A Si Satchanalai Figurine in the Form of an Elephant with a Rider and Keepers

A Si Satchanalai Figurine in the Form of an Elephant with a Rider and Keepers

Contributed by By Atthasit Sukkham, Assistant Curator, Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum of Bangkok University, Thailand

Late Si Satchanalai figurine in the form of an elephant with a rider and keepers, Si Satchanalai (Pa Yang) kiln, Sukhothai, 16th century
(Photo courtesy of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum of Bangkok University)

One of the most fascinating ceramic displays in the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum at Bangkok University has to be a Si Satchanalai figurine in the form of an elephant with a rider and keepers. This figurine was found at the well-known “Tak-Omkoi” archaeological site in the Thanon Thong Chai Mountain Range bordering Myanmar (formerly Burma). This site was believed to be the trading station and the burial site of some ethnic groups who had gathered forest products and made contact with Sukhothai (1238–1438), Lanna (1292–1776) and Ayutthaya (1350–1767) Kingdoms. This figurine was donated by Mr Surat Osathanugrah (1930–2008), the founder of Bangkok University.

This figurine was formed by hand and decorated by applying appendages together with incising to show the details of the elephant and the six human figures. Green glaze covered almost the entire piece, except for the base. Its attributes, especially the form and glaze, suggest that the figurine was produced at Pa Yang village of the Si Satchanalai kiln site during the 16th century, the last phase of ceramic production there. The kiln during this phase was a cross-draft brick-built kiln located along the Yom River north of Si Satchanalai or Sawankhalok city, one of dependent cities earlier controlled by the Sukhothai Kingdom that was later incorporated into the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

Based on comparative studies of the royal chronicles, ancient knowledge of elephant handling, and mural paintings found in the halls of Buddhist temples from the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods, they suggested that the relationship between kings and elephants, even horses or cattle, was very close. The kings usually led the capture of wild elephants, even the rarer white elephants, and reared them to be used as land transportation, means of combat in war, or even as gifts for establishing diplomatic relations with other kingdoms.  The kings had permitted the aristocrats and other civilians to possess elephants and, in turn, these elephants were sometimes presented to the kings as pledges of loyalty.

Based on the historical evidence mentioned, each human figure was identifiable: the man wearing a headdress sitting on the saddle on the elephant’s back was assumed to be a very important person; the man sitting on the elephant’s hip as a keeper and the four men likely carrying swords in sheaths beside the elephant’s legs as warriors. Hence, this Si Satchanalai piece in the form of an elephant with a rider and keepers represented one mode of transportation in royal or aristocratic circles.

Because of its condition, meaning and artistic value, this figurine was considered to be one of the masterpieces on display in the permanent exhibition portion of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum, highlighting the history of Southeast Asian ceramics and its trade.

The Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum, Bangkok University, Pathum Thani is opened on Monday to Friday, 10am till 4pm with free admission and closes on Saturday and Sunday, public holidays and semester break periods of Bangkok University. For further information, please visit http://museum.bu.ac.th/en.

Further Reading:
Brown, R. M. (2009). Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum, Bangkok University. Bangkok University Press, Pathum Thani.
Pitiphat, S.  (1992). Ceramics from the Thai-Burma Border. Thai Khadi Research Institute, Thammasat University, Bangkok.
Sukkham, A. (2018). Si Satchanalai figurines: reconstruction of ancient daily life, beliefs, and environment in Siam during the sixteenth century. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 22(4), pp 800–842. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10761-017-0449-7