Land of the White Elephant

Thailand has often been called The Land of the White Elephant by European travellers who marvelled at the high status bestowed upon these animals. But what is a white elephant and why are they so revered that wars have been fought over them ? Today we take a look at the facts and myths surrounding these magnificent and rare pachyderms.

How to Spot a White Elephant

Despite the name used by Europeans, a “white” elephant is not actually white in colour. In Thai they are known as Chang Pueak or “Albino Elephants” which is a more correct description. It is the albinism that results in the skin being paler and often with pink spots. For the Brahmin experts that inspect and decide which of four levels of perfection a white elephant belongs to, there are eight signs to look for ;

  1. The skin must be white, pink, light brown, or light grey.
  2. A white or pinkish colour around the cornea of the eyes.
  3. The roof of the mouth white or pink and un-ridged.
  4. White or pink toenails.
  5. White or light brown hair that is transparent when held up to the light.
  6. Two or more body hairs growing out of one follicle.
  7. The tail’s hair must be long.
  8. White or pink genitals.

Misunderstanding by Europeans about the auspicious signs of a white elephant has over the years led to some expensive disappointments. In 1884 Phineas Taylor Barnum, the circus entrepreneur who ran “The Greatest Show on Earth” in the USA, paid King Thibaw of Burma the huge sum of $200,000 for Toung Taloung, a Burmese white elephant, to add to his famous show. But when Toung Taloung first went on show in London on his way to the USA, the public were rather disappointed to see a rather dirty grey elephant with pick spots rather than the gleaming white beast that they had been sold tickets to see. Barnum’s rival Adam Forepaugh was more successful by simply painting a regular elephant white.

elephant drawing
P.T. Barnum’s White Elephant Toung Talong as shown in the Illustrated London News, January 26th 1884

White Elephants in Religion

The belief in the auspiciousness of white elephants is in fact common throughout India, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The belief originates in India where the Hindu god Indra is believed to have ridden upon a white elephant Airavata, known in Thailand as Erawan.

In the Buddhist tradition the Buddha Gautama was born after his mother Queen Mahamaya dreamt of a white elephant. After twenty years of childless marriage to King Suddhodana the queen dreamt that after bathing in Lake Anotatta a white elephant with six tusks appeared holding a white lotus flower in its trunk. The elephant circled her three times and then entered her womb through her right side before she woke up. Ten lunar months later she gave birth to Prince Siddharta, the future Buddha. The faithful believe that the Buddha had been residing in Tusita heaven and chose to take on the form of a white elephant to return to earth for his final birth.

thai painting
A Thai depiction of Queen Mahamaya’s dream prior to her conceiving Prince Siddhartha

So for the Thais and their neighbours the white elephant is a magnificent and auspicious animal. In the nineteenth century envoys from Siam (As Thailand was called then) travelled to England where they were honoured with an audience with Queen Victoria. They were apparently most impressed with the appearance of the Empress for they reported back to King Mongkut (Rama IV);

“One cannot but be struck with the aspect of the august Queen of England, or fail to observe that she must be of pure descent from a race of goodly and warlike kings and rulers of the earth, in that her eyes, complexion, and above all her bearing, are those of a beautiful and majestic white elephant.”

elephant and queen victoria
Queen Victoria was complemented by King Mongkut’s envoy to Britain as having the complexion and bearing of a white elephant (Left Photo by Mark Baker, AP)

White Elephants as Royal Possessions

The Thai Buddhist text Traiphum Phra Ruang, written in Sukhothai in the mid-fourteenth century, which lays out the Buddhist cosmology, describes possession of a “gem elephant” as one of the attributes of the model universal emperor. The chronicles of Ayutthaya report the first capture of a white elephant in the year 1471/72. Around the same time the Ayutthaya Palace Law was written which mandated that any white elephant found must be given to the king in exchange for rich rewards.

Royal white elephants would be kept in splendid conditions and waited upon like gods. Nicolas Gervais, a French priest who spent four years in Ayutthaya from 1683, wrote

“The duties of the keepers, who look after the elephants night and day, are quite unbelievable; they have to stay with them to look after their needs and to chase away any flies that might disturb them. As the relations [books] written before this history mention, among other things, the golden vessels from which the white elephant feeds and the way it is distinguished from the rest by the consideration which the whole court pays to it and by the honour it has of being lodged next to the king’s apartment, I shall not add anything further on this subject. “

elephant drawing
A white elephant as portrayed in a painting at Thailand’s National Gallery

On 27 July 1899, during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), the Bangkok Times reported on the imminent arrival to Bangkok of a white elephant caught in the jungles near Ubon;

About 6 a.m. tomorrow, being the ascertained lucky moment, the female white elephant caught at Oubon will be put into a train at railhead. This train will reach the Bangkok terminus about 4.45p.m., and the sacred animal will be met by a procession by which it will be accompanied through the streets. The route will be from the station to Sam Yek, and then along New Road and Worachak Road to Wat Saket. There the Brahmin priest will perform the ceremonial ablutions, and the procession will then proceed into the City. Going down the Tha Chang Road it will enter the Palace by the large gate called Weset Chaisee and the new white elephant will then be placed in the royal stables situated behind the Mahadthai Department [Interior Ministry]. After 7 p.m. His Majesty will attend the prayers which will be chanted by ten priests. On the following morning at 6.30 a.m. the King will again be present for the ceremonial bathing of the elephant, and will also go through the Brahmin ceremony of Somphot, which is supposed to bring luck. At the same time he will give the elephant its name. In the evening the Brahmin priests will sing the elephant to sleep.

White Elephant Wars

Being so highly valued it is perhaps not surprising that White Elephants have been used as a pretext for war several times.

In 1478 the Vietnamese Emperor Le Thanh Tong on hearing of a newly found white elephant in neighbouring Lan Xang requested that King Xainya Chakkaphat send to Annam “the elephant the colour of taro” so that the people there may see it. Not wanting to lose this auspicious elephant the king instead prepared a gold casket containing its nail clippings and tail hairs. But it seems that his son and Chief Minister took offence at the Vietnamese request as it could be construed as submission to the Vietnamese court. Before the gold casket was sent he substituted the contents with the elephant’s dung. When Emperor Le Thanh Tong received this insulting response he commanded his army of 180,000 men to attack Lan Xang. After heavy fighting with great losses on both sides the capital city Xieng Dong Xieng Thong (Modern day Luang Prabang) was captured and King Chakkaphat fled south and abdicated in shame.

war elephants
In SE Asia elephants were the war machines used to fight over auspicious white elephants

Eighty-five years later similar events played out between Burma and Siam. The Siamese King Phra Maha Chakkraphat in Ayutthaya was renown for the seven white elephants he possessed. The Burmese ruler King Bayinnaung, who had come to the throne after a coup in 1550, had high ambitions to expand his power but possessed no white elephants. In 1563 he sent a diplomatic mission to the Ayutthayan king presenting gifts and requesting two of the Siamese white elephants to increase friendship between the two countries. The Siamese court was split on how to respond to this unprecedented request from their old enemy. To send the elephants would appear to be a submissive gesture and a sign of weakness whereas a refusal would almost certainly bring retribution from the Burmese whose military strength was fearsome. In the end King Chakkraphat refused the request stating that if King Bayinnaung performed his kingly duties correctly then the merit accrued would result in him capturing his own white elephants. As expected the Burmese ruler took the refusal badly and led an army of 500,000 across the Three Pagodas Pass into Siam. Faced with this overwhelming force King Chakkraphat quickly agreed to peace terms presented by the Burmese, which included surrendering four white elephants, which of course left the Siamese king with one less than that which King Bayinnaung now possessed.

White Elephant Flags

A white elephant first appeared on Siam’s national flag during the reign of King Phra Phuttayotfa (Rama II) (r.1809 – 1824). After having received three white elephants he added a white elephant image into the centre of the existing flag which at the time was red with a circular chakra design.

Later during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV) (R. 1851 – 1861) the circular chakra was removed leaving just the white elephant on a red background. In 1916 King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) (r. 1910 – 1925) updated the elephant design on the flag. The elephant was now shown in ceremonial dress standing on a tiered platform and was now facing away from the flag pole.

White Elephants have appeared on Thai flags for over two hundred years

The following year King Vajiravudh introduced the modern Trairong flag of red, white, and blue stripes. It is said that the king decided on a change to the national flag after he saw a flag being flown upside down, the elephant’s legs pointing skywards. But practical difficulties with the traditional flag may also have been a factor, the design requiring expensive printing and poor quality often resulted in white elephants which were barely recognisable. The new flag was introduced soon after the king’s decision to bring Siam into the First World War alongside the nations of Britain, France, Russia and the USA. The colours of the new flag matched those of the Allies.

But white elephants were not completely banished from the nation’s flags. In fact the Siam Expeditionary Force that travelled to Europe in 1918 to support the Allied war effort carried a flag which combined the new Trairong flag with the old white elephant motif. To this day the Royal Thai Navy ensign as well as the consular flag used by Thai ambassadors around the world still include the old white elephant symbol.

White Elephant Medals

One of the highest awards that the Thai king can bestow upon people in recognition of their service to the nation is the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. This medal was established in 1861 by King Mongkut (Rama IV) and recipients are announced each year on the king’s birthday. The order consists of eight classes ranging from the Seventh Class Silver Medal of the White Elephant, up to the highest Knight Grand Cordon (Special Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant.

Some of the Badges of the Order of the White Elephant

Although the Order of the White Elephant is mainly received by government officials and civil servants of all ranks, foreigners can also be bestowed with this award. Famous foreign recipients include Queen Victoria, Earl Mountbatten, General Westmoreland and Bob Hawke.

Unwanted White Elephants

Although highly prized in Buddhist cultures, for Westerners the term White Elephant has come to mean something quite different as captured in the dictionary definition;

“A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value.”

This idea seems to have come from Europeans in Siam during the mid-nineteenth century and by the twentieth century it had become common terminology for expensive but useless objects. But in reality there is no record of a Siamese king gifting a highly valued and auspicious white elephant in order to ruin an over-ambitious noble.

White Elephants during the Chakri Dynasty

Since the founding of Bangkok and the start of the current Chakri dynasty a total of 74 white elephants have been verified.

chart of elephants
White elephants verified during each reign of the Chakri dynasty

The most magnificent white elephant of all during this period was perhaps “Phra Sawet Adulyadej Pahon” pictured with King Bhumipol at the head of this article. Originally caught in Krabi province in 1956 he was estimated to be 5 years old at the time. He was first presented to the king on 10th February 1958 as the first white elephant of the reign. Originally kept at Dusit Zoo he was later moved to Chitralada Palace and finally Klai Gan Won Palace in Hua Hin where he passed away on 3rd April 2010.

King Bhumipol’s other white elephants were held in various royal stables including Dusit Palace in Bangkok, Klai Gan Won Palace in Hua Hin, Phuphan Palace in Sakon Nakhon and the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang. During his reign steps were taken to modernize the treatment of the white elephants, without detracting from the exalted status that tradition affords them. Reforms included more exercise, revision of medical procedures and dietary improvements.

The most recent white elephant to be found in Thailand is the 36 year old Plai Ekachai from Krabi. He is the first white elephant to be verified during the reign of King Vajiralongkorn (Rama X) and currently resides at an elephant conservation centre in Maha Sarakham.

white elephant
Thailand’s most recently verified white elephant, Plai Ekachai
(Photo by Alex Marine Junyatanakorn)

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  1. Harding, Les. Elephant Story: Jumbo and P.T. Barnum Under the Big Top . McFarland Books.1999
  2. Rajanubhab, Prince Damrong. Our Wars With The Burmese. Thai-Burmese Conflict 1539 – 1767. White Lotus. 2001.
  3. Baker, Chris and Pongpaichit, Pasuk. A History of Ayutthaya. Cambridge University Press. 2017.
  4. Leonowens, Anna. The English Governess at the Siamese Court. 1870. Reprinted by Chalermnit.

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