Wednesday, September 05, 2007


In the story of the Buddha, the white elephant is connected to fertility and knowledge. On the eve of giving birth to the Lord Buddha, his mother dreams that a white elephant comes to present her with a lotus, symbol of purity and knowledge.

The white elephant is not an ordinary elephant. It had sacred powers. It was the mount of the war god. It brought fertility. The Royal White Elephants were not taken to war and not ridden in processions. They were kept within the confines of the palace, entrusted to the care of senior officials, fed well, washed regularly, and worried over constantly.

For the kings of Burma, Siam, Laos and Cambodia -- the possession of these sacred beasts became very important because their rule depended on it. A king who had many fine white elephants would be successful and his kingdom would prosper. If his white elephants died, it foretold disaster for the king and his kingdom.

The Burmese King, Thibaw, made his last effort to revive his most favorite white elephant. Although it is clearly dying, he showered it with gold and precious stones. He decked diamonds on its forehead to ward off evil spirits. They set more diamonds on its tusks and even imported a mirror from France just for the elephant. But the poor animal still died. The next year – the British took over Burma and deposed Thibaw – the last Burmese king.

The Lao Kingdom suffered a similar fate. This time, the kingdom fell under the communists. The king was detained in a labor camp and his white elephant was put away in a zoo – the king died a few years later. He was the last Lao king. Why did his kingdom fell while his white elephant is still living? – A Royal Thai officer got the chance to see the white elephant in the 1970’s and after strict assessment; he found out that the Lao king’s white elephant does not meet all the major characteristics of a Royal white elephant mentioned in the ancient texts!

In the Kingdom of Cambodia, the last white elephant was seen and taken picture in the royal palace during the1960's. After that, civil war in the Kingdom took place for many years and nobody have seen or heard any thing about the white elephant ever since.

The Kingdom of Siam had different fate. The Royal white elephants endured and the kingdom continued to prosper and remained sovereign in the era of colonialism. Ancient Siamese laws required that all white elephants captured or born in captivity be registered and presented to the king. This law is still applicable up to this day. This is to make sure the Thai kingdom survives and continue to flourish.

White elephants are rare today and even if they are found, they have to pass the strictest characteristics of a true Royal White Elephant. If the legend of the white elephant and the powers it instill to a monarch is NOT at all true – why does history back it up?


COMING UP: "Characteristics of a True White Elephant"

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Carrie Puyat said...

Very interesting indeed. I like this post.

diwata said...

just yesterday i was having some last word syndrome... lol erawan i dunno....

John Halcyon von Rothschild said...

Whoa! Thank you for this post. I really didn't know White Elephants existed. Wow. You just blew my mind away. I thought they were a myth like unicorns

Pisanu for BISEAN said...

@ Diwata...yeah, Erawan is the elephant ridden by Lord Brahma. Hey! I thought you're on holiday or something?

@ John (I love your full name dude), yeah, white elephants exists. It's rare, but our king has lots of them. And I see some in Sri Lanka and India too.

moo_t said...

I believe the white elephant has the ability to reveal one kingdom wisdom.

The Burmese king story tell us that the king is a ignorant, that make the elephant as a "lucky charm" than ruling the country properly and invest on human capital. Golds and precious stone doesn't fall from sky, it must be exploited from the people.

On the other hand, the Thai King choose to spare the white elephant and let them live in the wild than becoming a royal lucky charm.

And that's the power the white elephant. :)

diwata said...

Am just here, I was back like 2 or like 3 weeks ago. ahh gosh speaking of Holiday... I am still having some hung over with that. uhg.

I love the word Erawan, as I always see it in some Thai noodle brand or like Thai restaurant.

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