Working Elephants and Burmese Carpenters


Earlier this summer Jeff Burks posted an article “Elephants at Work.” The article below presents a additional look at elephants working in the timber industry and the changes already underway in the industry and the working life of Burmese carpenters.  The artwork is by an unknown Burmese artist and is part of a series of watercolors on Burmese life late in the 19th century. The descriptions were written by a missionary, possibly more than one. The series is not dated but was purchased from the original collector in 1897. The collection is from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Note: the red markings on the carpenters are traditional tattoos.

Sin-mya   Elephants

Elephants used to be numerous in all forests of Burmah; but owing to the spread of civilization, capture and slaughter, the wild elephant is rarely met in Lower Burmah. In Upper Burma, the animal is chiefly used, as in India, for state processions and in military display; but the gangs of foresters from British Burmah make a much more practical use of this creature’s enormous strength.

He is used in hauling trunks of timber to the water-courses preparatory to floating them down the rivers. In Maulmein and Rangoon, Elephants are highly trained and display wonderful sagacity in hauling and stacking timber. They move about carefully among machinery and circular Saws, and seem to calculate with great precision, the weight, position and size of the timber and logs they have to move. They lift with their tusks, grasping by a turn of their trunks over the timber. In pushing, they generally make a pad or cushion of their trunks and push against this with their tusks to prevent the ivory from chipping. An Elephant has been known to lift upon his tusks a log weighing nearly a ton; and some of them can move along logs weighing over three tons.

In height, Elephants vary 5 to 8 cubits i.e. up to 12 feet at the shoulder; and in value, from Rs. 800 to Rs. 3000 according to their strength and training. The female is not much used in timber yards as her tusks are too short to be of use in laying hold of logs and the trunk can get no purchase.

The SIN-U-ZEE, or Elephant-driver sits on the neck of the animal, and partly by his voice, but more by the touch of his feet and knees, guides the huge brute’s movements.

The Elephant never seems in a hurry, and in spite of his size, is really a very delicate creature,soon falling sick and becoming useless if not well cared for and properly fed. His food consists chiefly of Paddy i.e. undressed Rice, Sugarcane, plantains (bananas), young shoots and branches of trees, and grass.



This is the old way of converting logs for building purposes; but steam saw-mills have displaced most of the sturdy sawyers except in districts remote from the mills, or for short inferior timber, which is hardly worth taking to the mill. The SAYAH, or Teacher is above; his TABEH, or Apprentice below.

The saws used to be of native manufacture, but Sheffield and Birmingham have now the field all to themselves. Just under the log is shown the PHEH, or key, for adjusting the teeth of the Saw, and above is the KOON-JAH, or Wedge, to give the Saw free play

Two men in a little over a day, will reduce a round log of 30 feet in length to 16 inches X 15 inches square, for Rs.4/. Working hours are from 6 A.M. to 4 P.M. A circular steam Saw would do the same work in a few minutes but not at much less cost.


Burmese Carpenter

The Burmese word for “Carpenter” is “lek-tha-ma” – handi-craftsman, and to this work Burmans take most naturally. Their forests supply enormous quantities of slendid teak, pyingdo, and pyinma for boat and house building purposes; and the profuse decorations of their religious edifices allow them to display to the fullest extent their imitative powers in carving, etc. The Boat-builders get a fine seasoned log of thin-gan or chyun, split it to the heart by means of fire and wedges; then open it out, and so make the lowest part of the hull, and upon this build the sides in the ordinary way. Hulls of 35 feet made out of a single trunk are common, but there are some as long as 60 feet. The price of a well made boat (Wohn-lay) 40 to 50 feet in length, 8 feet in the beam is Rs. 2000 to Rs. 2500, i.e. £200 to £250. The tools are of European manufacture but fitted in native fashion.

Suzanne Ellison


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5 Responses to Working Elephants and Burmese Carpenters

  1. calebjamesplanemaker says:

    Nice read. 👍🏼



  2. tomwiarda says:

    In the mid 1970’s I worked in Shylett district of Bangladesh building a hospital and refurbishing some buildings. Doors and windows were made from teak and other hardwoods from the nearby forest. The contractors used elephants to drag the logs out of the forest and to load them on trucks. The elephants were well trained and responded to the handlers foot pressure behind the ears. I went went with them one day to watch the elephants work and got to ride on them while they dragged out the logs.
    The carpenters also used pit saws to rip the logs into planks. The process was exactly the same as in your old pictures.


  3. Likewise still today. When you visit Inle lake (like most tourists do) you can watch this boat yard in full swing. Pitsaws and all.


  4. The government has camps for retired elephants, but they don t have enough resources and need to give more supplementary treatments for elephants that fall ill. In the wake of the April 1 logging ban, and with nowhere else to go, many timber elephants may be released into the wild, but because of deforestation there are not enough habitats for them, the campaigner adds.


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