THE ROYAL WHITE ELEPHANTS
privileged enough to meet a white elephant has been impressed.
In 1895, one forthright Englishman commented in his journal
(for private circulation only): The romantic descriptions
have no counterpart in the reality, and the white elephant
himself proves to be more or less a 'fraud .' He is not
white at all, but dust colored. The expert tries to persuade
(one) that the color is somewhat ashy, and draws attention
to the pink eyes, and to the white toe-nails. But all in
One can only wonder at how this gentleman-assuming
he ever dared utter such heinous opinions-must have exasperated
his Siamese hosts. Pity them their task. How on earth does
one set about justifying a white elephant to an Englishman
of all people?
White elephants had, however, long "imposed
on the credulity of foreigners," and in 1831 one Captain
James Low felt impelled to reassure members of the Royal
Asiatic Society in London on the matter. "No doubt can now
remain respecting the existence of this deviation from the
common course of nature," he lectured gravely. "In the stables
of the king of Siam there are elephants, the color of which,
although not pure white, is yet sufficiently light-colored
to admit of the appellation they have received being with
propriety bestowed upon them."
Despite Captain Low's stolid testimony,
the notion of a white elephant is in some respects more
European than Asian. In Thai, for example, this most rare
of all pachyderms is much more accurately described as a
chang phuek an albino elephant.
The white elephant has nevertheless enjoyed
a life of its own in the English language as an expression
describing an "expensive, though useless, object not easily
disposed of." Adding insult to injury, Roget's Thesaurus
includes 'white elephant' alongside words like bane, encumbrance,
burden and incubus. Such sentiments would certainly never
be remotely echoed by honored recipients of one of the eight
classes of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant,
founded in 1861.
The Thai language has no counterpart (involving
elephants, at least) to the English expression, which supposedly
alludes to the practice of ancient Siamese kings in the
former capital at Ayutthaya (1350-1767 AD) of giving lesser
white elephants to privileged subjects. Some suggest that
the inordinate cost of maintaining a white elephant mean
the gift could easily induce bankruptcy if not also accompanied
by a grant of land. So singular an honor as a white elephant
could obviously not be refused, but without land it was
subtly barbed-an indirect criticism which apparently cooled
the heels of excessively ambitious minions.
Numerous richly cultural theories exist
to explain the cult of the white elephant. The creatures
were highly prized by Siamese and Burmese kings, ridden
on state occasions by 14th-century kings of Ceylon (Sri
Lanka), and, some suggest, highly esteemed by the Khmers
as well. The extraordinary rarity of a white elephant has
given currency to the idea that it is an incarnation "at
least of some being in an advanced stage of the journey
A less controversial view is that a white
elephant is "an outward sign, hallowed by ancient custom,
of the greatness of the monarchy." For this reason, the
discovery of a white elephant, particularly early in a reign,
augured well. Messengers of these "glorious tidings" were
appropriately rewarded. According to one foreign account
from the reign of King Mongkut, Rama IV (1851-1868), the
bearer "underwent the painfully pleasant operation of having
his mouth, ears and nostrils stuffed with gold."
The earliest recorded capture of a white
elephant was in 1471 by King Borommatrailokkanant (1448-1448).
Writing in 1554 of his visit some six years earlier to Siam,
Portuguese Jesuit Fernao Mendez Pinto noted that the King
Mahachakkaphat (1548-1569) was titled Phra Chao Chang Phuek-Lord
of the White Elephant.
King Mahachakkaphat is thought to have
had seven white elephants among the 300 or so in the royal
herd. Consequently in 1549, a jealous Burmese king, Tabinshwehti
of Pegu, waged a ferocious campaign against the Ayutthayan
kingdom after his demand for a gift of white elephants as
a demonstration of vassalage was refused.
Pinto was privileged to witness the procession
of a white elephant through Ayutthaya to a screened riverside
bathing pavilion, but like most plebeians was barred from
viewing the actual washing rites. The magnificent creature,
adorned in a saddle of gold cloth with silver chains, was
preceded by 160 small horses and 83 elephants, and followed
by nearly 40 Siamese dignitaries on elephant back. The entire
procession froze whenever the white elephant paused, and
its urine was meticulously collected in a golden pail.
There are frequent references in 17th-century
accounts to King Narai the Great (1656-1688) retreating
from Ayutthaya to a more modest palace at Luvo (Lopburi)
where he oversaw massive elephant hunts -- truly then the
sport of kings in Siam. The tremendous skill the Siamese
had developed in the capture and training of elephants fuelled
a huge royal monopoly trade with India. But white elephants,
sometimes seen caparisoned in scarlet English broadcloth,
where never available for export.
They did, however, venture abroad later,
but in heraldic form adorning the Siamese national flag
of 1816 and 1917 (after which the present tricolor was adopted).
The old design of a white elephant on a red background celebrated
the third white elephant of King Phuttaloetla, Rama II (1809-1824).
Probably the finest albino elephant ever seen in the West
was Pawa, a Burmese beauty displayed at London Zo in 1926
shortly before her death in the U.S.
There does not seem ever t have been any
requirement that a white elephant be entirely albino. Appreciating
the shade and location of the light mottles in the hide
is but the first step towards deciding whether the creature
is really a white elephant worthy f being cherished above
all other possessions.
Features that must also be considered are
the other skin tones -- Subtle yellows, blacks, reds, d
blue-grays. The color of the palate is ideally lotus-bud-pink.
Eyes should be large like those of a cow and rimmed with
white. Jet black irises are best of all, pink or blue tinged
ones remarkable enough.
The two bumps on the forehead (a major
distinguishing feature between Asiatic elephants and their
larger African cousins, which have only one) should be pronounced
enough for a man to rest his neck between when the creature
is fully grown. The tail should hang straight away from
the body and enjoy a life of its own. If the hairs on its
tip touch the ground, all to the good.
The finest ears hang "prettily" and are
long enough to touch when drawn across the eyes. Toe-nails
are best red, white or pink with fine patterning on their
undersides. If the elephant is endowed with 20 toes instead
of the normal creature. Most obscurely, three hairs emerging
from a single pore bodes well. The distribution of hair
behind the ears and on the head and back is also important.
And the trunk? The longer the better, for
this fabulous proboscis, capable simultaneously of immense
feats of strength and delicacy, is the organ most vital
to the creature's well-being. An elephant with a badly wounded
trunk usually faces a slow sentence of death, the damage
being as much psychological as physical.
Ancient Siamese laws required that all
elephants captured or born in captivity be registered. These
date from times when elephants were the principal vehicles
of Oriental warfare, and the might of a king was gauged
by the number he could muster. Elephants must still be registered
at district offices.
Should one betray any of the characteristics
of a white elephant, observers are dispatched. Having taken
note of the creature's physical attributes, they assess
its personality. An intelligent elephant, for example, will
run ahead of the pack at bathing time and enter the waters
before they are churned and muddied by its older companions.
When eating grass, a well-mannered elephant selects choice
tufts and elegantly swishes them on either side of its trunk
before eating, thus discarding irksome insects.
There are four grades of white elephant
and ownership has always been the king's prerogative.
According to Suwat Dhanapradis, a mine
of information at the Grand Palace concerning royal ceremony,
all newly discovered white elephants should still be offered
to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX. Acceptance
if the lesser grades is conditional on many factors, not
least the cost of upkeep in modern Thailand. The highest
grade of white elephant, however, will not be refused.
The Chitralada Villa of Dusit Palace, main
residence of the royal family, is set in an area of slightly
over one square kilometer behind a moat cornered by fountains.
Though grand in setting, it is light years away from the
fantastic melange of Oriental and European architecture
that is the Grand Palace. The Chitralada grounds are home
to a variety of building, many of which have a distinctly
functional air about them. How many other palaces boast
a milk-pasteurizing plant?
In the secluded southeastern corner of
the grounds are the six stable buildings housing the royal
elephants. Very rarely seen in public, there are l11 royal
elephants in all, six of which have been through Buddhist
and arcane Brahmin ceremonies confirming them as white elephants
(all but one during a 12-month period from 1977 to 1978).
Four haven's been ceremonially elevated and the 11th, Plai
Wanphen from Petchburi province, is considered something
of an anomaly as prospective white elephants go.
The most magnificent of all, Phra Savet
Adulyadej Pahon, is a 38-year-old bull known for his fierce
and independent spirit. From Krabi province in southern
Thailand, he is considered one of the two finest white elephants
of the present 205-year-old Chakri dynasty. His most illustrious
predecessor was Phra Savet Worawan, the pride of the elephant
stables of King Chulalongkorn the Great, Rama V (1868-1910).
As befits a white elephant, Phra Savet Worawan died within
two years of King Chulalongkorn's demise. No attempt is
made to breed white elephants.
The modern royal elephants have for the
past three years been in the care of M.L. Phiphatanachatr
Diskul, the royal veterinary surgeon. With His Majesty the
King's permission (which must be secured in all matters
relating to these venerable creatures), M.L. Phiphatanachatr
has worked to modernize the treatment of the white elephants,
without detracting from the exalted status tradition affords
them. Reforms have included more exercise, sterner discipline,
revision of medical procedures and dietary improvements.
Elephants, especially if excessively cossetted,
are remarkably delicate in health. Indeed, vulnerability
to sunstroke ensures working elephants upcountry a holiday
at the hottest time of the year. In former days when a white
elephant fell ill, treatments had first to be tested on
other animals. This delay often exacerbated the ailment
and protracted the creature's distress. Intervention is
now possible as soon as sickness manifests itself. The stables,
two of which were recently constructed at a cost of 3.9-million
baht, are nevertheless kept pretty isolated as a health
Foreign dignitaries are occasionally honored
with a visit to the stables, which lie just beyond the broad
expanse of lawn in front of the home of Princess Chulabhorn,
youngest of the four children in the royal family. Among
the elephants' most frequent visitors are the royal grandchildren
and their aunt, H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn,
who has even penned a number of special white elephant eulogies
and instructions to be sung during the ceremony of Naming
the Auspiciously Significant Elephant. Ceremonial eulogies
for soothing white elephants are thought to date back to
King Narai's reign.
Modern white elephants -- with the exception
of Phra Savet Adulyadej Pahon -- are ridden by their mahouts
and gently disciplined should they misbehave. Rewards, however,
are favored as the best incentive to good conduct. Each
elephant has two mahouts, one of whom is often many kilometers
away in Samut Prakhan gathering choice grasses. An elephant
may consume over 300 kilograms of grass in a day, a large
30-kilogram basket of bananas and up to six kilograms of
sugar cane. Coconuts are a special treat.
Dietary supplements are equally epic. An
experiment with feeding bananas laced with a couple of vitamin
and iron pills worked only once before the elephants became
aware of the ruse. They promptly rejected -- with remarkable
precision -- all further tampered fruits. Unfortunately,
the alternative is an annual encounter with a syringe of
truly elephantine proportions. On that black day, M.L. Phiphatanachatr
is treated as an "uncertain friend," and his collusive charges
are quick to trumpet news of his prickly antics.
The young royal vet is by no means the
first to discover the Himalayan nature of doctoring elephants.
Observed W.A.R. Wood (a former British Consul general in
Chiang Mai) in his memoir consul in Paradise: "Pills and
potions are administered on a heroic scale, and the application
of salves and unguents often seems more like an agricultural
than a medical undertaking." Wood wrote from experience,
having once stitched an elephant wound with gut form a tennis
Not all innovations at the royal stables
have worked. Casualties include some rather highly regarded
giant herbal pep pills from Burma which proved too effective
by half. Purchase of a tranquilizer gun costing 100,000
baht was meanwhile vetoed at the highest level as an unnecessary
While it world clearly be improper to ask
the actual cost of maintaining a white elephant in 1987,
retaining such stables in the heart of modern Bangkok is
no straightforward undertaking. A few years ago, serious
consideration was given to moving the royal elephants up
to a 200-acre site near Phuping Palace in Chiang Mai. Although
moving the white elephants away from the capital world certainly
have raised eyebrows among traditionalists, practical considerations
played a larger part in scuppering the idea. The elephants,
accustomed to their safe and regal Bangkok environment,
are simply unsuited to wilder climes. A white elephant is,
after all, by definition not a jungle-dweller.