Birth No. 85 – 7 March 2023
We are all excited to welcome to the world Number 85! Little boy born this morning 12.18am to Pang Chommanad. This is her 5th baby! Mum and baby doing very well. He has been named Petch Siam.
Plai Petch Siam (พลายเพชรสยาม): The Elephant That Carries the Jewels of Siam
Petch Siam literally means the ‘Jewel of Siam’, since ‘petch’ (เพชร) means jewel or gemstone or precious stone or semiprecious stone. The relationship between gemstones and elephants must be placed primarily within the context of ancient trade. From past to present, elephants have always been traded. But, here, the topic narrows down to the elephant being used for the transportation of prized merchandise, and the elephant’s role in the protection and insurance of expensive items. There are very few instances in which the elephant’s role as carrier of precious (and semiprecious) stones features in written records, let alone in works of art. And yet, we do know that such a role was highly valued, involving protective measures to keep any harm from coming to the carrier elephant, even though the pieces of verifiable evidence concerning this specific role of the elephant remains few and far between (with much of that evidence lost and destroyed, as dictated by the conditions of history, both ancient and modern). To add to the challenge of study is the need to understand the qualities that the carrier elephant must possess. And these qualities must be the result of careful selective breeding. Therefore, an intensely interdisciplinary approach is needed to piece together the different sets of information that will come together to provide a bigger picture of “Plai Petch Siam”, the elephant whose role and service is to carry the jewels of the land.
The ancient city of U Thong was located in the present-day district of U Thong in Supan Buri Province. U Thong is believed to be the capital of the empire of Dvaravati. The Sanskrit name of Dvaravati features (in an alternative spelling form) in records dating back to 396 BC (2,419 years ago). These records were supposedly written by a Chinese monk by the name of Jin Hong. Archaeological evidence suggests that human settlements in the immediate zone of U Thong date back to the New Stone Age and the Metal Age.
In times that followed, during the era dating back 2,000 years, archaeological evidence suggests that U Thong maintained trade relations with cultures to the west of the region, such as those in the present-day countries of India and Greece, as well as the Romans and other Mediterranean cultures that conducted maritime trade with Southeast Asia and China. U Thong is situated along the Jorakhae Samphan River, which means that the location of the ancient city was not far from the sea. And, therefore, U Thong provided convenient contact with the outside world. Among the archaeological evidence of traded products that has survived the test of time — apart from metallic objects, ceramics, axes, spears and spinning wheels — are beads. According to scholarly literature, the beads of U Thong are divided into four categories:
- Beads made from ceramics, bones, and shells;
- Beads made from gemstones (precious and semiprecious stones), such as carnelian, agate, rock crystal, quartz, and other green stones with jade also falling into the green classification;
- Beads made from glass;
- Beads made from metal, most of which are golden beads.
One can almost say that the way of beads was the way of U Thong. For the ancient people of the region, beads were far, far more than decorative items. Beads served as charms that embodied sacred powers, especially following the speaking of spells and enchantments upon the beads concerned. In such cases, beads would have been regarded as equivalent to living and breathing beings, treated with great care, caution and respect. These are the beads that would have been used in ceremonies or for ritualistic purposes.
Since beads were such highly valued objects, they were used as a means of exchange, much like units of currency. Beads were also proudly stored (and exhibited) in private collections. Very importantly, beads were a major status symbol. The more beads an individual had in their possession, the more power and status they were believed to hold.
Even the beads themselves were assigned to different levels within the bead hierarchy. There were high-level beads and low-level beads and everything in-between. What properties defined bead hierarchy? There are two lines of thought: rarity and beauty. The greater the difficulty of sourcing, the higher up the hierarchy that bead would be placed; in other words, increasing levels of rarity of the materials would be the aim here for purposes of showing off. And, of course, the more beautiful, the higher up the hierarchy that bead would be placed. The wearer of beads would exhibit what would have been considered the suitable levels of beads accurately reflecting their social status.
As for the elephant that would take on the role and service of transporting these precious items, it is important to note that nothing rules out the possibility that carrier elephants would be wild-caught. However, the reason behind the general rule that wild-caught elephants would not have been preferred for these transportation duties is that wild-caught would have been more difficult to train. And this is the training of an elephant for a specialised purpose, which is the transportation of merchandise of exclusive status. In this particular case, exclusive status means that there is an especially high commercial value attached to the brand and marketing of the product in question (beads being one such example).
Therefore, carrier elephants must have the kind of personality and temperament which would have allowed them to be easily trained, which accounts for why wild-caught elephants wouldn’t have been suitable candidates. Traders of precious items (gemstones included) simply could not afford to use carrier elephants with zero or minimal background of harmonious interaction and cohabitation with humans. While it wouldn’t have been possible for even the very finest elephants to be well behaved at all times, traders would have needed at least some form of contractual guarantee (which is where ancient insurance companies would enter the picture) that their carriers would deliver their products safely and in unaltered condition. This means that the carrier elephant would have to be a proper gentleman or lady, most likely one that had been selectively bred to bring out the calm, peaceful, friendly qualities as much as possible, even if the parents themselves were wild-caught.