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Discover the Importance of White Elephants in Southeast Asia

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White elephants were one of the most important and revered animals in Southeast Asia.  What is the story behind it?  Why are they so revered in the region?  Read on to find out.

You may have heard of the idiom ‘white elephant’, which means a valuable possession that cannot be disposed and may also be too costly to keep.  The term has its roots in Southeast Asia.  Monarchs in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam kept white elephants because of their perceived sacredness.  Receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was simultaneously both a blessing and a curse.  It was a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch’s favor.   It was a curse because there wasn’t much practical use for the animal because there are labor laws protecting it.  Plus, it was very expensive to keep.  To be given a white elephant is a high honor, and many will make the necessary sacrifices in order to keep this gift.

Its importance stems from the tales of Buddha’s birth.  On the eve of giving birth, Buddha’s mother dreamt of a white elephant presenting her a lotus flower, a sign of wisdom and purity.  Because of this story, white elephants became a symbol of fertility and wisdom.

There were several items a King needed in order to rule successfully: a perfect wife, riches, a capable chief minister, a swift horse and most importantly possession of white elephants.  Kings would divert a lot of time and energy capturingh these animals.  The more he had, the more prosperous his kingdom would be and the longer and more successful his reign would be as well.  However, if any white elephants died during his reign, it foretold disaster for the King and his kingdom.

On certain cases, white elephants were presented or exchanged as a diplomatic gesture.  Because of their sacredness and value, white elephants were never used during war.  Instead, they were kept in the palace grounds where they were cared for constantly.

Today, white elephants are very rare.  The last one to be discovered in the wild was in Myanmar in 1961.  They are still highly venerated in Southeast Asia, with sculptures, wood carvings, paintings and murals depicting these animals in temples, museums and art galleries.  Older versions of the Thai flag had depictions of a white elephant.

Let Exotissimo be your guide to Southeast Asia!  We will take you to a region filled with awe, mysticism, warmth and relaxation.  Our Southeast Asia Discovery tour is your thorough guide to this fascinating region.  See the glory of each country’s former kingdoms by witnessing glittering temples as well as magnificent ruins and see depictions of the revered white elephant in some of these locations.  See our multi-country tours page for other memorable journeys into this charming region or contact us for questions or additional information.

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