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War Elephants, Aura, and Agency: The Study of Animal Commemoration and Nation-Building in Vietnam

  • Author(s): Hamratanaphon, Chari
  • Advisor(s): Schwenkel, Christina
  • et al.

Elephants are significant animals in Vietnamese war history. One can see this with elephant statues, which are installed in certain temples for commemoration. In this regard, this research aims to study the role of elephant commemoration practice within spatio-temporal contexts to understand the relationship between people, objects, and animal patriotic imaginaries in Vietnam. It does so through the application of Benjamin’s concept of aura and Gell’s concept of social agency. Voi Phục Temple and Voi Ré Temple are the main research sites in this field study, which also included interviews and participant observation as methods of data collection. The research found that elephant commemoration does not blur the boundary between human-object and human-animal worship, but introduces a new hierarchy of respect and a new form of practices toward sacred objects. Certain animal statues, like elephants, maintain their secondary agency, which is transmitted from the power of human deities. The agency has a spiritual, historical, and political effect on worshippers. Moreover, I suggest that the aura of a ritual object is not inherently created through the authentic production process or the object itself, as Benjamin suggests, but is socially constructed and interpreted by worshippers, influenced by the historical imaginaries and the sacred environments of the temples. The mythical and historical narratives involved in creating the aura and agency of the elephant statues are tied to Vietnamese nation-building process, while other external factors, like gender and generation of the worshippers, also affect the meanings and attitudes toward ritual objects. Studying the diverse roles and meanings of elephants not only offers deeper insights into Vietnamese animal symbolism, but also provides an alternative understanding of Vietnamese society on the whole.

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