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Dear Guru: What’s with the three-headed elephant symbol in Lao America?

This week’s burning cultural question comes in from Twitter:

What’s the deal with the three-headed elephant symbol everywhere in Lao America? 

Throughout Theravada Buddhist monarchies in Southeast Asia, the king was assumed to possess a high level of karma from previous existences in order to be born into such a high position. It was also thought that the king derived his semi-divine might as he was an incarnation of the Hindu god Indra. According to this mythology, Indra rides on the mythical multi-headed white elephant (sometimes having three or five heads), named Erawan (Airavata in Sanskrit). This elephant became a symbol for the might of the kingdom, known as Lane Xang (a million elephants). It continued as a unified kingdom until the death of Souriyavongsa in 1695, with no legitimate heir. Warring internal factions battled over who would be the next successor and ultimately divided the kingdom into three parts: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. Weakened, all three ultimately fell under Siamese control until French annexation in 1893, which reunified Laos. The symbol of the three-headed elephant continued as a symbol of Lao kingship and was on the Lao flag until the revolution in 1975. Some suggest that the three heads of the elephant even symbolize the union of the three historical kingdoms of Laos under the white umbrella of the king.

The white umbrella or parasol (chatra in Sanskrit) above the elephant also contains Hindu/Brahmin significance. These types of umbrellas were carried over high-ranking personages and a symbol of status. The more tiers in the umbrella signifies the rank, with the King having the largest umbrella at 9 tiers. Umbrellas also only had odd-numbers of tiers, as even numbers are not auspicious. Queens and crown princes would have 7 tiers. More minor royalty, such as minor wives of the king, or the consort of the crown prince would have 5 tiers. Surprisingly, Buddhist Patriarchs (Sangkharat) were only awarded a 3-tiered umbrella.

From the end of French Indochina in 1954, Laos was seen as a key front in the struggle against Communism, leading to heavy American involvement propping up the Lao royal government against the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao Communist forces. Again, Lao society was fragmented into three parts: the right-wing Royalists, the Neutralists, and the left-wing Pathet Lao. The ensuing civil war, fueled by both the North Vietnamese and the Americans, lasted for thirty years until the Pathet Lao victory in 1975. The new government deemed the three-headed elephant and white parasol to be reactionary symbols, but were maintained by the Lao royal family in exile and by some of the Lao diaspora.

To learn more about Lao history in these periods, I thoroughly recommend:

A Short History of Laos by Grant Evans

A History of Laos by Martin Stuart-Fox

The Lao Kingdom of Lan-Xang: Rise and Decline by Martin Stuart-Fox


Former flag: Kingdom of Laos

Current Flag: Lao People’s Democratic Republic

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