White Elephant Sale

Statues of White Elephants
Statues of White elephants guard the entrance to a temple in Myanmar.

In Myanmar (Burma), the white elephant is highly respected as a symbol of power and prosperity and so it was only natural that a few months ago Myanmar’s government warmly welcomed two newly found white elephants. At the same time, the country was awarded chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for 2014, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit ended 50 years of political isolation from the West. Coincidence? The people in Myanmar don’t think so.

The elephant has for centuries been a symbol of Southeast Asian countries. Maharajas sent them to battle like living tanks, and workmen used them as bulldozers. The rare “white” elephant, though, holds a special place in the lore of these countries.

A white elephant is unloaded
A white elephant is unloaded from a transport to take its place of honor near a temple in Myanmar.

While other elephants worked hard, white elephants were cherished by kings, kept in palaces, cared for by senior officials, and worried over constantly. Possession of these sacred beasts was very important. A king who had many white elephants would reign for a long time and his kingdom would prosper. If his white elephants died, it was an omen of disaster for the kingdom.

Burmese kings would hunt for these special beasts, and would present them to each other as marks of diplomacy. Sometimes they fought over them, but they always took great care of them—their rule depended on it.

As elephants were used less and less in warfare, elephant hunts became less common, and fewer white elephants were discovered. In Siam (now Thailand), the King decreed that any white elephant found must be given to him and he offered rewards for their discovery. Each time a white elephant was found, it was cause for public celebration.

When King Mongkut of Siam heard that America had no elephants, he offered to send several to President Lincoln, thinking that if conditions were right they would multiply and Americans would be able to “tame and use them as beasts of burden, making them of benefit to the country.” The President replied that the American climate was probably unsuitable, and Americans preferred to use steam power, but he thanked the king for his gift of two magnificent tusks.

Brahman texts list attributes which must be met to qualify the animal as a true “white” elephant—pearl eyes (the animal is usually an albino), white hoofs, a back which hangs down like the bough of a banana tree, white hairs on the body and tail, and ears which are larger than a regular elephant’s.

Today, in Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Thailand, white elephants are pretty much nonexistent. In Myanmar, with the two new white elephants, the country now has at least five. They are considered sacred, and treated with the utmost respect and care. At certain times of the day, the public may view the elephants. No photos are allowed.

With its new found popularity, Myanmar is on its way to becoming a major tourist destination. Tourist numbers are going up and so are prices. Now is the time to visit this fascinating country while it is still pristine and take advantage of The California Native’s “White Elephant” Sale.

California Native, Ellen Klein, serving rice to monks in Myanmar.
California Native, Ellen Klein, serving rice to monks in Myanmar.

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