The California Native International Adventures

Since 1983

From The California Native Newsletter:

The White Elephant

By Lee Klein
He was slowly dying. The ornate French mirror beside him reflected his splendor—mantled in diamondsView of Chan Chan and jewels, golden umbrellas shielding him from the sun.

This was not King Thibaw, monarch of Burma, but his favorite white elephant. If the elephant died, plagues, earthquakes or floods could ravage the country. The dreaded disasters never came—instead the British deposed the king. January 1, 1886, Burma became part of British India.

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.

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.

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.

Today, in Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Thailand, white elephants are pretty much nonexistent. In Myanmar (formerly Burma), a white elephant was captured in the dense forests of the western part of the country in November of 2001, followed by another in May of 2002. Both were hailed with great excitement, as omens of peace and prosperity for the country. They are now kept in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), considered sacred, and treated with the utmost respect and care. At certain times of the day, the public may stand in a nearby pavilion and view the elephants. No photos are allowed.

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