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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

Have a burning question for Guru? Ask anything related to Laos, culture and history. We’ll get them answered via our in-house knowledge experts who are scholars and historians of Laos. Send questions to 


  1. To Every Lao, it will be a plus to read and know our own national symbol, both old and new. Must be proud
    to learn, know, and love our own entity.

  2. Khamnhok Phonsavanh says

    The meaning of the tricephale elephant was actually stipulated in the constitution of the kingdom of Laos. The white parasol referred to the seven chapters of the constitution. The tricephale elephant referred to the undivisible union of the three kingdoms of Champassak in the South, Vientiane in the center, and Luang Prabang in the North. The five steps underneath of the elephant referred to the Buddhist Five Precepts. And the red colour referred to the blood of Lao ancestors and patriots who have made the ultimate sacrifices to found and protect the Nation and the Territorial Integrity of the Country.

    In short, the tricephale elephant on the five-step pedestral, under the white parasol with the red colour cloth meant, the Kingdom of Laos is founded on the Buddhist Five Precepts as its foundation and it is a Democratic and Constitutional Monarchy governed by the seven chapters of the Constitution.

    The Constitution of the Kingdom of Laos was aporoved by the National Assembly of Represebatives and promulgated on May 11, 1947.

    • Kahn Souphanousinphones says

      @Khamnhok Phonsavanh you got good points. When I was a grade school kid back in Laos we were told that the steps/tiers that three heads elephant stood on is signified in this order: Nation, Religion (Buddhism), King, Constitution and then People. I found it weird that religion is above King. Thailand follows same concept and order of significant. King will bow to the monk but not followed the constitution. No wonder that communists hated royal clans.

  3. Alex Sirivath says

    How does the current government feel about the three headed elephant flag? Are we allowed to wear apparel with the three headed elephant in Laos?

    • Kahn Souphanousinphones says

      @Alex Sirivath I don’t think Lao government care. That is systematically try to get you in jail or ban you from entering their country. The people there (Lao Daeng) who fought war and have family hurt or casualty of war probably care more and thought that you were insulting them.

      While don’t you wear one, do vlog, and find out. I’m curious also.

  4. Alex Sirivath says

    @kahn I’ve been back to Laos several times and have made many friends there. I’ve heard some care and will take you to jail. Also some don’t. I would rather not risk it and insult the current party or people residing there.

  5. The Laounge says

    I’ve been back several times I never saw anyone wear that symbol on a shirt or anything else but I wouldn’t wear it either you never know and don’t want to find out what might happen. Oddly enough they still fly the old flag of the Soviet Union, the red one with the yellow sickle.

  6. Khannhok Phonsavanh says

    Wearing any symbols associated with the former system of government in Loas right now is not advisable; it’s taking unnecessary risk.

    The flag that they are flying along with the current national flag is not of the former Soviet Union’s. It is the flag of communism.

  7. Know Your Roots says

    Great article — this should be a required read for anyone wanting to get the Kindgom of Laos tattoo.

    More young Lao folks should truly understand what the 5 Buddhist Precepts actually means under the Kingdom of Laos flag before getting tattoos or wearing t-shirts that represent it as well.

    It’s great you want to “represent” Laos Pride, but why not learn about the history from you elders first?

    Too many ‘thugs’ out there are representing for the sake for representing, giving a bad name for what 3-headed elephant even means. One Black guy even asked my cousin — is that a ‘gang’ symbol? No, it’s a symbol of the opposite — non-violence!

    If you’re going to post selfies on Instagram of your 3-headed elephant Kingdom of Lao tattoos while you are smoking a joint or drinking a Heineken, at at least study your history first! Don’t represent for for the sake of representing! Know your Lao roots and history first!

    One of the Buddhist Five Precepts law is to avoid being drunk (intoxication) or engaging in ‘slutty’ behavior (sexual misconduct). it does not matter if you were/are a monk or not. The law apply to all Lao people.

    One disturbing trend among Lao men today, I see young Lao men today doing — drinking beer every evening, smoking weed, getting drunk, and talking about sex 24/7 while wearing the Kingdom of Laos flag (a symbol of peace and respect). You are totally contradicting the meaning of the Laos Kingdom flag and insulting to what the elephant means, or what Buddhist laws even are.

    As much I hate to say this, but it’s no wonder the Commies don’t want these type of Lao men to represent Laos. I just wish we can see the 3-headed elephant back in Laos again — but first, everyone should know their history — and unite kon Lao again!

  8. Alan says

    Hello I was wondering what the Buddhist symbols of the Trident and Flaming Wheel mean. They are often seen on military insignias of the Royalists. Thank you.

    • Souky says

      The wheel normally signified the chakra, which means engine/power. Each spoke in the wheel stands for codified teaching/rule that they observed. Think of chakra as an atomic energy.

      The use of chakra sign is prevalent in SE Asia culture since they influenced by the Ramayana story, an Hindu epic tale.

  9. Anonymous says

    The insignia of the Royal Lao Armed Forces is rooted in the Ramayana legend, not Buddhism. The insignia includes the Trident and the Flying Rowel (not flaming wheel). These two weapons are the two most powerful weapons of Lord Vishnu, one of the Trinity of Hinduism. Before Buddhism, Animism and Hinduism were widely practiced in Laos.

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