The recent discussion here on New Mandala about elephant tusks reminded me of the work of Sarinda Singh, a former PhD student at the ANU (and now at the University of Queensland). Her PhD thesis dealt with the complex relationship forests and state power in Laos. One chapter focussed specifically on the symbolism of elephants. Here is a brief extract:
Given the diverse historical associations with elephants it is not surprising that these animals are cultural icons in contemporary Laos but not in a clear or uncontested manner… Elephants are inextricably associated with varied political meanings that allow interpretations of these animals to be used to demonstrate, legitimise and question the given social order. The social potency of elephants is ensured in contemporary Laos by their ambiguity and malleability to local contexts. Significantly, elephants are national symbols that belong to the Lao state and as such they provide a means for people to reflect on the state – as useful symbols they both convey and produce meaning… In rural areas of Laos where royalty had a limited historical presence, the salience of royal symbols today derives from their ability to speak to present concerns rather than necessarily denoting a strong royalist presence in the past… Local interpretations of elephants in central Laos implicate these animals as symbols of the potentiality of the paa (forest), especially in beliefs about spirit-worship and the special properties of elephant meat. While symbolising the uncivilised nature of the paa the wild elephant also represents a unique form of potentiality that can be harnessed through domestication because of their similarity to people and idealised utility. Respect for elephants is fundamentally a reflection of human endeavours to domesticate the paa and maintain social order. Despite major changes in the recent history of Laos and considerable differences between rural and urban areas there is continuity in the association of elephants with power, prosperity and social status. As the largest animals in Laos elephants imply strength and danger. They are often called sat nyai, ‘big animals’, which historically belonged to phuu nyai, ‘big people’ or ‘elites’. Large animals of the paa and elites are similar in deserving both fear and respect… Elephants are effective symbols of potentiality because they build upon more widely shared Tai worldviews that frame elephants as powerful symbols of the relations between the muang (city) and paa.
The tusks photographed by Nicholas at the Manau ground in Laiza are a good example of a cultural motif that is widely distributed in the southeast Asian region.