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Clues to elephantine mysteries are buried in ancient rocks and bones

Domesticated elephants once appeared in the streets of Phnom Penh. AFP
Domesticated elephants once appeared in the streets of Phnom Penh. AFP

Clues to elephantine mysteries are buried in ancient rocks and bones

Last month, when Sambo the elephant collapsed and died of a heart attack after 15 years of hauling tourists around Angkor archaeological park, an online petition collected thousands of signatures demanding an end to the long-running practice. The beginning of the creatures’ domestication in the Kingdom, however, remains enshrouded in mystery.

What little knowledge there is comes from a small pool of researchers who have pieced together fragmentary references to elephants discovered in bas reliefs, inscriptions and, most recently, ancient paintings.

Taken together, the clues suggest a continuum where elephants played roles not just in war making and labour, but in political theatre, diplomacy and state building. Yet the largest elephant in the room remains unaddressed.

“The big question is: when were elephants domesticated?” said Noel Tan, an archaeologist with SEAMEO, an intergovernmental organisation in Bangkok, this week. Tan is currently penning a paper about elephants and ancient paintings for an upcoming conference on Asian elephants in Sri Lanka. To that question, he said, nobody has an answer.   

“One of the problems is we don’t know when the oldest [domesticated] elephants were found,” he said. “It’s very hard to tell a domesticated elephant from a wild one just by the bones.”

According to P Bion Griffin, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who has studied ancient Cambodian elephants extensively (another archaeologist called him the “Sultan of Elephants”), no references to elephants in Southeast Asia predate the early centuries AD. More recently, they were essential.

Bas reliefs of war elephants appear inside Angkor Wat. Photo supplied
Bas reliefs of war elephants appear inside Angkor Wat. Photo supplied
 

“Elephants played prominent, even dominant roles over the last two thousand years of Southeast Asian and especially Cambodian development,” said Griffin.

The big shift was elephants’ transition from beast to idol, said Tan, a change that some researchers say may have been sparked by increased contact with India.

“At some point in time, when Hinduism and Buddhism came in, elephants became more sacred, they became a symbol of Buddhist art,” he said. Some examples are found in rock art.

There are only two known ancient painting sites in Cambodia that feature elephants, said Tan, who specialises in rock art. One of them is the Kanam site, a mosaic of nearly three dozen elephants, some with human riders, located on the ceiling of an overhanging rock in the Cardamom Mountains.

Its provenance is unknown: Some researchers estimate it to be post-Angkorian, from the 15th century, while others believe the site to be prehistoric.

In terms of its elephants, Kanam is unique. In comparison to the chiseled pachyderms at Angkor, these elephants are not involved with war or royalty.

Rather, they are just there, plainly illustrated and without any obvious reason for having been drawn, said David Latinis, whose co-authored paper on ​Kanam was published last week. Latinis speculates that the drawings depict a local tradition of capturing elephants ​for “giving or trading” them with Khmer royalty.

P Bion Griffin has studied Cambodian elephants in depth. Photo supplied
P Bion Griffin has studied Cambodian elephants in depth. Photo supplied

While little is known about elephant domestication in Cambodia’s remote areas, only marginally more is known about it at Angkor. Many archaeologists believe elephants were used in the construction of the temples, but that currently remains unprovable “without a time machine”, said Latinis. Bas-reliefs at the Bayon temple show them as pack animals.

Undoubtedly elephants were esteemed. In The Customs of Cambodia, the 13th-century Chinese envoy to Angkor, Zhou Daguan, describes a royal procession featuring the king atop an elephant with gilded tusks.

A poorly studied circular stone ruin known as Krol Romeas near Preah Khan is believed by some, including Griffin, to have been used as an elephant corral, though, again, nothing can be proven.  

Thomas Trautmann, a US historian who last August published Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History, describes in his book how pachyderms were used by rulers as diplomatic fodder, often being sent by smaller kingdoms to bigger ones as tribute. One exchange in the 14th century saw Cambodia send 28 elephants, 34 handlers and 45 slaves to the Ming Dynasty in China.

Most often, elephants at Angkor were depicted in scenarios of war. Bas reliefs show them adorned with armour, carrying weapons and soldiers off to fight. The war elephant graced Asian battlefields for the better part of three millennium​s, according to Trautmann. (The last mention he was able to find of one was in the Siamese invasion of Cambodia in 1833.)

But Tan theorises that Angkorian elephants were not used as heavily in war as many assume. “They were massively energy inefficient,” he said. “They took too much time and energy to be used as a war machine.”

Some believe Krol Romeas was once an elephant corral. Photo supplied
Some believe Krol Romeas was once an elephant corral. Photo supplied

Because elephants required enormous amounts of food and had poor stamina and maneuverability to boot, Tan believes they were used more as a potent symbol of Angkorian power than for strategic purposes on the battlefield.

There is also a history of pachyderm symbolism. One folk tale about ancient Cambodia recounts the elephant hunt of King Jayavarman III.

Unlike his father, Jayavarman III is an obscure ruler, with a legacy restricted mostly to elephants; as historian Ian Mabbett once put it: “Little is known about [Jayavarman III] except that he liked to hunt elephants.”

As the tale goes, the king and an entourage would often set out into the Kingdom’s fringes to capture elephants. But it was more than recreation.

According to an extensive paper by Ian Lowman, a historian at Brigham Young University, the hunts served “to ritually actualise the king’s extensive territorial dominion”.

They were occasions “for the sovereign to be seen travelling throughout the Kingdom accompanied by armies and retainers”; a symbolic ritual that marked Angkorian territory. 

After an elephant was captured, the hunting ground became marked, either in the minds of the locals or physically with a shrine. 

Through time, that marking transformed a land. It became Cambodian. “A space,” as Lowman wrote, “defined by what the polity had ideally subsumed: the rimland, the provincial family, and the wilderness of wild elephants.”

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