The Royal White Elephant of Thailand

By | June 25, 2013


The Royal White Elephant of Thailand

The legend of the Royal White Elephant of Thailand is upheld in the deep rooted Theravada Buddhism beliefs of the Kingdom & can be seen in the form of large statues & paintings throughout the temples scattered across the country.

Within the story of the Lord Buddha it describes how Queen Maya (the mother of Buddha) on the eve of giving birth to him, has a dream that she is presented with a lotus flower, the symbol for both purity & knowledge by a large white elephant with six tusks.

The royal white elephant has been considered to be a sacred creature in Thailand for centuries. As a symbol of fertility and success & it was believed that young kings would have long and prosperous reigns if they kept several white elephants in their stables.

These elephants were themselves treated like royalty, they were not subject to any of the duties that normal Working Elephants would face, were cared for by a royal veterinarian, and fed only the best foods, as the death of one would signal disaster for the kingdom!.

Between the 14th – 18th century the Royal Kraal at Ayutthaya was the home of these “special” elephants, that was until the whole power-base & capital city of the country moved from Ayutthaya & was established in Bangkok .

The Buddhist text “The Three Worlds” covers this by saying “the magnificent king has seven things: a perfect wife, and able treasurer, a wise chief minister, a swift horse, a wheel of the law and a precious gem to guide his actions: and the most noble of white elephants.”

The royal white elephant was so important that they were never taken to war, unlike their ordinary-colored counterparts & were also not ridden during processions, as they were seen as real life manifestations of their gods.

The Royal White Elephant of Thailand

A regal royal white elephant statue
at Wat Doi Suthep Temple,Chiang Mai
 Similar to a beauty pageant, there were specific criteria that had to be followed for an elephant to be “approved” as a royal white elephant, these were split into seven distinct features only present in the genuine pachyderm:

* skin – must be light grey,light brown, pinkish or a pale skin(unlike the normal dark grey).

* eyes – the color around the center of the eyes should be pinkish or white.

* palate – pink or white upper palate, without ridges.

* ears – pink or white ears with hairs evenly distributed behind.

* toenails – pink or white toenails.

* genitals – pink or white genitals.

* tail – the hair on its tail must be long, ideally with more than two hair strands per follicle.

These animals were incredibly rare, and were eagerly hunted, scouting parties were sent out by the various kings of Siam(Thailand) to look for these animals and rewards were even offered. If anybody found a whiteelephant, they would immediately be presented to the king, as mandated by law!.

When a royal white elephant was found, it became cause for great celebrations for the whole country.It would be brought into the capital amidst a glorious procession.

The Royal White Elephant of Thailand

The kings of Siam(Thailand) revered the royal white elephant so much that it actually appeared on the national flag right up until the early 20th century, when it was changed to being the current red, white & blue that is seen today.

Even today the royal white elephant is held in high esteem, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej owns ten animals that live in stables in the heart of Bangkok.

There were discussions a few years ago about relocating them to an area close to Wat Doi Suthep Temple in Chiang Mai ,but that would have created an uproar with traditionalists throughout Thailand & in reality these animals are not the same as normal elephants, and would not have prospered well in jungle conditions!.

These magnificent animals remain at the very heart of Thai culture, and will do for generations to come.