Queen Suriyothai & The White Elephant War
Every Thai person knows about the White Elephant War of 1563 and the role that Queen Suriyothai played in this context. The King of Burma learned that the ruler of Siam, King Maha Chakkraphat, owned seven white elephants. The white elephant was considered a symbol of prestige and royal power. Thus, the Burmese King was envious since there were not any white elephants in Burma at that time and he decided to have one at any cost.
Therefore, the Burmese King demanded three of King Chakkraphat’s white elephants. The ruler of Siam, however, refused. As a consequence, the Burmese king led his army to Ayutthaya, the capital city of Siam. From the wall of the city King Chakraphat and Queen Suriyothai watched the Burmese soldiers invading the city.
They were deeply worried because there were so many enemy soldiers. Thus, the King decided to let them attack the city and then defeat them. Queen Suriyothai was eager to go into battle with her husband but of course, the King disapproved. Nonetheless, the Queen was determined, and when the King went into battle, she remained at his side.
She watched the King lead his war elephants into the heat of battle. He was duelling with the Burmese Prince when the Queen saw her husband’s body weave with the sway of his elephant. It was obvious that the King would soon be killed. However, Queen Suriyothai courageously spurred her elephant between the elephants of the royal warriors and was killed by the fatal spear intended to kill her husband.
Hence, King Maha Chakkraphat’s life was saved but he wept for his brave wife and did not stop the war. In four months, however, the Burmese were forced to withdraw their forces and the King of Burma did not succeed in capturing a white elephant.
Queen Suriyothai has become a very popular female historical figure in Thailand. Because of her bravery, boldness and self-determination, she is also regarded as a great feminist. Even though, in history she is only known from three lines in a chronicle, her story was filmed. Thus, ‘The Legend of Suriyothai’ (2001) directed by H.R.H Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol became very popular in Thailand similar to ‘The Legend of King Naresuan’. In 2003 ‘The Legend of Suriyothai’ was also release in the USA and edited by Francis Ford Coppola. Since nearly nothing is known about the historical Suriyothai, her story in the movie was mostly invented.
Finally, we may say that the story of Suriyothai and the White Elephant War has intrigued many generations of Thai people. In addition, the Queen may also be regarded as an early feminist with good reason.
(Reference: Marian Davies Toth, Tales from Thailand. Folkore, Culture, and History, 2nd ed. 1982)