He was slowly dying. The ornate French mirror beside him reflected his splendor—mantled in diamonds 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
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.
Click Here for information on our Myanmar (Burma) Tours.