The White Elephant in Thai Culture

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In my view, one of the most impressive and majestic animals is the elephant, in particular the white elephant. Hence, in Thai culture the white elephant is called ‘chang samkhan’ which means ‘auspicious elephant’. Whitness is regarded as an sign of purity in this context. The white elephant has an important meaning in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduist thought, the white elephant is related to the God Indra who is also a guardian deity in Buddhism. His elephant can also fly and it is called ‘Airavata’.

White Elephant in Thai Culture

White Elephant of Thailand (Dressed) (credit: Sodacan, wikimedia.org)

White Elephant of Thailand (Dressed) (credit: Sodacan, wikimedia.org)

This kind of elephant is thus also related to Buddha’s conception since his mother Maya is said to have been circled by a white elephant three times until it entered her womb through her right side. Thus, in Thailand white elephants (‘chang phueak’) are not only considered to be auspicious but they also belong lawfully to the King.

Have you ever seen a white elephant? In fact, ‘chang phueak’ are not necessarily albinos but are  much paler than common elephants. Their skin may be light grey, beige or even have a rosy or pinkish hue. Think of the impressive procession of eleven white elephants at the Grand Palace in honor of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok on the 8th November 2016.

In Thai culture, the status of Kings have been rated by the number of white elephants that were in their possession and they have been historicalled considered an appendage to the King’s majesty. Hence, the late King H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej owned the greatest number of white elephants. He had 21 white elephants and this can be regarded as an unprecedented achievement. Eleven of these elephants are still alive but only five of them have royal titles.

White Elephants – Monument to honour King Bhumibol Adulyadej in front of Bangkok's Lak Mueang (credit Puja1984, wikimedia.org)

White Elephants – Monument to honour King Bhumibol Adulyadej in front of Bangkok’s Lak Mueang (credit Puja1984, wikimedia.org)

Hence, how does a ‘chang phueak’ become a royal elephant? An elephant has to undergo an number of tests conducted by the Bureau of the Royal Household since it is important to ensure that the elephant is suited for the title and has not only the physical but also the behaviourial characteristics required.

The White Elephant Flag Thai national flag from 1855 to 1916, 31 December (credit: wikimedia.org)

The White Elephant Flag was the Thai national flag from 1855 to 1916, 31 December (credit: wikimedia.org)

In the past, Thai Kings also gave white elephants as presents to friends and allies. This was a blessing or curse since an elephant considered sacred was not supposed to work and at the same time it needed care and food. Thus, a ‘chang phueak’ could easily become a huge financial burden to the owner unless the King would also provide the recipient with land for the elephant.

Summing up, we may say that the white elephant has been the most sacred and auspicious animal in Thai culture since it is also considered as a royal animal related to the King.

Yours, Sirinya

 

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