A white elephant (also albino elephant) is a rare kind of elephant, but not a distinct species. Although often depicted as snow white, their skin is normally a soft reddish-brown, turning a light pink when wet. They have fair eyelashes and toenails. The traditional "white elephant" is commonly misunderstood as being albino, but the Thai term chang samkhan, actually translates as 'auspicious elephant', being "white" in terms of an aspect of purity.
White elephants are only nominally white. Of those currently kept by the Burmese rulers — General Than Shwe regards himself as the heir of the Burmese kings — one is grey and the other three are pinkish, but all are officially white. The king of Thailand also keeps a number of white elephants. Former U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew once presented a white elephant to King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia.
King Bimbisara had one such white elephant, which was conquered by him from the forest when the elephant was in his Musth period, and named him Sechanaka which means "watering" as the elephant used to water the plants by himself without any prior training. It is said that the cost of this elephant was more the half of Magadha. Later he gave it to his son Vihallakumara, this caused envy in his other son Ajatasatru who tried to snatch it many times, which later resulted in two of the most terrible wars in history called Mahasilakantaka & Ratha-musala. (see Ajatasatru).
In Thailand, white elephants (ช้างเผือก, chang phueak) (also known as Pink Elephants) are sacred and a symbol of royal power; all those discovered are presented to the king (usually this is ceremonial — they are not taken into captivity) and the more white elephants the king has, the greater his standing. The current king Bhumibol Adulyadej owns ten — considered a great achievement, and probably due to modern communications.
A white elephant in Thailand is not necessarily albino, although it must have pale skin. Candidated to one of four categories, and are offered to the king, though the lower grades are sometimes refused.
In the past, lower grade white elephants were given as gifts to the king's friends and allies. The animals needed a lot of care and, being sacred, could not be put to work, so were a great financial burden on the recipient - only the monarch and the very rich could afford them. According to one story, white elephants were sometimes given as a present to some enemy (often a lesser noble with whom the king was displeased). The unfortunate recipient, unable to make any profit from it, and obliged to take care of it, would suffer bankruptcy and ruin.
In Burma as well, white elephants have been revered symbols of power and good fortune. The announcement by the ruling military regime of the finding of white elephants in 2001 and 2002 was seen by opponents as being aimed at bolstering support for their regime. As of 2010 a total of three white elephants are currently held) in a pavilion on the outskirts of Yangon.
Western cultural references
In English, the term "white elephant" has come to mean a spectacular and prestigious thing that is more trouble than it is worth, or has outlived its usefulness to the person who has it. While the item may be useful to others, its current owner would usually be glad to be rid of it.
- Abul-Abbas, a white elephant given to Charlemagne by Harun al-Rashid
- Airavata, a white elephant whom the god Indra rides
- Hanno (elephant), the pet of Pope Leo X
- Seeing pink elephants, a euphemistic term for visual hallucination arising from alcohol intoxication
- White elephant gift exchange, a popular winter holiday party game in the U.S.
- Men ride albino elephants, Reuters via The Atlantic, 1 March 2012.
- "Royal Elephant Stable". Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Retrieved 7 September 2014.
- "Home : Oxford English Dictionary". Oed.com. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
- 'Lucky' white elephant for Burma, BBC, 9 November 2001.
- Second White Elephant Found at the Wayback Machine (archived June 23, 2002)
- White Elephants Snubbed by Junta at the Wayback Machine (archived June 6, 2011)
- Rebecca Morelle. Pink elephant is caught on camera, BBC News, 20 March 2009
- "Royal Elephant Stables". Thai Elephant Conservation Center. — Story and history of Royal White Elephants
- The Royal White Elephants, 2002, Mahidol University