Connect with us

Thai Life

Looking Back: Elephants’ role in Thailand

Legacy Phuket Gazette



PHUKET: Elephants have always held an important place in Thai history and culture. In an age that predated bulldozers and cranes, Siamese builders and loggers tamed mighty elephants and used their incredible strength to clear forests, transport heavy loads and even build cities.

In war, Siamese kings and generals rode elephants into battle. Sitting atop elephants not only gave Siamese lords a formidable pose, it also offered them a position of safety, high above the carnage of battle.

For all of these reasons, Thais revere the common elephant even to this day. However, there is a class of elephants, commonly referred to as chang phueak, or white elephants, which are exceptionally rare and have been highly sought after by monarchs of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia for centuries, in the belief that they are sacred animals.

White elephants are sometimes confused with being albinos, but they are not. In fact, they are not white at all. They look very much like normal gray elephants, however, patches of their skin are dotted with a pinkish-white tone.

Elephants were regarded as celestial creatures. When a monarch ascends the throne, the spotting of a white elephant could provide legitimacy to his new reign. If a white elephant was found with the physical characteristics that are considered auspicious, it had to be brought to the palace with pomp and ceremonial rejoicing.

Physical characteristics that qualified an elephant as ‘white’ included light pink spots on the skin, large eyes rimmed with white, jet-black irises, two pronounced bumps on the forehead, a tail that hangs straight away from the body and a long trunk.

Besides these physical characteristics, a white elephant must also possess a superior personality to the common elephant. Traditionally, specialists from the elephant division of the royal court will assess the animal’s personality. An intelligent elephant, for example, will run ahead of its pack at bathing time, getting into the water before the rest of the herd can follow and churning the mud from the river bed. An intelligent elephant will also learn to swish food it catches with its trunk in order to get rid of insects before eating.

The reason Thais revere the white elephant is also because of the story of Lord Buddha’s birth. It is believed that on the eve of the Buddha’s birth, his mother, Queen Maya, dreamt that she was presented with a lotus flower by a large white elephant with six tusks.

The lotus flower is a symbol of purity and knowledge. The white elephant is also a symbol of fertility and success. It was believed that if a king kept several white elephants in his stables, he would have a long and prosperous reign. These elephants were treated like royalty. They were not used for heavy labor, war or any kind of work. They had to be cared for by a royal veterinarian and fed only the best food. The death of a white elephant was a dire omen and signaled disaster for the kingdom.

The English dictionary, however, found a new meaning to the term ‘white elephant’, which was less ‘sacred’ and more ‘burdensome’. Early Europeans reported that white elephants were costly to maintain, despite the fact that they could not be put to any use. The term ‘white elephant’ even entered the English language in the year 1607 to figuratively describe a burdensome or costly possession, which presented little or no value to the owner.

Perhaps the term is derived from the practice of earlier kings of Siam to give rare, auspicious elephants to ambitious or boastful courtiers. In the old days, this was perceived to be such a great honor that the courtiers would have no choice but to look after the animal. It had to be given the best food, and a lot of it, despite the fact that it could not be put to work. In the end, many unwilling owners were often ruined by the enormous cost of looking after a white elephant.

Several European visitors to Siam during the 17th century mentioned white elephants in their writings. Of these, Jereminas Van Vliet, a Dutch merchant who wrote one of the most detailed accounts of 17th century Siam, mentioned that the white elephant was regarded as the ‘prince of the elephants’.

The Dutch merchant wrote that the king’s white elephants lived in royal quarters, had their own retinue of attendants and were fed on plates of gold. Van Vliet also suggested that the elephants were not only valued for their color, but also because of their superior intelligence and sensitivity.

According to Van Vliet, there were between 400 to 500 elephants around the capital city of Ayutthaya during the reign of King Prasat Thong, during the 17th century.

During his stay in Ayutthaya, Van Vliet mentioned a short account of the death of a white elephant. In the year 1633, a young white elephant was caught and brought it the palace. It died shortly afterwards.

King Prasat Thong was so upset that all the slaves who had guarded and assisted the animal were executed. Later, the king himself paid homage to the dead elephant and gave it a splendid cremation. All remains that had not been consumed by the fire were collected in a box and
buried at a royal temple.

— Anand Singh


Get more from The Thaiger

📱 Download our app on Android or iOS
👋 Have your say on our Thailand forums
🔔 Subscribe to our daily email newsletter
📺 Subscribe / Join YouTube for daily shows
👍 Like/Follow us on Facebook
🐦 FOLLOW us on Twitter
📷 FOLLOW us on Instagram


Join the conversation and have your say on Thailand news published on The Thaiger.

Thaiger Talk is our new Thaiger Community where you can join the discussion on everything happening in Thailand right now.

Please note that articles are not posted to the forum instantly and can take up to 20 min before being visible. Click for more information and the Thaiger Talk Guidelines.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

Follow Thaiger by email:

Insurgency6 hours ago

Suspected insurgent wanted for murder killed by forces in Pattani

Thailand9 hours ago

Phang Nga reopening and “Phuket Sandbox” island hop extensions postponed

Best of9 hours ago

Bangkok’s 5 best SHA Plus Certified hotels

Welcome back to Thailand!

Thaiger is getting behind local businesses for the restart of tourism in Thailand - up to 50% discounts across all advertising packages!

Best of9 hours ago

Top 5 steakhouses in Phuket

Thailand10 hours ago

Bangkok Train Market official says they will reopen

Thailand10 hours ago

August vaccination plan: 80% of Bangkok residents; open to general public, expats

Join the conversation on the Thaiger Talk forums today!
Thailand10 hours ago

300 beds added to Phuket’s second field hospital

Thailand10 hours ago

The Thaiger launches the ‘I Am Strong’ campaign

Indonesia11 hours ago

Earthquake hits Papua, Indonesia

Thailand11 hours ago

Thailand News Today | More Dark red zones, ‘coup rumour’ quashed | August 2

Thailand11 hours ago

Man arrested for allegedly robbing 7-Eleven stores in Bangkok to pay off gambling debt

Thailand12 hours ago

Protestors fill Bangkok streets to protest Prayut, many protest leaders present

Crime12 hours ago

Teenagers arrested for allegedly running underage prostitution racket

Thailand13 hours ago

PM’s daughters get letter asking them to tell their father to resign

Coronavirus (Covid-19)13 hours ago

Monday Covid Update: 17,970 new cases, provincial totals

Thailand5 months ago

Thailand News Today | Thai Airways in rehab, All go for Songkran | March 4

Tourism5 months ago

Phuket’s nightlife. Yes, bars and clubs are still open | VIDEO

Phuket5 months ago

Thailand News Today | Covid passport talks, Thai Airways heads to court | March 2

Tourism5 months ago

Phuket Thai food treats you need to try | VIDEO

Thailand5 months ago

Thailand News Today | Bars, pubs and restaurants ‘sort of’ back to normal | Feb 23

Tourism5 months ago

In search of Cat & Dog Cafés in Phuket Town | VIDEO

Thailand6 months ago

Thailand News Today | Gambling crackdown, Seafood market to reopen, Vlogger challenge | Jan 21

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Covid testing for visas, Business impact, Vaccine approval | January 19

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Weekend Bangkok bombs, Thailand fires, Covid update | January 18

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Stray car on runway, Indonesian quake, 300 baht tourist fee | January 15

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Governor off respirator, sex-trafficking arrest, condo prices falling | January 14

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Chinese vaccine, Thailand ‘drug hub’, Covid update | January 13

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Bangkok may ease restrictions, Phuket bar curfew, Vaccine roll out | January 12

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Covid latest, Cockfights closed down, Bryde’s Whale beached | January 11

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Southern floods, Face mask fines, Thai Air Asia woes | January 8