White elephants and the King of Siam

What springs to mind if you think of the phrase ‘white elephant’? Monuments to a politician’s hubris? The Millennium Dome? Unused and unloved Olympic venues around the world? Few people in England would associate this idiom directly with Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant, or imagine its roots in the royal courts of Burma and Siam.

The Oxford English Dictionary hints at the two meanings for white elephant. The first is its literal meaning – “a rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries”. The second explains the phrase in its figurative sense:

“A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value.”

The two meanings are thus directly connected – because this rare type of elephant was so sacred it was difficult, if not impossible, to dispose of it easily. The receiver of this royal gift was thus lumbered with a beast of huge symbolic but little practical value. And the vast creature would literally eat its way through its new owner’s fortune.

The first use of the phrase ‘white elephant’ in written English are recorded in the seventeenth century as literal descriptions of the animal. Henry Cogan’s 1663 translation of ‘The voyages and adventures of Fernand Mendez Pinto’ describes “the white elephant whereon he [the King of Siam] was mounted”.

By the mid-nineteenth century the phrase had made the leap from the literal to the figurative, and was being used to describe costly drains on resources. In a letter dated 1851, the writer John Galsworthy wrote:

“His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one’s gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt.”

By the early twentieth century the phrase had broken free of any literal meaning and was widely used to describe possessions whose cost and upkeep were out of all proportion to its usefulness or worth.

But why was the white elephant a source of veneration in south-east Asia? The answer is found in the traditional stories surrounding the birth of the Buddha:

“Buddha Shakyamuni was born as a royal prince in 624 BC in a place called Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. His mother’s name was Queen Mayadevi and his father’s name was King Shuddhodana.

One night, Queen Mayadevi dreamed that a white elephant descended from heaven and entered her womb. The white elephant entering her womb indicated that on that very night she had conceived a child who was a pure and powerful being. The elephant’s descending from heaven indicated that her child came from Tushita heaven, the Pure Land of Buddha Maitreya.”

A special link between the white elephant and the monarchies of Thailand (or Siam) and Burma continues. Ownership of a white elephant was (and still is) regarded as a powerful symbol of the monarch’s power and justice and was seen as a blessing on the kingdom.

Thailand still maintains a Royal Elephant Stable complete with ten white elephants and the white elephant is still featured in the ensign of the Royal Thai Navy.