The Rich Tradition of Thailand’s Ivory Carving

The “white elephant” (white only in some areas of the body) is sacred in Thailand. To classify it as sacred, an elephant should also be genteel in demeanor. If an elephant meets these criteria, it will belong by law to the King of Thailand.

Other elephants were very important in Thai life. They were used in war, transport, and work. The ban logging in 1989 left many elephants unemployed. However, their use to humankind did not cease. Today, both Asian and African elephants are near-extinction largely because the ivory trade. Together with habitat loss, these were the major causes of the steep decline. In 2001, Thailand was reported to have more than more than 88,000 worked ivory items for sale. These items were smuggled in from Africa, Myanmar and China.

Ivory carving in Thailand was done through hand tools such as saws, files, chisels, gauges, farmers, awls, and drills until the late 1970s. The need for mass production to meet a higher demand led ivory workshops to use electric tools such as ban saws, grinders, lathes, and buffers.

Buddhas, animals, and King Rama V are the three subjects done only by a skilled Thai master carver. Most Thai craftsmen, which include women, specialize in specific tasks or subject. It should be noted though that versatility is an important characteristic of skilled carvers. In Thai ivory carving, the best raw ivory is used for the larger figurines, carved tusks and name seals. The poorest ivory is for pendants, amulets, necklaces, and rosary beads; whereas the good ones are used for the bangles and carved bracelets.

Popular aesthetic sculptures in Thailand are composed of religious subjects such as the Buddha, various mythological creatures, chess pieces, and bindings for palm-leaf Buddhist scriptures. Notable examples of these were carved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were housed in the National Museum in Bangkok. These best pieces were carved by craftsmen from the royal palace or those patronized by powerful families.

They say the quality of Thai ivory carving declined as consumers shifted from royalty and the noble class to tourists and businessmen. A large part of this is due to pressure on meeting higher demand but with small amount of time allotted on every piece. This was the result of mass production where priority is placed on quantity and not on quality. Before, craftsmen spend months carving a single piece using hand tools. Mass-market electric tool reduced the time, at the same time the attention a carver spends on individual items.

To date, there are about 2,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand. However, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a worldwide ban on ivory trade. Locally, the government also implemented the “Elephant Law” that protects the specie from near-extinction. With an extensive international and local pressure to ban ivory sales, livelihoods of around 120 carvers in the country adversely affected. For instance, the shift from ivory to cow bone carving decreased the income of one workshop from an average of $500 a month to $150 a month.

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