Back in the days, Laos was known as Lan Xang, “the land of a million elephants.” Laos was then home to many elephants. In 1960, there were 1 million elephants; 3,000 in 1980; and today, there are less than 800 of them; 400 in the wild, 400 in captivity.
For our Shop Talk series this time, we take you to MandaLao Elephant Conservation, an elephant sanctuary just outside of Luang Prabang, where we were lucky enough to spend some time with their elephants and Iearn more about elephants in real life but also elephants in Lao textiles!
As you know, there are many ethnic groups in Laos and most groups use textiles to showcase their cultural beliefs and traditions. Lao textiles are rich in symbols and motifs. They highlight Lao stories. Instead of writing it down, Lao people weave these stories into textiles.
Motifs link the human and spirit worlds. They can also tell you if a person is married, his/her ethnic group, and where he/she comes from. Some motifs are animals borrowed from legends and stories. One famous character in Lao textiles is the siho … which means “lion elephant”.
What does a siho look like, you ask? Well, the Siho is part lion and part elephant, so it resembles … well, partly a lion, partly an elephant. The siho lives in the forest. Its lion part makes it strong and fierce. And its elephant part speaks to carefulness, patience and kindness.
You will see siho woven mostly into wedding blankets. Strength and patience are fundamental in a marriage, right?
Elephants are also important in Buddhism, the main religion of Lao people. Elephants are a sign of respect and faith. They are symbols of giving alms, mindfulness, acceptance and tolerance. Many times, you will see siho in prayer flags in a temple. The siho is woven into the prayer flag as a way of asking for strength and patience in life.
Take our Prayer Flag with Five Sihos wall hanging, it features ikat woven squares with a Siho. This beautiful and powerful motif is carrying a bird and flowers. This striking wall hanging features both ikat and supplementary weft weaving techniques. It is believed that the reeds woven into the flags will help carry the wishes of the weaver on the winds and pervade all things. This prayer flag was woven by Mrs. Daphone, ‘Nin’ to her friends, one of the original Ock Pop Tok weavers. Over the last 20 years, she has fine-tuned her weaving skills and now, a Master Weaver, she has trained younger weavers in Laos.
But life is changing for people and for elephants. During our trip to MandaLao, we learned that their 13 elephants, aged between 3 and 60, were rescued from riding tourist attractions and logging camps. In their new home, they are offered a dignified and comfortable life in harmony with nature.
But with borders still closed in Laos, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know when elephant eco-tourism projects like MandaLao will be able to open again and begin to generate the income needed to ensure that elephants get the food, medical and mahout care they need.
Visit MandaLao’s website to learn more about their work and how to support their elephants in those trying times.