A Procession Of White Elephants In Honor Of The Late Thai King: Thailand's White Elephants

The White Elephants Of Thailand: Past And Present

White Elephants are the most revered of their kind in Thailand and much of Asia. 

A Procession Of White Elephants In Honor Of The Late Thai King: Thailand's White Elephants
A Procession Of White Elephants In Honor Of The Late Thai King Last Year (Photo: Mark Baker/AP)

Thailand’s White Elephants are a sacred symbol of great significance to the people’s beliefs, both in past and modern times. Well cared for in the beautiful cities, white elephants are a wonder and truly a majestic sight. People come from all around the world to catch a glimpse of them.

Let’s see what’s so special about them and the kind of lives they live these days.

Why Are They Called White Elephants?

A white elephant or albino elephant is a rare type of elephant. Though it’s not a distinct species.

In pictures and drawings, you’ll see them portrayed as snow-white, but in reality their skin is more of a soft reddish-brown shade that turns light pink when the animal is wet. Also, they have fair eyelashes and toenails.

White Elephants In Thai Beliefs And Culture

In Thailand, the white elephant is an ancient symbol that represents royal power. It is considered to be a sacred animal but is not worshiped by the Thai people.

According to their beliefs, if a ruling monarch of Thailand had one or more of these creatures in his possession, it was interpreted as a positive sign. Because of this, historically kings are elevated in their status and respect largely based on the number of white elephants in their stable.

To be considered a white elephant in Thailand, the elephant must have pale skin. What is more interesting is that these white elephants were assigned a rank by palace experts.

Higher ranked white elephants are gifted directly to the king, while those of a lower grade were presented to the king’s friends and allies.

As the white elephant is a sacred animal, it does not work.

They are strictly a symbol of power and good fortune and some stories claim they brought much luck and prosperity to their owners and the kingdom. For instance, the major war of 1549 was won because the king at the time, Mahchakkaphat of Ayutthaya, owned seven white elephants. This king is called the Lord of the White Elephants to date.

How Do The Kings Maintain These Elephants?

Keeping a white elephant is no easy task: both physically and financially. It’s truly an endeavor only those on the level of royalty can afford. They need a lot of care and attention. And since they don’t work to generate profit, they can quickly become a financial burden to the owner.

They typically eat anywhere from 200 to 600 pounds of food per day. In addition, each elephant would have its own green quarters where they enjoy as much fresh air as they want daily. At night, they get to sleep in very opulent stalls.

 It’s widely said in Thailand that one of the fastest ways to get rid of an enemy is to gift them a white elephant. The cost of caring for the animal alone would ruin their finances fairly quickly!

Thailand’s White Elephants In Modern Times

Thailand Royal Navy Ensign with a white elephants
Thailand Royal Navy Ensign

White elephants in modern Thailand still enjoy much more devotion and reverence than most of their “normal” kind in Africa and Asia. Fortunately, they are still regarded as vital to the prosperity and well-being of the kingdom for all living in it.

The white elephant is also on the ensign of Thailand’s Royal Navy.

The Elephant Conservation Centre is home to the late king’s ten white elephants. Every one of them is bathed in a holy ritual and during that time, the gates are closed to the general public. Unlike other elephants at the center, the public get to see the white elephants only on special occasions.

For instance, last year, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, died at the age of 88 after reigning for 70 years. To honor him, about 200 mahouts led nine specially chosen white elephants along with two white-painted elephants to Bangkok’s Grand Palace gates. The massive creatures and their riders then knelt in front of the gates as a sign of respect for their dead King.

Till now, the white elephant is still a strong symbol of power, prosperity, and good fortune all across the kingdom.

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