A little bit of Thai history: The original white elephant

by gonzotrooper

So, for my monthly Thai history post (OK read the freaking blog if you don’t know what I’m talking about) I admit to having idea block. I mean, what to write about? Then I realized: Elephants. And then I thought WHITE ELEPHANTS!

The term “White Elephant” generally means something a government mostly keeps as a prestige pet project. You know, something that really costs more than it is worth keeping. One origin of the word was supposedly that the Siamese king would give troublesome elephants to obnoxious client rulers, making them indebted in honor without actually benefiting from the gift itself. Or possibly they saw the number of white elephants that did absolutely nothing but walk around eating the shrubbery at court. And then they thought “What could POSSIBLY justify expenses like that???” 

Simple. Elephants are a symbol of Thailand. And white elephants are sacred. In fact, between 1855 amd 1916 the flag of Siam was literally the only a white elephant on a red background: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_Thailand_1855.svg

Because “This is SIAM!”. Possibly.

The elephant has never really been domesticated, and even today they are hard to breed in captivity. Add to the fact that almost NOTHING stops an elephant when it decides to charge, they became the classic era version of a weapon of mass destruction. And even in times of peace the elephant has been tremendously useful as basically a biological tractor/crane/earth mover/pimpmobile for royalty.

Then there is the fact that Thailand has both the Buddhist and the Hindu religions strongly feature elephants. Buddhas mother reportedly dreamed of a white elephant giving her a lotus flower the night before she gave birth. And Hinduism has Ganesha, a god with the head of an elephant. So a white elephant, being a mutation rather than a separate species is a symbol of luck. Oh and the king doesn’t give them away. A white elephant is lucky for a monarch, so any white elephants discovered is ceremonially donated to the king (who then lets it go back t the wild most often, as he currently has a dozen or so). 

For normal elephants in Thailand the situation is getting more difficult. Development of plantations and industrial logging is removing the habitat of wild elephants in Thailand, and actual gas driven tractor, cranes, earth movers and Audis are eroding the niche of tame elephants. Some mahouts (elephant drivers) have taken to the cities in desperation, but that just creates ore problems, like food (an elephant eats 200 kilos of leaved DAILY, not to mention water) traffic (modern roads are just not built for elephants) ans safety (when stressed, elephants can go into a rage). 

Fortunately there are reservations for elephants nowadays. Also, the tourist industry is taking in more and more tame elephants for safaris. So the elephants are not going away completely. Especially not the white ones. Thais feel good luck is reason enough to keep something around.