By Lisa Barrett
While you may be familiar with the term “white elephant” as a label for a rare item that is no longer useful to its owner, did you know that there are also real white elephants? Their existence was one of the hundreds of new things I learned upon moving to Thailand for my research assistantship with Think Elephants International!
Although something of a misnomer, white elephants, also known as chang phueak or pink elephants, are not actually white. Often they are incorrectly called “albino elephants” rather than the proper term, chang samkhan, which means “auspicious elephant.” Another surprise to Westerners who use the phrase “white elephant” to describe an odd, impractical object, is that white elephants are not considered to be impractical or worthless in Thai culture. On the contrary, they are used as a symbol of power by royalty, and one white elephant used to be featured on the flag of Siam (1855-1917). In fact, possession of a white elephant was a sign of great virtue and wealth.
Flag of Siam (1855-1917).
One Thai monarch established the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant which included many different “grades” of whiteness. Only palace experts can deem an elephant to be “white,” classify the elephant into one of four families that live in mythical forests, and rank them hierarchically based on seven criteria. Historically, kings of Thailand often presented white elephants as a way to impress rivals while simultaneously imposing financial and physical burdens on the gift-receiver. White elephants were so sacred, that they could not be put to work or given away, and as with all elephants, they were very expensive to take care of. Hence, Westerners interpreted a “white elephant” as being a valuable item that cannot be disposed of and which is not often worth its maintenance costs.
A Royal white elephant as depicted in a Thai painting.
Interestingly, the tradition of white elephants originally derives from a story about the birth of Buddha. His mother dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower (a symbol of wisdom and purity) on the eve of her giving birth. Today, the King of Thailand keeps a few white elephants. Although Thailand’s auspicious elephants used to live in cramped quarters in Chitralada Palace in Bangkok, today they each have their own open-air quarters and night stalls.
His Majesty the King of Thailand and his white elephant, Phra Savet Adulyadej Pahon.