A statue of a white elephant in Thailand. Thailand is known as the soil of the white elephant. White elephants are not a unique species, but rather elephants through unusually light skin. In Thai culture, white elephants in the king's possession represent the power and prosperity the his reign.

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Thailand is often called the floor of white elephants since the Thai royal household possesses numerous white elephants, but the official name because that the nation is the Kingdom that Thailand. It is a unitary state bordered come the south by Malaysia, to the eastern by Cambodia and Laos, to the north and northwest by Myanmar, and also to the southwest by the Andaman Sea. The nation occupies an approximated landmass that 198,116.7 square mile (513,120 sq. Km) and is residence to almost 70 million people, making that the 20th many populous nation in the world.

Identifying White Elephants

White elephants are not a distinct varieties of elephant, but rather an elephant through exceptionally light skin, generally reddish-brown that turns pink once it is wet. The Thai civilization use the term Chang samkhan which way “auspicious elephant,” or “white” an interpretation purity and less so their actual color. The hatchet is often mistakenly attributed as meaning “albino elephant.”

Once a light-skinned elephant is caught from the wild, that is evaluated by imperial palace experts who recognize whether the elephant is “auspicious” or not: the toes, eyelashes, eyes, palate, and reproductive organ have to be light as well, and also the elephant’s habits must it is in suitable. If an elephant is determined to it is in auspicious, it is available to the king. The current king that Thailand possesses 11 white elephants.


White elephants are related to as holy creatures in Thailand and Myanmar, together they were historically in Cambodia and also Laos together well.

Today, the white elephant is a symbol of divine and also royal strength in the country, for this reason the more white elephants the ing possesses, the more powerful and prosperous his regime is considered to be. Property of a white elephant symbolizes wealth, success, royalty, political power, wisdom, and also prosperity.

A white elephant in ~ a ceremony because that the so late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Ayutthaya, Thailand. Image credit: Skynavin/Shutterstock

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Historical meaning

Indian and also Thai venerations that white elephants date back to the 17th century. Historians reference the Siamese-Burmese war in 1563 that broke out as soon as King Chakkraphat, ruler of Thailand which was referred to as Siam in ~ the time, decreased to provide some of his kingdom’s white elephants to the Burmese King. The resulting war was called the war of the White Elephant.

Past Thai kings were additionally known to give white elephants come subordinates through whom they to be dissatisfied. The gift of a white elephant would often cause financial destroy for the recipient due to the cost of keeping it, because they were thought about sacred for this reason they might not be placed to work, given away or killed. In the old Siam Kingdom, declining a white elephant together a gift was frowned upon as it was taken into consideration to be discourteous, for this reason the recipient had actually no an option but to accept the inconvenient “gift.”

The flag the Siam, the previous name because that the nation of Thailand, bore a white elephant. Photo credit: Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab/Shutterstock
In a west context, the expression “white elephant” comes from this phenomenon. It refers to a possession that is unreasonably expensive however with little value or also troublesome to keep.

Criticism of White Elephant property

The ownership of white elephants has been topic to criticism regardless of the Thai imperial family’s obsession v rearing the animals. Many have pointed come the high expense of maintenance that is considered uneconomical in a nation where a far-ranging portion of the populace still stays in poverty. Animal rights activists have additionally voiced concern over the traumatic activity of white elephants indigenous their herbal habitat come Thai conservation centers that room under the Thai royal patronage.