White elephant in Thai culture
Whiteness 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’.
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 11 white elephants at the Grand Palace in honour of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok.
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 historically considered a symbol of the King’s majesty. Hence, the late King Bhumibol 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.
Hence, how does a chang phueak become a royal elephant? An elephant has to undergo a 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 behavioural characteristics required.
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.