The following firsthand account of a Burmese white elephant comes from British journalist and colonial administrator James George Scott’s 1882 book, The Burman: His Life and Notions.
“In his young days [the white elephant] was suckled by women, who stood in a long row outside his palace, and the honour was eagerly sought after… A hundred soldiers guard his palace, and the Sovereign of the Golden Throne himself makes offerings and pays him reverence… Every day he is bathed with scented sandal water, and all his vessels and utensils are made of gold. Troupes of the palace coryphées dance for his pleasure, and there are choruses of sweet-voiced singers to lull him to sleep.”
In the West, the term ‘white elephant’ denotes a valuable yet burdensome possession that cannot be disposed of. This originated from apocryphal 19th century tales of Siamese monarchs bestowing lesser white elephants (such as a mottled animal) to wayward rivals. Unable to give away the elephant for fear of offending the monarch, yet forbidden to have the sacred animal work to offset the enormous cost of feeding it, the recipients of such gifts – unless they were fabulously wealthy – would inevitably go bankrupt.
Expecting snow-white pachyderms, Western visitors to the courts of Burma and Siam in the 18th and 19th centuries often decried the pinkish, yellow, or grey ‘white elephants’ they saw as frauds. The English term ‘white elephant’, however, is a bit of a misnomer: the Burmese “hsin pyi taw” roughly translates to “royal elephant” and the Thai “chang phuek” denotes something closer to “albino elephant”.
White elephants today
The Thai royal family is thought to have at least ten white elephants in its possession. These elephants, which are rarely seen in public, might soon be joined by another – in April of this year, a young white male was spotted in the country’s Kaeng Krachan National Park.
With Laos’ last white elephant dying in Vientiane Zoo in 2010, Myanmar is now the only place where one can easily see these sacred animals.
Both Myanmar and Thailand currently possess more white elephants than at any time in history. Some see this as a sign of both countries’ promising futures; others believe that technological advancements and widespread deforestation are making it easier to flush out these pale creatures.
The 2nd century Buddhacharita and the 3rd century Lalitavistara Sutra both describe the Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya, dreaming of a white elephant bearing a lotus flower entering her side on the eve of her son’s conception. In the Jataka, a 4th century BCE (before common era) text that details the Buddha’s 547 previous lives, the Buddha appears as both a magical white elephant and a humble white elephant-owning prince. These tales are frequently depicted in temple murals throughout Southeast Asia.
Buddhism’s white elephants are likely inspired by Airavata, the multi-headed white elephant mount of Indra, Hinduism’s lord of heaven. Airavata appears in Indian epics such as the 9th century BCE Mahabharata and the 5th century BCE Ramayana.
19th century scholars often stated that living white elephants are one stage removed from enlightenment. To possess one of these animals, they claimed, is to possess the presence of a Buddha-to-be.
According to Burmese and Thai tradition, there are four grades of white elephant, identifiable by their physical and mental attributes. Among other things, the highest grade must shake their food free of dirt and insects before eating, and they ought to have a uniformly lotus bud pink complexion, pale eyes, well-formed tusks, white hairs, 20 instead of the usual 18 toenails and bodies that turn reddish when wet.
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