|A Chronology of Elephants and the Phaniat Kraal in Ayutthaya
Siamese history is intrinsically linked with its elephants. This prized pachyderm features strongly in the Royal Chronicles and foreign visitors have long been
mesmerized by the animal. Elephants are characters in countless folk stories and they appear on hundreds of temple murals across the country. Elephants
have been used as work animals, vehicles of war, and incorporated into religious ceremonies throughout Siamese history.
White elephants were especially highly esteemed; often seen as a Royal incarnate or an auspicious omen. The first record of a white elephant being captured
was in 1471 during the reign of King Borommatrailokanat (Amatyakul 59). The capture of white elephants continued to be featured in later Royal Chronicle
It is debatable when Siamese first began to train elephants and incorporate them into local culture. One theory is that the practice of domesticating elephants
wild elephants could have been brought into the region along with migrants from India. The Royal Chronicles points out the Brahmin priests were living in
Ayutthhaya even before King U-Thong established it as a city (Cushman 10). This could partially explain why Brahmin priests still play such an important role
in ceremonies relating to elephants - including the replacements of phallic-looking (lingam) wooden posts at the elephant kraal. In may be to no coincidence
that Siam exported so many trained elephants to India.
Elephants were domesticated in Sukhothai, the county’s first capital city, from as early as the late thirteenth century. In the second capital city of Ayutthaya,
there was a clear administrative structure pertaining to the use of elephants. H.G. Quaritch Wales (1965) writes that the Elephant Department (Krom
Gajapala) included various sub-departments including the “rope department (in charge of the equipment for capturing wild elephants), the elephant
physicians, the battalions of elephants-of-the-line, baggage elephants, artillery elephants, and the tame animals used for capturing wild elephants” (p 143).
Members of the Elephant Corp had to obey the Law of Treason, which punished them by death for desertion or neglect of duties (p 159). The Cavalry
Department (Kram Asvaraja) for horse was attached to the Elephant department, which indicated its lesser importance (p 148).
Chronology of the Kraals
Royal Chronicles first mention of elephants was in relation to a succession struggle in 1424. After the death of King Inthracha, the two elder sons, Ay
Phraya and Yi Phraya, fought on elephant back to determine who would inherit the throne. As a result, both princes were severely wounded and died from
combat. The youngest brother, Chao Sam Phraya was then proclaimed King under the title of Boromaracha II. He promptly commanded that two chedis be
built on the site where his brothers engaged in combat (Cushman 15). Both chedi can be seen today in front of Wat Racha Burana.
The original elephant kraal was located on the northeastern corner of the Grand Palace. The adjacent area stretching from Wat Thammikarat to Wat
Suwandawat is referred to as Elephant Street on M. de La Mare’s map (1751). Other maps by westerners clearly show elephant stables on this street
(Vingboons c.1665, Loubere 1691, Coronelli 1696). Traces of elephant rope and other equipment were found at one temple located on elephant street,
Wat Yan Sen.
It is assumed that the elephant kraal at Phaniat was established soon after the foundation of the city. It was built in the Tung Thalay Ya area at Ban Phaniat,
Tambon Suan Phrik (Kasetsiri/Wright 325). Both kraals functioned more or less simultaneously.
King Chakkraphat (1548-1569) placed great faith in war elephants and tried to capture as many of the animals as he could. Evidence suggests that he once
sent an envoy to China in 1553 with a white elephant as a gift, but unfortunately the animal died during passage (Garnier 16). White elephants were such a
highly valued commodity that an entire war started when King Chakkraphat refused to present a white elephant to an envious Burmese king. This became
known as the White Elephant War.
The number of elephants in old Ayutthaya has never been clear. Van Vliet estimated 400-500
tamed elephants, which were attended to by 2-3 mahouts each (Van Vliet 123). Dutch trader
Joost Schouten wrote that over 3,000 tame elephants existed in the Siamese kingdom
(Manley 136). M. de La Loubere reported that there could have been as many as 10,000 of
as many as 800 war elephants being prepared for battle at the same time (Cushman 142).
Elephants were often used to for punitive measures. A common form of capital punishment
was to have elephants trample someone to death. At other times elephants would toss a
convict into the air or roll them around like a ball. A lesser form of punishment was being sent
out to cut grass for elephants.
Kings would use elephants to deliver robes to Buddhist monks as part of the elaborate kathin
ceremony connected to Buddhist lent. The king would ride on the back of an elephant,
In 1549, the Burmese King Tabinshwehti invaded Ayutthaya. As was the practice of the
time, King Chakkraphat charged directly into battle while mounted on an elephant. He met
the leader of the Burmese army on the battlefield (northwest of the city island, in the vicinity
of Wat Phukhao Thong), and they engaged in a dual on top of elephants. One local legend
is that his wife, Queen Suriyothai, disguised herself as the king and charged into battle atop
an elephant, heroically sacrificing herself on the battlefield. Her body was cremated at Wat
Suan Luang Sopsawan. Siam won a temporary reprieve from warfare, and spent the
following year fortifying the city walls with strong brick ramparts. In 1551, King
Chakkraphat ordered an army of 15,000 to be stationed at a stockade in Phaniat (Cushman
Burmese troops returned to inflict massive damage in 1564. The newly crowned Burmese
King, Hongsawadi, led forces through Pho Sam Ton (Khlong Bang Khuat) and advanced
to the Phaniat plain. After routing Siamese troops in Phaniat, King Hongsawadi stationed
Burmese forces at Wat Sam Wihan and prepared to attack the city (Cushman 35).
While King Maha Thammaracha’s son, Naresuan, was still a prince, Khmer troops attacked
excuse to rebuilt Ayutthaya’s city walls and fortifications while still a Burmese vassal state.
Independence was finally won from the Burmese when Prince Naresuan defeated the
Burmese prince in a decisive battle while mounted on an elephant.
Prince Naresuan (1590-1605) ordered the Royal boats to take him to Phaniat, where he was
to be proclaimed king and an oath of allegiance made to him. While landing at their
destination, the rowers made a mistake. Although they were not immediately punished, King
Naresuan had them later burnt alive on the same place (near the kraal) to set an example
(Van Vliet 228).
King Naresuan continued to launch attacks on Cambodia. In 1594, he raised an army of
100,000 fully armed troops, 800 war elephants, and 1,500 horses.
M. de La Loubere noted that King Narai never walked on foot, preferring instead to board
an elephant from a scaffold. Loubere witnessed a fight between two war elephants while in
mahouts who went with them on the French ship treated the elephants as companions,
whispering farewell prayers into the animals’ ears (La Loubere p 44-47).
King Petracha (1688-1703) was the head of the Elephant Department before usurping the
throne from King Narai. His reign put an end to the Prasat Thong Dynasty, which led to
One of these revolts took place on the Phaniat Peninsula. In 1696, Master Tham Thian
pretended to be Lord Aphaithot, who was executed by King Petracha and Prince Sorasak at
Wat Khok Phraya before he could inherit the throne. Tham Thian mounted a bull elephant
and set out to falsely claim the throne.
The new Siamese capital city was first set up in Thonburi, and later moved to Bangkok.
The Royal Palace in Ayutthaya had been destroyed beyond repair, so there was no desire to
repair the elephant kraal on the city island. However, elephants continued as an important
symbol for the new Siamese capital, and so kings continued to take interest in the Phaniat
kraal during the Chakri Dynasty.
Some initial repairs on Phaniat were made by King Yodfa (1782-1809). However, King
Nang Klao (1824-1851) started to bring the old elephant kraal back to life. He placed Prince
Thepapolpak in charge of restorative work at Phaniat and also had him supervise elephant
round ups. The building on the site presently used as the Phaniat Palace may have originally
belonged to Prince Thepapolpak.
Bassenne, Marthe. In Laos and Siam. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1995 (Originally published in 1912).
Bock, Carl. Temples and Elephants: Travels in Siam in 1881-1882. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Bramley, Jane. The Relationship Existing between the Monastic and Lay Communities in Ayutthaya, Central Thailand. A thesis submitted for the degree of
PhD in the University of London, 1969.
Buls, Charles. Siamese Sketches. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1994 (Originally published in 1901).
Caddy, Florence. To Siam and Malaya in the Duke of Sutherland's Yacht. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1992 (Originally published in 1889).
Cushman, Richard. The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya. Bangkok: The Siam Society, 2000.
Garnier, Derick. Ayutthaya: Venice of the East. Bangkok: River Books, 2004.
Kaempfer, Engelbert. Itineraria Asiatica. Bangkok: Orchid Pres, 1998.
Kasetsiri, Charnvit & Michael Wright. Discovering Ayutthaya. Bangkok: Toyota Thailand Foundation, 2007.
O'Kane, John (translator). The Ship of Sulaiman. London: Routledge & Kegan, 1972.
Pallegoix, Jean-Baptiste. Descriptions of the Thai Kingdom or Siam: Thailand under King Mongkut. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2000 (Originally published in
Phulsarp, Sunjai. Ayutthaya: The Portraits of the Living Legends. Bangkok: Plan Motif Publisher, 1996.
Pombejra, Dhiravat. Siamese Court Life in the Seventeenth Century as Depicted in European Sources. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 2001.
Suthon Sukphisit. "Ayutthaya's Ancient Elephant Corral Gets a Facelift". Bangkok Post. November 1, 1988.
Van Vliet, Jeremias. The Short History of the Kings of Siam. Bangkok: The Siam Society, 1975 (Translated by David Wyatt).
Wales, H. G. Quaritch. Ancient Siamese Government and Administration. New York: Paragon, 1965.
Wyatt, David. A Short History of Thailand (2nd ed.). London: Yale University Press, 2003.
Yingyord Klangsombut. "Ayutthaya Planners on a 10-year Mission". Bangkok Post, October 3, 1996.
|Text by Ken May - January 2009
Photographs by Tricky Vandenberg - July 2008
|Downloadable PDF File
A brief history of Phaniat and it's surrounding area by Ken May
robes to Buddhist monks. The grand procession was led by 200 elephants with three mahouts each. The march also included musicians, hundreds of men on
foot, 200 Japanese soldiers, a large number of royal consorts and courtiers. In total about 15-16,000 persons participated in the procession. The kathin
ceremony was witnessed by Dutch trader Joost Schouten in the 1630s and French visitor Nicolas Gervaise in the 1680s (Pombejra 82-87).
There are two elephant kraals mentioned in Royal Chronicles. One was located at the Grand Palace (at times referred to as “Paniat Wat Tsong”). The
second elephant kraal (Phaniat) was used to capture wild elephants in the forests outside the city. Both played vital roles in Ayutthaya history.
This time the Burmese forces were succesful and King Chakkraphat had to capitulate. Siam swore Royal friendship to the Burmese, and they were forced to
surrender Prince Ramesuan as a hostage.
In the aftermath, the Siamese capital became so weak that a party of Malay rebels from Patani seized the palace for a short while in 1564 (Wyatt 81). The
Muslim leader, Phraya Suratan, defiantly mounted a white elephant in the Palace kraal, and then his troops were attacked by inhabitants with long ropes.
Many were killed while fleeing, but Phraya Suratan escaped (Cushman 49).
King Chakkraphat made one more attempt to restore Ayutthaya to its former glory, but died before it could be actualized. Invading Burmese troops
continued to form a tight siege ring around the city, digging trenches around the city moat. They also built a causeway across the old Lopburi River which
connected the Phaniat peninsula to the city island near the Pom Maha Chai Fortress. This causeway became known as Thamnop Ro, and Burmese used it
to launch more attacks.
The troops of King Mahin, who reigned for only eight months in 1569, made a powerful defensive stance at the Maha Chai Fortress. As a result of military
failure, Okya Phitsanulok, who had sided with the Burmese, fell in disfavor with the Burmese king and hid at Phaniat while petitioning for a second
opportunity to prove himself as a leader (Van Vliet 221).
Siam finally lost the war on August 8, 1569, and the city became a vassal state (Wyatt 82). The Burmese looted the city and led thousands away as war
captives. Okya Phitsanulok was installed on the throne and given the title of King Maha Thammaracha. In 1580, King Maha Thammaracha launched
enormous land development projects. Forced laborers dug a canal from the Maha Chai Fortress to the Pom Phet Fortress. Then the city walls were moved
to the eastern bank of the city island (Cushman 82). The King renovated the Thamnop Ro causeway so that it was six meters wide and made of brick. It
was then used for state purposes only. Elephant, horses, and wagons traveled from the city island to the Phaniat plain (Kasetsiri 328). King Maha
Thammaracha relocated the majority of elephants to Phaniat, where they served more strategically for defensive purposes.
The kraal at Phaniat was a huge enclosure with double walls. The outer wall was made from bricks with a raised foundation. The inner wall was comprised
of wooden pillars driven into the ground. An opening allowed elephants to pass through one by one for inspection, and pavilion in the center of the kraal
housed an image of Ganesha (Kasetsiri/Wright 323).
He also ordered an army of 15,000 to be stationed at a stockade in Phaniat (Cushman 142-143). He then set out on an elephant to attack the Khmer city,
King Songtham (1610/1613-1628) made annual pilgrimages to Saraburi, while mounted on an elephant, to visit a footprint that was believed to have been
left by Lord Buddha. King Songtham had three white elephants. While visiting Phaniat to capture more elephants, a white elephant of amazing appearance
came to him to him on its own accord. The animal was missing its right tusk and had a black spot on its coccyx. As the legend was told, a Mon Mandarin
cried upon seeing this animal. It was interpreted as an omen that King Songtham would die soon and a wicked man of lowly birth would inherit the throne.
Within a year King Songtham had been killed and his usurper, King Prasat Thong, seized the crown. The white elephant was taken captive, but died on the
same day. All those that buried the white elephant died a horrible death afterwards (Val Vliet 236-237).
King Prasat Thong (1629-1656) transferred the Elephant Department from the military division to the civil division (Wales 81). This change may have been a
tactic to maintain authoritative control. King Prasat Thong was the head of the military (kalahom) before usurping the throne, and he may have been
attempting to reduce the military clout welded by the Elephant Department.
Although the elephant kraal retained its importance, it appears to have fallen into neglect during King Prasat Thong’s reign. When Dutch traveler, Gijsbert
Heeck, visited Ayutthaya in 1655, he recalled that the elephant kraal was nearly empty. A huge number of elephants had died from a mysterious plague
sometime before his arrival. Surviving elephants were moved out of the area. This event forced the city into a panic. Elaborate ceremonies took place to
remedy the situation. A string was tied to the city walls and made to encircle the entire island. Music was played and monks chanted prayers to send the evil
King Narai (1656-1688) also place great importance on elephants. He issued a proclamation to prepare a building with an assembly hall for the performance
of Royal ceremonies by Brahmin priests at the elephant kraal. The following year a white elephant was installed at the Royal kraal with great pomp and
ceremony (Cushman 245-246). During his reign many foreigners came to Ayutthaya for maritime trade. As host, King Narai often arranged for these guests
to visit the city’s elephant kraals.
When Persian diplomat Muhammad Ibrahim visited Ayutthaya in 1665, he rode horses to the elephant camp to watch them catch wild elephants in the forest.
He noted that mahouts kept a herd of female elephants that they trained to capture wild ones. The trainers especially liked to acquire mothers that had just
given birth for this task. These females would charm bull elephants and entice them back to Phaniat, where they were then tricked into ensnarement (O’
Kane p66-68). Ibrahim also recalls a sport at Phaniat in which a group of elephants battled with a live tiger. The elephants wore leather padding on their
heads and trunk while trying to throw the tiger in the air with their tusks. During this sport, mahouts were forbidden from protecting themselves with weapons.
The game was over once the tiger escaped back into its cage (p 7-72). Ibrahm also writes about witnessing King Narai riding an elephant to a hunting
excursion, accompanied by Greek opportunist Constantine Phaulkon, and of the Persian envoy being presented with elephants as gifts – an offer that the
author wasn’t exactly pleased with and declined (p 82-83).
The cross-dressing Abbe de Choisy visited Ayutthaya as part of a French embassy (1685-1686). He writes about seeing at least 80 elephants inside the
Grand Palace, including two white elephants that had four mahouts taking care of them at all times (Choisy p161).
On route, he stopped at the Residence of the Holy Crown Metropolis (Phaniat Palace) to dress himself as Lord Aphaithot, and then Tham Thian sought
assistance from a monastery at the mouth of Khlong Chang. A group of about 500 paddy farmers were fooled, so they armed themselves for his defense.
Tham Thian maneuvered his elephant to the edge of the Monastery of the Grand World (Wat Maha Lok) and proceeded towards the Thamnop Ro
causeway in front of the Maha Chai fortress. At this point he was identified as an imposter and shot down by Prince Sorasak. King Petracha had the naïve
Siam went into a period of isolation after the fall of Ayutthaya. However, King Nang Klao’s allowed a French priest to venture inland to check up on a
group of Vietnamese Christians in Ayutthaya. Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix thoroughly documented the city at that time, including the situation of
elephants. He wrote in detail about annual roundups, the process for taming wild elephants, and the near worship of the white variety. Pallegoix also noted
that it was prohibited to kill elephants, but a small group of diehards still hunted them for their tusks anyway (Pallegoix 77-79).