless, reducing the value of live elephants to owners. This in itself could contribute to the abandonment and deaths of elephants, as they are extremely expensive animals to keep. At some elephant camps, however, mahouts are using tusks to embellish shrines devoted to the worship of elephants, thus conferring a cultural value to ivory (and a tourist attraction when ceremonies are performed) (fig. 41, above).

Fig. 42. Prasit Prayoonwong

Banning ivory carving will also affect the livelihoods of about 120 carvers in Thailand and their dependents. The switch from ivory to cow bone carving in Phayuha Kiri (fig.42, right), for example, reduced the income from one workshop from an average $500 a month to $150 a month 10. These are also people who often are third generation ivory carvers and who therefore feel that they have a family tradition to uphold.

My research with ivory carvers in Southeast Asia and experience with them elsewhere has led me to the belief that a compromise solution is possible. There are "master carvers" who produce high quality, artistic ivory pieces and who take pride in their skill and workmanship. Elephants as living creatures also die eventually, leaving behind their tusks. It does not seem rational to squander both of these cultural and natural resources by an outright ivory carving ban.

Fig. 43. Mammoth ivory

The crux of the problem has always been the fear that allowing any ivory trade at all would stimulate demand to unsustainable limits, thus threatening the future of elephants as a species. The trend was heading in this direction in the 1970s and 1980s as ivory markets expanded tremendously and elephant poaching hit epidemic proportions. If one examines what was being done with much of this ivory, however, one sees that the electric-tool manufacture of jewelry, name seals and curios was the end product. These have little or no artistic or cultural value and could just as well be made from other raw materials. Nephrite jade and jadeite are materials in particular that offer good substitutes to ivory in terms of aesthetic appeal and quality. Mammoth ivory also produces quite similar results to elephant ivory and China is manufacturing extremely elegant sculptures in factories there (figs.43, above - fig.44, below).

Fig. 44. Mammoth ivory
A possible resolution of the question of whether to carve or not to carve elephant ivory could lie in an agreement on the part of the craftsmen to limit production to high quality, traditional items that would consist mainly of figurines. Ivory jewelry (bangles, pendants, rings, earrings, etc.), amulets, name seals, cigarette holders, pipes, chopsticks and similar types would be banned. Bead necklaces and bracelets could be allowed if they are made from carving waste from larger pieces or junk ivory, which is usually the case today. This would reduce considerably the demand for raw ivory and could result in the possibility of a sustainable international trade in African ivory. Governments would have the responsibility to enact and enforce suitable legislation to ensure that ivory carvers conform to these limitations on ivory use.

Let all lovers of ivory art hope that one day a balance can be reached whereby beautiful ivory sculpture can be produced without the need to kill elephants.

All text and images © Daniel Stiles 2003


1. S. Lee, A History of Far Eastern Art (Englewood Cliffs, NJ and New York: Prentice Hall and Harry Abrams, 1964), P. Rawson, The Art of Southeast Asia (New York: Praeger, 1967), S. van Beek, The Arts of Thailand (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1992) and W. Warren and L.I. Tettoni, Arts and Crafts of Thailand (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998). [back]
2. J. Boisselier, The Heritage of Thai Sculpture (Bangkok: Asia Books, 1987). [back]
3. S. Chousawai, Ivory Carving in Phayuha Kiri (in Thai), (Nakhon Sawan: Rajabhat Institute, 1998). [back]
4. In December 2002 the Thai authorities confiscated all ivory displayed in shops and held at the ivory workshops in Phayuha Kiri on Customs and tax charges. Because of this my intended study of the techniques and methods of Thai ivory carving was severely curtailed, as only small items from cow bone were being carved in the town during my stay. I managed to find four ivory carvers outside of Phayuha Kiri, but not much carving was in progress. [back]
5. Esmond Martin and Daniel Stiles, The Ivory Markets of Africa (Nairobi and London: Save The Elephants, 2000); Esmond Martin and Daniel Stiles, The South and Southeast Asian Ivory Markets (Nairobi and London: Save The Elephants, 2002); Esmond Martin and Daniel Stiles, The Ivory Markets of East Asia (Nairobi and London: Save The Elephants, in press). [back]
6. This is the translation of the name of a Thai royal white elephant made by H.H. Prince Prisadarang, Siamese Minister to England during the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868), quoted in C. Bock, Temples and Elephants: travels in Siam 1881-1882 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). [back]
7. S. Nakhonphanon, "Ivory Carving", in S. Prapatthong, ed., Thai Minor Arts (Bangkok: National Museum Division, The Fine Arts Department, 1993): 225-244. [back]
8. The Wasantaphiman Hall in the National Museum where the ivory collection is displayed was closed for renovations during my visit, but Khun Monkol Samransuk, Chief Curator, kindly arranged photographic privileges for me. [back]
9. Most female and some male Asian elephants do not grow tusks. [back]
10. Prasit Prayoonwong, former ivory carver, personal communication, January 2003. [back] || Articles