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 Home > About Thailand > National Animal

THE ROYAL WHITE ELEPHANTS


Not everyone 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 vain!"

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 to Nirvana."

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 precaution.

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 racket.

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 extravagance.

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.


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