Elephants in Thailand

The Siamese Twins and the Siamese White Elephants are the two objects round which many an Englishman grouped all his knowledge of "The Kingdom of the Yellow Robe" until the political troubles of the past few years drew public attention to this hitherto little known country. The elephants have given rise to a proverbial expression in England, which is a little misleading when viewed in the light of Siamese opinion. To give to a European a useless and troublesome present is known as giving him a "white elephant," but to give a Buddhist a present of a white elephant would be to give him possession of a creature which, kindly treated, would cause blessings and good fortune to fall in showers around him in this and all future existences.

The white elephant has been held in great respect in many countries, and has played a great part in many legends. In Enarea, in Central Africa, elephants of this colour are reverenced.

When Shahab ud-Din, in 1194, attacked and defeated Jaya Chandra of Benares, he captured from his conquered foes a white elephant which refused to make obeisance to its new master, and made a furious assault upon its driver when he attempted to coerce it into respectful behaviour.

In the time of the grandfather of Mahomed, when the Christian king of Himyar advanced against Kenanah in Hijaz, to revenge the pollution of a Christian church at Sennaa, he secured his victory beforehand by going to the scene of battle upon an elephant whose skin was of the colour of milk.

In Siam the representation of the white elephant is everywhere conspicuous. The national flag is "a white elephant on a scarlet ground." The mercantile flag is "a white elephant on a blue ground." On every temple and official building in the land there is a representation in stone, plaster, or colour of this wonderful creature. But the body  of a real white elephant has never yet been seen. The creature who bears the name is simply an elephant which is a little lighter in colour than the ordinary elephant. For the sake of convenience we shall refer to it as the "white elephant," though there is no such name for it in the native language, and though its colour is very much more like that of a dirty bath-brick. Even this distant approach to whiteness is not distributed generally all over the body, but is usually confined to a few solitary patches near the extremities. These blotches of lighter colour are not natural or hereditary. They are often the result of an eruptive affection. The irritation that accompanies the disease causes the animal to rub the affected part against the trunks of trees or other hard material, and so to destroy the epidermal surface. All so-called white elephants have, however, a few really white hairs which are not to be accounted for in this manner.

The white elephant has at times been worshipped with a veneration which, though we may consider it misdirected, may charitably be regarded as laudable in intention. It has been believed that this particular animal contains the soul of some very distinguished person, possibly that of a Buddha, who in some future age will appear in human form to enlighten and bless the world by his counsel and example. This being the belief, the adoration that is offered to such an animal is reasonable.

The white elephants in the stables at Bangkok have chiefly been captured in the Laos territories in the north. When one of them is caught, the finder is handsomely rewarded, and there is general rejoicing throughout the land. It is immediately handed over to the king, who provides for its earthly comforts ever after. It is of priceless value, and cannot be bought or sold.

About twenty years ago a body of Brahmin astrologers who are permanently attached to the court, declared that the present reign would be an especially happy one, and that several white elephants would be caught. Both their forecasts have proved correct. Their prophetic utterances were conveyed from one end of the country to the other, and large rewards were offered to the men who would discover a white elephant. For a long time a most diligent search in forest and jungle was made by the native hunters. Every place where elephants had ever been seen or heard of was examined with great care and perseverance, but without success. One day, however, a number of men caught sight of an elephant of excellent shape, but his colour gave no evidence that he was one of the kind they were searching for. On looking closer at the mud-bespattered animal, they were attracted by some peculiarity in the skin, and also by the pale Neapolitan yellow colour of the iris of the eye. This latter mark being considered as one of the chief beauties of a white elephant, they determined to capture the animal. This was a matter speedily accomplished. They then took the animal home and gave it a good bath, patiently scrubbing and scraping away until all the accumulated mud and dirt upon it was removed, when to their almost infinite joy and astonishment they beheld a most beautiful specimen of the white elephant family. It was of pale bath-brick colour, and on its back there were actually a few hairs that could, without any flattery, be truly called white. This elephant is said to be the finest example of the kind ever captured.

The excitement which prevailed in the whole land to its furthest boundaries, and affected the whole population from king to coolie, is said to have been unrealisable to the English mind. It was more than a mere national rejoicing, for in many thousands of homes it was mingled with that deep superstitious veneration in which the Oriental mind satisfies its longings and its imagination. Gorgeous preparations were made for the elephant's reception. The king travelled up the river as far as Ayuthia to meet it; Bangkok was decorated and illuminated; every nobleman was arrayed in his richly embroidered cloth of gold, and was followed by his retinue of servants. People from outlying districts poured into the city to swell the enormous crowd of spectators; every available ornament for personal use was displayed; the brightest colours were donned; flags and bunting were hoisted; and when the noble animal appeared, surrounded by gaily gilded state barges, a group of Brahmin priests descended to the river's edge to receive the living cause of all this rejoicing. To it they read an address, of which the following translation is a part:

"With holy reverence we now come to worship the angels who preside over the destiny of all elephants. Most powerful angels, we entreat you to assemble now, in order that you may prevent all evil to His Majesty the King of Siam, and also to this magnificent elephant, which has recently arrived. We appeal to you all, whom we now worship, and beg that you will use your power in restraining the heart of this animal from all anger and unhappiness. We also beg that you will incline this elephant to listen to the words of instruction and comfort, that we now deliver.

"Most Royal Elephant! We beg that you will not think too much of your father and mother, your relatives and friends. We beg that you will not regret leaving your native mountains and forests, because there are evil spirits there that are very dangerous; and wild beasts are there that howl, making a fearful noise; and there too is the big bird which hovers round and often picks up elephants and eats them; and there are bands of cruel hunters who kill elephants for their ivory. We trust that you will not return to the forest, for you would be in constant danger. And that is not all: in the forest you have no servants, and it is very unpleasant to sleep with the dust and filth adhering to your body, and where the flies and mosquitoes are troublesome.

"Brave and noble elephant! We entreat you to banish every wish to stay in the forest. Look at this delightful place, this heavenly city! It abounds in wealth and in everything your eyes could wish to see or your heart desire to possess. It is of your own merit that you have come to behold this beautiful city, to enjoy its wealth, and to be the favourite guest of His Most Exalted Majesty the King."[J]

Then the Brahmin priests baptised the sacred beast with holy water, and, after its purification, bestowed upon it the highest of the titles which the king can confer upon his subjects. The title was written on a piece of sugar-cane. Upon this cane there were also a number of sentences describing the virtues, qualities, and perfections of the new nobleman. When the baptismal ceremonies were over, the sugar-cane was handed to the beast, that he might eat it, a part of the ceremony which the elephant understood, and performed with noteworthy despatch. It was then lodged in the royal stables, with a few other brethren who had previously experienced the same fêting and reverence.

Old accounts tell us that the white elephants were treated, during their lives, with the greatest respect and care. Their stables were comfortable, and their food consisted of such dainties as were thought most likely to be appreciated by them. Their food was presented to them upon silver salvers, by servants who knelt as they offered the dish. Their eyes were reverently wiped; they received cool sponge baths at frequent intervals; and it might fairly be supposed that they led about as lazy and luxurious a life as any creature could desire. If they were ill the wisest of the court physicians were sent to them, and their ailments received as much weighty consideration as those of a king. At death they were deeply mourned for, their departure from this life being attended with the usual eastern pomp and ceremony.

They do not live in this condition now. As Henry Norman says in his book on "The Far East"—"they are in a plight that would shame the bear-cage of a wandering circus; tended by slouching ruffians who lie about in rags and tatters, eking out a scanty livelihood by weaving baskets, and begging a copper from every visitor in return for throwing a bunch of seedy grass or rotting bananas to the swaying beasts, which raise their trunks in anticipation of the much needed addition to their scanty diet."

Elephant stories are prevalent in the myths which cloud and hide the purer ideas of the Buddhist faith. Shortly before the birth of Buddha, his mother Queen Maia had a vision. The four kings of the world removed her to the Himalayan Forest, and there seated her on an immense rock. She was bathed, robed, and adorned by a number of queens, and was then led to a golden palace standing on a silver mountain, and requested to rest on a couch, with her face turned to the west. She did so, and beheld a golden mountain on which the future Buddha marched in the form of a white elephant. It descended the golden mountain, and bearing a white lotus flower in its trunk, and trumpeting loudly as it came, made its way to the couch of the astonished Queen Maia.

The birth of Buddha was attended by a number of portents which betokened that a most distinguished person had appeared on earth. Either he was a Buddha or a universal emperor—

"A Chakravartin, such as rise to rule Once in each thousand years."[K]

If he were the latter, he would possess "seven gifts", tokens of his future universal power. One of them was

"... a snow white elephant,The Hasti-Katna, born to bear his King."[L]

By the signs on his foot, which we have already described, he was known to be a Buddha. One of these signs is an elephant, named Chatthan. This is the three-headed elephant on which Indra rides, and is represented in many Siamese decorations, and in the royal coat of arms, but in all the sculptures which represent the sole of Buddha's foot, the elephant possesses only one head.

There is also in Siamese story a king of elephants, Chatthan or Chaddanta, who lives on the shores of the lake Chatthan in the Himalayas. Here he resides in a golden palace, attended by eighty thousand ordinary elephants. The elephant Chatthan is sometimes known as "the elephant of six defences," an allusion to his possession of six tusks.

When the great king Mara (who reigns over all the Mara angels, and corresponds in the Buddhist scriptures to the Satan of the Bible) came to tempt the Buddha as he sat under the Bo-tree, in the time when he attained the wisdom and holiness of Buddhahood, it is said that he came on an elephant. He assumed an immense size, and brandishing numerous weapons in his thousand arms, advanced to the tree, riding on his elephant Girimaga, which was no less than a thousand miles in height.

A number of similar elephant stories could easily be compiled, for they are plentifully distributed in the legends of the East. Probably the great size and strength of the beast are the bases upon which the stories rest.

How important the elephant was in former times may be gathered from a letter written to Sir John Bowring by the late king, when that nobleman visited Siam in March 1855, on a diplomatic mission. Sir John's steamer had scarcely anchored at the bar at the mouth of the river, when a letter was handed to him from the sovereign, welcoming him to the country in very flattering terms. The letter was signed when the king suddenly added a postscript, saying, "I have just returned from the old city Ayudia, of Siam, fifteen days ago, with the beautiful she-elephant which Your Excellency will witness here on Your Excellency's arrival."

Every few years there is a great elephant "hunt" at Ayuthia, to procure elephants for government service. A large kraal of quadrangular shape is erected. Its walls are six feet thick, and there is but one entrance. Inside the walls there is a fence of thick stakes set a few inches apart from each other. A herd of wild elephants is driven by tame ones into the enclosure, and the best of those thus obtained are noted. A good elephant should be of a light colour, have black nails on his toes, and his tail intact. As many of the stronger elephants often lose their tails in fights, it is not always possible to obtain an animal which is both powerful and handsome. The chosen elephants are lassoed, and their feet bound together. The tame elephants render great assistance in the work, and vigorously prod with their tusks any captives who become obstreperous. After a few days' dieting and training the captured animals are ready to be taught their several duties.

[J]"Siam". Miss Cort.

[K]"Light of Asia". Arnold.

[L]"Light of Asia". Arnold.