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.
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
Thai mythology recognizes four families of auspicious elephants, each created by a Hindu god and which carries certain properties (figs. 3-6, below):
- created by Brahma; brings material wealth and knowledge to the king.
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
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
|Even more recently carved pieces can be of reasonably high quality such as these pieces found in Bangkok retail outlets (figs. 33-36, below):|
|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).|
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).
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.
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).
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]|