White Elephant

Monday, March 28th, 2011

The elephant is the official national symbol of Thailand, and the most prized and venerated of all elephants is the legendary white elephant:

In fact, such albino animals are rarely pure white in colour, but they’re regarded as being of especial merit and value, there’s a set procedure for granting official “white elephant” status to them, and the Thai king’s greatness is customarily measured by the number of white elephants he owns. (In case you’re wondering, the present king has 12 of them, which is the largest royal accumulation to date.)

In some ways, then, the expression “white elephant” carries with it in Thailand a very different meaning from that which we associate with it in the West. For it’s a term of esteem and appreciation, and this helps explain why in 1861, an earlier Thai monarch established the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, consisting of six separate grades, which soon became the most frequently-awarded honour in the country, as it remains to this day.

In earlier centuries, it was the custom for kings of Thailand to present those rivals whom they wished to overawe with one of their own white elephants. This was allegedly as a token of royal favour and regard, but it was also in practice a way of inflicting lasting damage on them. For as the highest status animal in the Thai kingdom, white elephants required extensive attention; but, since they were also sacred creatures, they couldn’t be put to work to pay for their upkeep, and nor could they be given away or killed.

The recipient of this vengeful act of royal generosity was thus confronted with the high costs of looking after the white elephant, and as often as not went broke as a result. Hence, in turn, our own notion that a white elephant is a valuable possession which cannot be disposed of, even though the expense of maintaining it is out of all proportion to its usefulness or worth.

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